Embrace the Chaos, Counselor

This post originally appeared on Law.com

With coffee and a fresh to-do list in hand, most days for most lawyers begin optimistically enough. Because of the adversarial nature of the law, however, a lawyer’s day is uniquely capable of turning into a train wreck. As Mike Tyson said to a reporter in the run-up to his fight against Evander Holyfield, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

We’ve all read about the rising rates of stress, anxiety, and depression among lawyers. The data is clear and compelling but the root causes of the mental health conditions that seem to inordinately affect lawyers—including many young lawyers—are uncertain. I’m not a mental health professional, nor do I pretend to play one on the internet, but in my experiences of both coaching young lawyers and having been one myself in a fast-paced law firm environment, it seems obvious that one of the primary sources of day-to-day stress is the fact that one’s expectations of how the day will go (the “plan”) almost always get derailed through someone else’s intervention (the “punch”). Chaos is always lurking, a mere phone call or email away.

For some, the chaos is not an issue. They’re able to lithely roll with the punches and get through their days unscathed. But the disposition of most lawyers is different. The legal profession tends to attract high-achieving “Type A” personalities who like to control situations and win. For those who crave control, the uncertainty of being at the beck and call of a partner or subject to the whims of an adversary is distinctly unsettling.

As with most problems, the first step in dealing with this one is accepting it. The uncertainty is not going away. The best path forward is to embrace the chaos and learn to dance with it. If you have more realistic expectations of how your days will go, then you’ll have better outcomes.

A big part of setting better expectations is knowing yourself. But there are some universal principles—”laws” of the universe, if you will—that impact each of us, and, when not taken into account, lead to unmet expectations.

It will always take longer than you think. A typical lawyer’s day is punctuated by deadlines. There’s a constant stream of tasks that need to get completed by certain dates. Yet, despite there being certainty about the deadlines, legal projects seem to perpetually end in mad scrambles that lead to stress, at best, and consequential mistakes, at worst. Over and over, the amount of time required to complete projects gets underestimated.

There’s a name for this tendency, coined by author and professor of cognitive science Douglas Hofstadter. It’s called “Hofstadter’s Law,” which stands for the proposition that: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

In an ideal world, writing a brief might take a day. But, of course, the working environment in a law firm is far from ideal. Inputs and distractions fly at you like fastballs from a pitching machine. Despite your best intentions, you can’t help but bounce back and forth between tasks. Accordingly, that brief will always take longer than you think. Set your expectations—and your schedule—appropriately.

Something will always go wrong. Anyone who has written, proofread, filed and served a pleading has experienced the dreadful moment of opening the document on the court’s docket and immediately recognizing the typo jumping off the page. Mistakes happen, no matter how conscientiously you attempt to avoid them. These circumstances are evidence of the universality of “Murphy’s Law”: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

No matter how carefully you plan, no matter how rock-solid your process is, no matter how conscientious you are, there will be problems. Do your best to anticipate them, but accept the fact that problems are inevitable.

You’ll get bogged down by trivial matters. One of the most challenging learning curves that young lawyers must navigate involves developing the judgment necessary to distinguish the important from the trivial. For example, when faced with a research assignment, there are many “rabbit holes” that a lawyer can travel down. But for every 10 possible issues that can be explored, only one may be material. Going down the wrong paths, and chasing every triviality, leads to missed deadlines, the feeling of being overwhelmed, and ineffectiveness.

British naval historian and author Cyril Parkinson is credited with defining the “Law of Triviality,” which relates to the tendency of people and organizations to give disproportionate attention to trivial issues and details.

If you approach each assignment with an expectation that there are nearly infinite issues to explore, you’ll twist your mind into a knot. Before diving in, take a moment to define what’s truly important. Ask some questions of the partner-in-charge and the client. Understand their expectations—don’t merely get caught up in your own.

You can do anything, just not everything all at once. If you made it through law school and got hired by a law firm, then you have the capacity to succeed in this profession. One of the biggest challenges you’ll face, however, is avoiding the burnout brought on by the stress of the job. There’s no getting around the fact that your days will be chaotic. That’s the nature of a fast-paced, adversarial endeavor. Once you accept that fact, you can learn to dance with the chaos. Instead of expecting everything to go perfectly, anticipate the myriad ways in which you’ll get thrown off track, and then plan and act accordingly.

Here are a few ways to prepare yourself for what’s ahead:

Set realistic goals based on past experiences, not on some idealized version of what the future may hold. Improvement happens slowly and sequentially—you won’t develop superpowers overnight.

  • Recognize that mistakes are inevitable. Instead of being paralyzed by the fear of making another one, learn from your mistakes and bounce back stronger.

  • Take care of yourself. If you want to make this your career and experience success over the long term, you need to find some semblance of balance now, and not hope for it later.

  • Come to grips with the fact that the practice of law is stressful, especially as a young lawyer. The stress will never go away, but over time, as you get better at what you do and you get more experience under your belt, you’ll come to appreciate that there’s a solution to almost every problem.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s important to take ownership of your work but there’s no award handed out at the end of the year to the associate who struggles and grinds through every issue on their own.

Looking for more? Check out these related posts:

Think Big, Act Small and Reap the Professional Rewards

Associates, Don’t Let Salary Hikes Become Your Faustian Bargain

Are You Being Distracted Into Mediocrity?


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