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How to Shift from Bad to Good Stress and Protect Innovation in Law Practice

May 16, 2019

By Brett Bartlett & Nate Klemp
Read the full article in the ABA Journal here.

Last month, we learned of the death of Paul Rawlinson, global chairman of Baker McKenzie, who took a medical leave six months ago citing health concerns related to exhaustion. This news comes on the heels of several high-profile suicides and a growing body of empirical evidence linking the pressures of practicing law with mental health issues and substance addiction.

This problem has been documented extensively and prompted the creation of the ABA’s Working Group to Advance Well-Being pledge campaign. The threat of attorney burnout is real. But long before stress results in mental health issues or substance abuse, it takes a toll on one of the most essential legal capacities: innovation.

THE COMPLEX CONNECTION

Removing stress from the legal profession is a lot like trying to remove water from the ocean: Some level of stress is just inevitable in this profession. When we look at the science on stress and innovation, it becomes even clearer that not all stress is bad. In fact, researchers exploring the science of innovation have shown that there are really two types of stressors: “challenge stressors” and “hindrance stressors.”

Challenge stressors are the pressures we experience that push us to be our best. These stressors help us grow and push us to learn something new and unexpected. They spark innovation and the generation of new and useful ideas. Hindrance stressors,-  on the other hand - such petty arguments, office drama, unnecessary red tape and job insecurity - diminish innovation and lead to the cascade of psychological problems that arise from chronic stress.

Hindrance stressors and decreased innovation go hand-in-hand, leading one research team to conclude: “When hindrance stressors are high, they will offset everything an organization may try to do.”

BUILDING A LEGAL CULTURE OF INNOVATION

What’s the difference between these good and bad stressors? It really just comes down to this: control. When we lose control, innovation is perhaps the first core capacity to go. When we lack the tools to effectively manage our reactions to challenging events, we often slip into the zone of what psychologists call uncontrollability.

The upshot of this is pretty clear. If we want to foster a culture of innovation in law, we need to give attorneys the tools to shift from hindrance stressors to challenge stressors. 

THE DAILY PRACTICE OF INNOVATION

It’s all well and good to talk about the importance of innovation. But at the level of day-to-day practice, what are the concrete practices and tools that we can use to shift our experience of stress from hindrance to challenge, from bad to good?

On the internal side, at LifeXT, we have found that attorneys begin to thrive when they are equipped with practices like the following:

  • Mental Fitness: Using a variety of mindfulness practices, attorneys can begin to cultivate a greater sense of focus, internal ease and control. 
  • Emotional Fitness: Building the habit of practices like inquiry, compassion and gratitude can help mitigate hindrance stressors, helping attorneys learn to reframe stressful situations and giving rise to a greater sense of overall well-being and resilience. 

At Seyfarth Shaw, innovation is a hallmark of our firm’s place in the legal market, and our lawyers are accustomed to change. There are two principles, however, that help our attorneys turn stress into a positive, innovation-enhancing force:

  • Listening drives innovation: We believe innovation springs from a culture of active listening.
  • It’s OK to fail: We work hard to empower our lawyers to give themselves a break when they come up short.

These strategies help build a culture of innovation and motivate high performance more generally. In addition, they help prevent some of the more serious issues that arise from chronic stress. These skills also have the potential to bring a greater sense of purpose and meaning into the practice of law. By shifting from hindrance to challenge, attorneys can reconnect with the sense of curiosity and intellectual vitality that brought them to the law in the first place.

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