Happy just to have a job? Even if it's "toxic?"

Issue September 2011 By Jeffrey Fortgang, PH.D., and Rodney S. Dowell

We are all grimly aware that in this moment in economic history we ought to be glad to have a job, in law as well as many other fields. Many of us who feel less than fully satisfied with our positions are thus, realistically, hanging onto them.

Nevertheless, as we have learned repeatedly from our Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) and Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP) clienteles, a significant number of lawyers are feeling so uncomfortably stuck in their current work situations that they need support and strategies, not only for coping, but for eventually extricating themselves.

We have come to refer to such work settings as "toxic." There are a number of potential sources of this toxicity. Certainly, one is the boss (for example, when you are a new lawyer working in a seasoned attorney's small practice, or an associate answering to a demanding partner), but the work environment can also be poisoned by undermining coworkers or support staff, and even by extremely difficult, taxing clients.

When you can't concentrate, suffer insomnia or face Monday mornings with great anxiety and trepidation, these are clues that something is not right, at least for you, in your professional milieu.

Sometimes, one's symptoms in reaction to a situation can reach clinical proportions -- self-tests such as those at the LCL website, www.LCLMA.org, can help you self-assess. But often, even when no clinical disorder has developed per se, the stuck attorney is enduring too high a level of ongoing stress, which can have a cumulative corrosive effect on health, relationships, enjoyment of life and can shatter one's good feelings about membership in the profession.

Many lawyers come to us complaining that they need to get out of the field completely. Aside from the fact that starting over in a new field usually means accepting a very serious reduction in income or potential income -- in which case it helps to be single with no kids, or married to a high earner -- the viability of pursuing one's latent passion is often iffy. (While there may be too many lawyers, it is even clearer that the world is not clamoring, in a remunerative way, for more photographers or guitarists.)

And most often, there is no need to take such drastic action, when smaller changes might bring back some of the earlier sources of fulfillment that were initially associated with the choice to practice law.

Sometimes,the main source of toxicity is actually oneself; even in the more common cases where the pressures are primarily external, the way that you, as an individual, identify, define and address the problem (or, on the other hand, deny it until it takes a tremendous toll on your wellbeing and ability to function) makes a big difference. You may or may not be able to bring about any changes in the behavior of others, or the way that workplaces operate, but your greatest potential impact will always be on your own thinking and behavior.

A decades-old psychological concept which applies to many aspects of life is known as "locus of control" (and a corollary concept, "learned helplessness.") An individual who experiences this situation as the result of largely or entirely external factors, and as not susceptible to his or her own influence or potential impact, will tend to feel disempowered and depressed/helpless, leading to passivity -- in other words, he or she perceives themselves as discouraged and stuck, with a sense of nowhere to go.

This applies even to animals placed in punishing circumstances over which they have no control. In the case of humans, however, we have the power to change the way that we think about, cope with andmanage our predicaments.

The new attorney working for an oppressive senior lawyer's practice, for example, can assess whether there may, in fact, be ways to influence the boss's behavior -- perhaps not as much as would be desired, but enough to bring about some improvement. In some cases, the boss may be potentially influenced by assertiveness -- which is different from aggressiveness, but gets the point across. In other instances, "managing up," which may involve strategies involving less direct communication but awareness of the boss's psychology and what motivates him, may be more effective.

The young associate who feels like an indentured servant to the demanding partner to whom he or she answers, pressured with responsibility, criticized, but not guided, may need to work on ways to regain his or her self-esteem, take better care of himself or herself and perhaps find a supplementary mentor. The small-firm lawyer who feels economically dependent on an abusive, unreasonable client may need to question his assumptions and actively generate alternative income options, while developing ways to set limits with clients in a workable way.

The solo practice attorney who is gasping for oxygen, unable to keep up with billing, paperwork, operating expenses and deadlines may benefit from learning (and, more importantly, implementing) better ways to organize and prioritize - and in this respect, an acquaintance with the best software tools can be a significant boon.

LCL, which has evolved over 33 years into a multifaceted lawyer assistance program, and LOMAP, its "sibling" program, will often collaboratively and synergistically (at generally at no cost) to help any Massachusetts lawyer (or judge or law student) grapple with these kinds of pressures. Without assistance/intervention, individuals caught in toxic work situations and similar dilemmas can find themselves burning out, losing enthusiasm for their profession, saddled with physical or emotional stress symptoms or even malfunctioning to the point of job loss or license suspension.

For help with issues such as efficiency, productivity, best practices and ways to reconfigure struggling practices. LOMAP's advisors (themselves attorneys) offer an array of services. When it comes to the human, psychological/behavioral aspect of these same situations, LCL offers a staff of behavioral health clinicians (all of whom on staff for well over a decade and familiar with challenges faced by lawyers) to help clients identify the sources of discontent and formulate plans for coping with and extricating themselves from external and internal traps. While there are no panaceas or magic wands, lawyers who feel trapped need not go it alone.

Dr. Jeffrey Fortgang is a clinical psychologist and certified addictions specialist on the staff of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, the nonprofit lawyer assistance program serving all lawyers, judges and law students in Massachusetts. He can be reached at (617) 482-9600. More information about LCL and the issues of life in law, as well as the option of submitting anonymous questions, can be found at www.LCLMA.org.

Rodney S. Dowell, Esq., is the interim executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Inc., which provides free and confidential assistance to attorneys, judges and their families in relation to stress, depression, alcoholism, chemical dependencies, and other emotional health issues, and advises attorneys on law office management issues through LOMAP.