Community Perspectives: Is it normal to have anxiety as an experienced lawyer?

In-house legal professionals discuss their views on anxiety in their advanced careers.

Community Perspectives: Is it normal to have anxiety as an experienced lawyer?

(Author) Associate Commercial Counsel

Is it normal to have anxiety as a lawyer? I've been practicing for over five years now, but I still feel dread and anxiety (not excitement) when jumping on calls to do contract negotiations. I thought it'd go away as I got more senior, but this still remains. - Is this normal?

General Counsel Responses:

  • You’re probably getting slightly biased advice from those of us anxious lawyers lol, but my husband is also a lawyer and decidedly does NOT have anxiety. I worked with a therapist years ago who told me (basically); people get anxiety, not professions. You’re probably just prone to anxiety (I am too) and the job is stressful and triggers it. I got Rx meds and it helped immensely.

  • I took Effexor with great results. My dose has gone both up and down over time, and currently I’m off it and doing great!

  • I would definitely talk to your doctor about switching or adding another med to help with the anxiety. I tried Paxil and Zoloft (sertraline) before finally landing on Effexor. They all react with our individual brain chemistry so differently! Zoloft did not help my anxiety and gave me awful side effects.

  • Treating my general anxiety was huge for my work performance and I really rarely struggle with anxiety in my current role. My husband, on the other hand, has overwhelming anxiety in his job as an engineer.

  • It’s been a struggle, but generally a combination of meditation, exercise, and talk therapy was most effective for me. I took a mood stabilizer for years as well, and have medication for acute anxiety attacks as needed. I also made huge lifestyle changes like leaving BigLaw (although my anxiety was pretty well-managed before I left).

  • When I was in litigation I felt this way before depositions, court appearances, and training. It eventually went away after training and a lot of exposure. Since moving in-house, I don't do litigation and no longer have this issue. For me, it came down to confidence.

Counsel Responses:

  • This is an inherently adversarial profession with time/effort commitments well beyond most other professions and an obsession with perfectionism (or the appearance thereof). - I would be skeptical of any attorney who claims they aren’t anxious on some level.

  • I hate negotiating and absolutely dread contract negotiation meetings. After moving in-house, I’ve realized that I hate talking with lawyers, especially opposing ones, more and more. Business clients are just so much more pleasant than attorneys.

  • I used to be anxious and worried all the time, both professionally and personally! I got to a level that I was considering suicide. I started to do yoga and meditation, I started to read new age books, I wanted to save myself and my loved one from my anxieties. It’s hard to explain, but one day in May 2021, I found my inner self and I started to cry and realized that all of those worries or anxieties were just my feelings and I can actually choose how I feel. Starting that day all anxieties were gone, and I live in a different life now. I am always so happy and I am full of energy all the time! I don’t know if it works for you or not, but definitely start to listen to yourself and focus on finding your inner peace. Once you find it, it will stay with you, you’ll find real freedom!

  • If you have not already, it might be helpful to dig a little deeper and try to understand potential root causes of the anxiety. Or, at the very least, if you have some generalized anxiety, what might be exacerbating that generalized anxiety. I have unrealistic expectations about needing to know everything (and being seen to know everything—that I think others think I should know). So, while I’m much better now than I used to be at just saying “I don’t know the answer offhand, so I’ll have to follow up with you on that”, I still get anxiety at times that I’ll look stupid during a call. And as others have mentioned, an unhealthy desire for perfectionism (e.g., always fighting for more or better terms for the company). On top of that, I think we all share a little “healthy” anxiety that we might miss something important that puts our client (and possibly our job) at risk. I say healthy because a little anxiety here can help keep you sharp and diligent, but too much is obviously unhealthy. On this point, I have relaxed a lot, over the last year in particular, by (a) having good leadership that is not overbearing, critical, and unrealistic with their expectations and (b) taking to heart something that gets repeated a lot in these type forums by very experienced attorneys—no one will ever look at 90% of contracts you negotiate outside of some very basic terms like when payment is due, and for the other 10%, if there is some unfavorable term or there was a mistake. 90% of the time there will be an opportunity to fix it or substantially mitigate exposure. The nature of the job forces us to engage in catastrophic thinking for everything, but true catastrophe (from a business perspective) very rarely happens.

  • Most of what I do is pretty low stakes and/or subjects I know well, so I’m pretty solid with most familiar stuff 10 years out. New stuff, things I don’t know 100% or haven’t prepared for, sure, there’s some anxiety. But the worst case is that you just defer. “We need to vet that through outside counsel as I feel like that may have additional implications.” Or “We need to consider that internally with the business team.”

  • My manager once told me nothing we do is more important than our well being. Along with what others have mentioned, I try to remind myself even in the worst case scenario (e.g. I look stupid or miss something critical) I’ll be just fine and no one will care about it more than me. You’ll find what works to make you feel better, but I want you to know there are so many of us that empathize and you are definitely not alone!

Attorney and Associate Response:

  • No advice here, but I feel the same. I left litigation because of it. I posted a while back in this forum asking what roles do not require contract negotiation, because I don’t want to do it. Most people said it’s not adversarial like litigation. But to me, the idea is still extremely unpleasant because I hate anything that could have the *potential* to turn adversarial.

  • I have been practicing for 20 years and the anxiety never goes away, although it is better outside of litigation.

  • I’m in my 6th year and feel exactly the same way.

  • The second I wake up and look at my phone to turn off silent mode, I get anxiety.

  • I wouldn’t say that I dread contract negotiations calls, but I would say that anticipating them does give me some anxiety. Once I’m on the call, however, all of the anxiety goes away and I simply focus on the matter at hand and I enjoy the actual negotiations themselves, especially once the call is over (but even during negotiations). I liken it to how a runner feels before the starting gun goes off or how a basketball player feels in the moments leading up to tip off.

  • Curious- what are you using to treat your anxiety? I have moderate to severe anxiety and have been taking Sertraline for 2.5 years. It’s helped a lot with my depression but it leaves something to be desired for my anxiety symptoms.

  • I’m on year 7 and gave up thinking it’d go away. 🤷🏼‍♀️

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