Millie Swann, an experienced business strategist who has advised many lawyers at various stages of their careers, told Lawyers Weekly recently that stress at work can easily be exacerbated by issues at home or with clients.
“Particularly if you're a leader … you have to be able to have a really high level of self-awareness, and if you get out of whack because of stressful things happening in your personal life or in business or with the clients that you deal with, you have to be able to pull back and reflect,” Ms Swann said.
“[Ask yourself] what are the deeper issues: is it your stuff that you’re dealing with, or are you getting caught up in your clients’ work?
“Emotions are great things, but if you’re not clear in yourself and managing your own problems, when you’re dealing with clients who’ve got really big, challenging issues, then it’s hard for you to give great advice and it’s hard for you to be as productive and function as well as you could.”
While demanding clients can be a significant cause of stress for lawyers, Ms Swann warns that it can be difficult to set precise expectations at the outset of a client relationship.
“Sometimes clients have a massive expectation of what they think you can do,” she said.
“They think you’re God.
“Setting boundaries or expectations for clients can be really fraught with all sorts of dangers because they think they’re going to get one outcome and really the outcome – if there’s an outcome – can be so far from [the expectation]. That can be a bit soul-destroying for both the lawyer and the client, so I think it’s a balance.
“Lawyers need to have great personal boundaries, and when they’ve got their own good personal boundaries that’s reflected in the advice they give.
“So really being reflective, pulling back and taking a bit of time to understand who’s doing what and what’s going on is one of the most powerful things you can do.”
One of Ms Swann’s favourite stress management tools is what she calls ‘The rule of W’, a series of questions intended to cut through the emotional aspects of a situation and focus on the outcome.
“It’s ‘What outcome do you want?’ and ‘Why do you want it?’,” she said.
“What and why, those two questions are very powerful.”
These are followed by less important questions: ‘Who’s involved?’, ‘Where are we doing it?’, ‘How are we going to go about it?’.
“If you can ask yourself one really high-quality question, it’s ‘What would I prefer to be experiencing?’,” Ms Swann said.
“If you can ask ‘What would I prefer to be experiencing?’, often that cuts through everything and it's like ‘What would I prefer to be experiencing with the client?’, ‘What would I prefer the client to be experiencing?’.
“You can start to get through a lot of the emotional drama that the client may bring or that the lawyer may be having themselves, and nut it right down to a structured program for going forward from that place.”
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