Even lawyers must learn how to cope Specialist teaches stress management

November 21, 1990|By Graeme Browning

At 7:45 a.m. yesterday, when the sunrise still bathed downtown Baltimore's skyscrapers in gold, a crowd of lawyers gathered at the University of Baltimore Law School, ready for business.

In spite of the hour, there were no bleary eyes. The men's pin-striped suits were smartly creased and the women's floppy bow ties neatly arranged. Several had briefcases stuffed with papers and yellow note pads. Coffee cups were perched on knees. Pens were raised.

They had all come to learn how to avoid stress.

"It's part of the craziness of professionals that we have to meet at this hour of the morning," Dr. James E. Olsson, chief psychologist for medical services of the Circuit Court of Baltimore, said as he gazed out over his audience.

Dr. Olsson's presentation, on "Strategies for Preventing Excessive Stress and Burnout in the Legal Profession," was the third "A.M. Law" seminar at the law school since September.

Other seminars in the series, which began five years ago, have focused on such topics as opening arguments, closing arguments and bankruptcy law, law school spokesman Harry Bosk said.

The seminars draw as many as 100 lawyers, he said. The 25 who came to yesterday's seminar agreed that stress was important enough to bring them out even before they started their hectic workday.

To counteract stress, Dr. Olsson advised them to develop hobbies, read, take up sports, visit a masseuse, or learn to meditate during the day. Even a 10-minute walk around the office "is more refreshing than grabbing a cup of coffee. It's a matter of breaking the work cycle," he said.

Dan Shemer, who trains young lawyers for the state public defender system, volunteered that he listens to composers like New Age harpist Andreas Vollenwieder to reduce the stress of his own workday.

"You need something to counteract the feeling you get when you realize the impact you're having on people's lives," Mr. Shemer said.

A questionnaire Dr. Olsson distributed before his speech asked the lawyers to rate stress in their lives in such areas as work relationships, relationships with family members and friends, and "general life stress," defined as "financial, commuting, nit-picking things, etc."

Each rating ranged from 1, or "mild," to 10, "severe." Most of the lawyers circled 6 or higher.

Harry Baumohl, who has a solo law practice in Towson, said he often gets worn down trying to handle everything from real estate law to corporate matters to litigation.

"Clients themselves also bring a lot of stress to the situation. I want to do everything for them, more than I'm able," Mr. Baumohl said.

Anthony T. Bartlett, a member of the Timonium firm of Ruppersberger, Clark & Mister, said he knows stress from another perspective.

As the only "associate," or junior lawyer, in the firm, "I have nobody to delegate work to, so I'm like the toxic waste dump around the office," Mr. Bartlett sighed.

Lawyers tend to suffer more from stress than do other professionals, Dr. Olsson said, because of what he called two "killer traits": the professional demand that lawyers suppress their anger, and the requirement that they pay scrupulous attention to details.

Also, "all professions are really kind of crazy. We just demand too damn much of ourselves," he said.

Completely eliminating stress, however, requires a "commitment to yourself" that many professionals find difficult to make, Dr. Olsson cautioned.

To illustrate, he told the story of a friend who worked long hours to build up a large, Baltimore-based law practice with several offices across the state. Eight years ago, however, the lawyer sold his Baltimore practice and moved to a smaller office in Salisbury in order to live a less stressful life, Dr. Olsson said.

"We're talking about a drastic action, and some of us, let's face it, just can't do that," he said.

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