Lawyers get help coping with stress At risk: Therapist Amiram Elwork's book coaches lawyers on coping with the stress in their profession.

February 14, 1996|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

When it comes to studying the high stress lives of America's lawyers, Amiram Elwork wrote the book.

Literally.

It's called "Stress Management for Lawyers," and in the little, soft-cover volume, Dr. Elwork, a Widener University professor and clinical psychologist, coaches high-powered attorneys to get hold of their lives before it's too late.

As a therapist and researcher, he has seen dozens of lawyers at the breaking point.

"The most dramatic case was an attorney at the height of workaholism. After hours of talking, he revealed he was feeling guilty because he hadn't had a heart attack," Dr. Elwork said.

"All the senior partners in his law firms had flirtations with coronary incidents except him. In his mind, having a heart attack was a badge of honor, a way to prove you were a hard worker."

Not all stories are so extreme. But in Maryland and throughout the country, lawyers are realizing that their jobs just might be health hazards.

Lawyers face many of the same pressures their predecessors at the bar did -- long hours, demanding clients and, for some, tedious, exacting work. But today's lawyers face a new worry -- increased competition for clients.

"A lawyer's marketing efforts are endless, ceaseless," said Pamela J. White, a Baltimore lawyer.

"He can never stop worrying about where the next meal is coming from. Old client loyalties don't exist anymore," said Ms. White, chair of the Maryland State Bar Association's committee on professionalism, a group that assists lawyers suffering from stress.

Many lawyers aren't just stressed out, they're more likely to be depressed. A Johns Hopkins University study reported that the incidence of depression among lawyers is 3.6 times the national average.

In Maryland, surveys have shown as many as a third of lawyers debating whether they want to remain in the profession. In a 1989 study commissioned by the state bar, 24 percent said they were "somewhat dissatisfied" with what clients received for their money.

Reasons for lawyer stress and dissatisfaction vary, but Dr. Elwork said several of them are concerns in other professions, too, such as time pressures and work overload.

But lawyers also face unique pressure.

"By nature, lawyers' work is adversarial," Dr. Elwork said. "That's especially true of litigators, who are often involved in conflict. You don't know what it is until you've been around two people fighting over custody of their children."

Those pressures are exacerbated by doubts that lawyers may feel about their profession and its place in society.

"They suffer from conflicts: What am I doing? What is justice? Any lawyer will tell you justice doesn't always occur in the courtroom, and sometimes they're, in part, responsible. It's wearing," said Dr. Elwork, who counsels lawyers in his office near Philadelphia.

There are no magic ways for dealing with it, but Dr. Elwork and others have devised several approaches to stress management.

Towson lawyer Dan Twomey, who has written an article on stress for a forthcoming state bar publication, said attorneys stand a better chance of enjoying their work if they can achieve three things: a commitment to law practice, confidence and control.

Then lawyers need to balance the demands of work with time for family and the other things that compete for their time.

"Everything today is faster, faster, faster," Mr. Twomey said. "We have to ask ourselves, 'Are we enjoying life? Do we have that joie de vivre?' "

Mr. Twomey also would like to begin a support group, to which overwrought lawyers could come to discuss their problems. The sessions would be totally confidential.

"Our hope would be that lawyers wouldn't have to come with their collars turned up and their hats pulled down, concerned they might be recognized," Mr. Two- mey said.

In his book, published by The Vorkell Group in Gwynedd, Pa., Dr. Elwork advises lawyers to pay attention to events that trigger anxiety, among other things. But he emphasizes that not all attorneys will need his help. Some, he says, are blissfully happy in their work.

"We're talking about a percentage of attorneys, not all attorneys," he said. "Many lawyers will tell you they have wonderful jobs."

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