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Bar News - October 6, 2006

Work-Life Balance Are You Overwhelmed at Work?


The phone rings. You wait for your secretary to tell you who it is. You hope it is not Ms. Jones. You promised (again) that you would have that petition to modify child support ready for her to sign, but somehow (again) it is not yet done. Or maybe it is Mr. Smith, who will want to know what the insurance company offer was in that call you said you would be having this morning. Only you came in late because the plumber was late getting to your house to fix the dishwasher, and before you knew it, the morning had almost gone by. You could tell Mr. Smith that the insurance lawyer wasn’t there when you called; he will never know, as long as you learn the answer eventually. Your secretary stops talking and says good bye—it’s not for you. The moment of alarm passes.

        Maybe, you think, this is a good time to look through the stack of messages to see if there is someone you can call back before it’s time for lunch; someone who won’t be angry about something that is not done yet. Or maybe you could open some of the mail from yesterday, but not the letter from that lawyer who is always nagging about the unanswered discovery. Well, that case turned out to be more complicated than you thought when the client first told you about it. But the client was willing to pay a large retainer, and the rent was coming due, so it seemed like a good idea at the time to take the case.

        As your secretary comes near your office door, you wonder if there is room to hide under the desk.

        A large number of calls to the Attorney Discipline Office originate from clients who are frustrated because they don’t hear from their lawyers, and they don’t know what is happening with their cases, according to Asst. General Counsel Janet F. DeVito, NH Supreme Court Attorney Discipline Office.

        If you’ve been ducking calls, picking up the folders with the “interesting” cases and letting the “boring” cases sit on the edge of the desk, and your stomach gets queasy whenever the phone rings or the door opens, you may have a bad case of being overwhelmed.

        While being overwhelmed is a natural human response, it is not a helpful frame of mind for providing quality legal services, as is evident from the scenario above.

        This article addresses three aspects of being overwhelmed:


  How to recognize the condition;

  How to develop an initial strategy;

  How to prevent the state of being overwhelmed from becoming habitual.


        The first step to address being overwhelmed is to recognize that the condition exists. Symptoms include inability to focus, reduced productivity, chronic lateness, avoiding colleagues and loved ones, disproportionate annoyance at people, overeating or drinking to excess, lethargy, or feeling frightened and out of control.

        It is helpful to make a habit of assessing your state of mind by asking yourself, on a scale of 1-10, what is my ability right now to meet the demands of my day? Keep it simple—a couple of minutes of honesty during your commute to work. Or you may make a mental note of a physical response to being overwhelmed, such as a stomachache or tense shoulders.

        The next step, once you have admitted that you are overwhelmed, is to take immediate remedial action. The best strategy may be one that has worked for you previously. Analyze a time when you felt utterly overwhelmed and you successfully moved through it with a minimum of fuss.

        For me, writing breaks me out of the mental process of worrying about my problems repeatedly, like a hamster going around on a wheel in a cage. I write randomly at first about what is bothering me, then identify possible solutions, and, finally, formulate goals and action steps.

        Another method is to create a picture of your ideal mental state. Many of us have photos of loved ones, art or drawings by children in our work spaces that remind us of what we value. Just today, I took a moment to look at a painting in my office that I commissioned specifically to remind me to keep perspective. Connecting with comforting imagery, or visualizing what you want, may introduce new energy and thoughts to address your dilemma.

        Jumping in can propel you out of the paralysis of being overwhelmed. Choose a quick or easy task to ease yourself into action. Or ask for help from a colleague, a business consultant, or other professional. Or hire someone to organize your office, provide on- or off-site administrative support, or perform household tasks (such as shopping, cooking, pet-tending, and transporting children). One action step, whether ambitious or modest, beats a thousand thoughts every time. You must determine what needs to happen to responsibly meet your obligations. No one else can do this for you.

        Finally, it is vital to step back to look at your practice by spending time away from the office and its related interruptions to ponder your effectiveness and the bigger picture. If what you are doing right now leaves you overwhelmed more often than not, take the time to assess your practice and set a course.

        Following are a few questions that may assist you in setting that course:

 Betsy Black
Betsy Black

  Why are you a lawyer and does your practice support your values and goals?

  Is there a large or small shift that you can make to increase your effectiveness and use of your strengths and preferences?

  Are you using technology effectively?

  Do you delegate appropriately?

  What are you avoiding doing that would advance your practice?


While tempting, don’t get self-critical about being overwhelmed, because it is part of being human and working in a demanding profession. What matters most is how you cope with being overwhelmed.


A former attorney, Betsy Black is an accredited executive and life coach. Contact her at


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