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LAWBIZ COACHES CORNER: Don’t stress out about the holidays — use them to take control

Ed Poll is a speaker, author and board-approved coach to the legal profession. He can be contacted at Also visit his interactive community for lawyers at

The stresses of what has become “the holiday season” – an all-encompassing period stretching from before Thanksgiving to after New Year’s Day – are well known.

Whether self-induced or not, the pressures seem to affect everyone, and lawyers are not immune. The end of the year is typically when firms of all sizes emphasize getting last payments in hand from clients, a regular source of stress. And even lawyers who are relatively secure in their practices can feel stress from the fear that they could be impacted by another market crash, a major tax law change or any other factors beyond personal control. Add the demands of finding time to meet regular client demands while still fulfilling personal and family obligations and the pressure can be paralyzing.

Each lawyer has his or her own strengths, weaknesses, productive behaviors and stress behaviors. The interaction of these factors determines whether you will be able to deal effectively with stressful situations during the holidays. If you expect yourself to respond perfectly in every situation with family, friends and clients, you unnecessarily create stress.

From the time they enter law school, lawyers are trained to think they always know what needs to be done, and that they can do it themselves if they just work hard enough and fast enough. That’s asking far too much of anyone, and taking that attitude to push yourself through the holidays is simply asking too much. Ultimately it can make you feel as though your practice and your life are both spinning out of your control.

Lawyers facing such an impasse should pause and physically take a deep breath. For anyone feeling stressed out, the ultimate problem is fear of the unknown and fear of being able to cope with it.

To turn the unknown into the known during the holiday season, don’t fret over how much there is to do, but instead to take concrete actions and steps to do it.

Here are four examples.

Prioritize. Each night create a list of priorities for tomorrow based on what is most important for you to do in your practice and your personal life. The next morning, address the No. 1 concern for the day, then two, then three; at the end of the day reprioritize what is left for tomorrow. As part of this, set boundaries with clients for how much work you can do and when you can do it during the holidays. Such actions put you in control, reducing stress.

Relax. Especially during the holidays, remember that the billable hour is only a method of accounting; it is not the reason for practicing law. You should work as a lawyer because you love what you do, you love helping people and you want to take care of your family. You can do all three during the holidays without imposing a billable hour target to meet. Take time for yourself, and take time to spend with family.

Communicate. Don’t just worry about the status of your clients – call and ask if you can drop in for a friendly, no-cost visit just to convey the compliments of the season. Don’t just worry about how your practice is doing; sit down and get an outside perspective, from a coach or a colleague based on their own viewpoint. By nature, we humans are a gregarious species and need to be connected with others. The holidays are the time to connect.

Plan. If you want to strengthen your practice for the coming year, assess what worked best in the year just ending, set goals for the upcoming year, plan how best to implement them and decide how you will measure success. This process lets you hit the ground running to begin the new year with positive momentum – after truly enjoying the holidays.

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