Smart people do daft things when they are stressed.

Have you ever found yourself making a decision that you later regretted? Perhaps you were under a lot of pressure at the time. It turns out that there is a strong link between pressure and poor decision-making. In the fast-paced world of law firms where lawyers navigate complex cases as well as managing heavy workloads, client expectations, and tight deadlines, the pressure on lawyers can be immense. Add to this the numerous regulatory requirements which, if mishandled, lead to disastrous consequences including financial penalties, potential prosecutions and reputational damage, and the pressure can sometimes feel completely overwhelming.

Being under pressure is not always an issue in itself. Most people find they will actually thrive and perform at a higher level when there is a certain amount of pressure on them. The problem comes when feeling pressure turns into stress, which is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure.

In this blog post, we will explore how pressure affects our ability to make sound decisions, the impact on regulatory requirements, and discuss strategies to mitigate the risks.

Being Under Pressure – What are the Warning Signs?

These will be different for everyone, however, the main signs to take note of can include:

  • A loss of mental clarity and being more prone to distractions and mistakes
  • Feeling edgy, separate and shut off from others
  • Diminishing capacity to rest, relax and sleep
  • Eroding self-confidence
  • Struggling to motivate yourself and others
  • Feeling that your objectivity and empathy are compromised
  • Feeling tired becomes your new operational norm
  • Increased anxiety, insecurity and a feeling of losing control
  • Blaming yourself and others
  • Catastrophising
  • Physical stress symptoms

It is often easier to spot these warning signs in other people than in ourselves.

Understanding the Impact of Pressure on Decision-Making

Experiencing pressure can significantly compromise our ability to make rational, well-thought-out decisions. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Emotional Influence: Pressure can trigger a range of emotions such as stress, anxiety and fear. These emotions can cloud our judgement and make it difficult to think logically. When our emotions are heightened we may be more prone to impulsive choices or rely on quick fixes without considering the long-term consequences.
  2. Tunnel Vision: Under pressure, our focus narrows and we become fixated on finding immediate solutions rather than considering all available options. This tunnel vision limits our ability to see the bigger picture and evaluate alternative solutions or perspectives.
  3. Cognitive Overload: When we are overwhelmed by pressure, our cognitive capacity can be overloaded. We may struggle to process information effectively, analyse complex situations, or weigh the pros and cons of different choices. This can result in hasty decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate information.
  4. Risk Aversion or Risk Taking: Pressure can push individuals to respond in different ways. Some people may become excessively risk-averse, avoiding decisions completely to minimise potentially negative outcomes. On the other hand, others may become more inclined to take unnecessary risks as they seek quick solutions to alleviate the pressure they are feeling.
  5. Physiological Effect: Stress and anxiety disengage neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of our brain that affects planning, understanding rules and consequences, memory, decision-making, regulating emotions and problem-solving. They also cause the release of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone), which have also been linked to increased risk-taking.

Mitigating the Risks

While it may not be possible to eliminate pressure completely, particularly in the legal profession, strategies can be adopted both by firms and individuals to mitigate its impact on the decision-making process. Below we discuss a few different options to consider.

As a Law Firm:

  • Provide regular effective training on regulatory obligations both for the firm and for the individuals within it, so awareness is at the forefront of peoples’ minds.
  • Recognise that lawyers’ decision-making can be affected by stress and pressure, whether personal or work-related.
  • Talk about mental health openly and honestly. It’s okay not to be okay, particularly in an environment where the pressure experienced is likely to be of greater intensity. A great way to start a conversation is by asking lawyers which files are keeping them awake at night.
  • Consider additional well-being support such as mental health first aiders or an employee assistance programme, and signpost specialist organisations such as LawCare who provide mental health and wellbeing support for the legal profession.
  • Encourage a culture of openness of raising issues when things go wrong, so lawyers under pressure know they have support available.
  • Consider effective risk management tools and relevant policies and procedures, seeking outside advice and support from specialists if necessary.

As a Lawyer:

  • Know your personal regulatory obligations.
  • Learn to recognise your own physiological warning signs.
  • Recognise and manage your emotions and understand how they can impact your decision-making. Seek support from your GP, workplace employee assistance programme or a charity such as LawCare.
  • Engage in activities that help manage stress and anxiety, as such exercise, mindfulness, talking to a trusted friend or mentor.
  • To avoid burnout, take longer breaks throughout the day and make sure you are taking regular holiday.
  • Create space for reflection in high-pressure situations. Take a step back and allow yourself some time to slow down the decision-making process by evaluating all available options.
  • When feeling pressured, actively seek out different viewpoints and opinions. Engaging with others who have diverse perspectives can broaden your understanding of a situation and help you make more informed decisions.
  • Build decision-making skills through continuous learning and skill development, and by drawing on past experiences.