Dark and Stormy Nights, Silver Linings, and Attorney Well-Being

Lawyers and judges are not immune to the ravages of relentless worry exacerbated in their personal and professional lives by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s encouraging then, that our training equips us to deploy techniques to help manage ourselves, tame stress, and enhance a sense of confidence and well-being.

Can we use our thinking skills to create better coping habits for weathering storms and navigating the stress inherent in an adversarial profession long after the pandemic is over?

Dark and Stormy Nights

It was a dark and stormy night… and so it has remained for the better part of a year…

Any way you cut it, 2020 is unlikely to be remembered without a national and worldwide collective shudder.

Let’s explore using our legal training to: create more effective coping mechanisms for addressing stress; think logically, analytically, and realistically as we adjust our perspective in framing a problem; and dispassionately cross-and-direct examine the evidence underlying negative thoughts that keep lawyers and judges awake at night. Making friends with fellow legal professionals, no matter on which side of the “v” we find ourselves, also can enrich our personal lives and boost attorney well-being.

COVID-19 has upended the lives of people around the world. The words “feeling overwhelmed” are on the lips of most people. It’s natural that many are stressed, isolated, lonely, beset by fear, exhausted as caregivers of young children and/or older adults, worried about their families, friends, lives, and shattered livelihoods. There are so many variations on the theme, yet rarely have such diverse demographics been brought together in facing a shared challenge. Stories abound about different hardships facing people.

In all our lives, if there ever were a time for worry and insecurity about the uncertainties about health and well-being, this might be it. The strictures of the pandemic have wreaked havoc on many lawyers, personally and professionally, as well as their clients. Added to the mix of shouldering their own burdens is the fact that in accord with the professional obligation to serve our clients, we invariably shoulder their burdens too.

Storm Clouds and Silver Linings

Who hasn’t had the experience of dealing with difficult clients, colleagues, or family members under “normal” circumstances? Who hasn’t had the experience of trying to handle with grace the pugilistic tendencies of a pugnacious opposing lawyer?

At the best of times, our profession calls on us to ponder the imponderables and to develop strategies for anticipating, mitigating, and managing even those things that are not easily controlled. I’ve written before about how catastrophizing can be a lawyer’s saving grace, why it’s necessary in our line of work to envision worst-case scenarios, but how that kind of thinking can decimate our mental health if not balanced by counter-techniques for maintaining mental equanimity.

Lawyers and judges do have an advantage in managing ourselves to tame stress. Our training, the lessons learned in law school and honed in practice, call on us to think our way through thorny problems. Whether in litigation, transactional law, the judiciary, academia, or elsewhere, a legal mindset begins with the foundational talent for detaching from our own perspective and seeing an issue simultaneously from other points of view.

We can define a problem by examining it, as in a direct examination of a witness, with open-ended questions (“Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?”). Then we cross-examine our understanding with leading questions. We stay flexible with follow-up questions. We evaluate the evidence, challenge assumptions, investigate alternatives until we figure out how to reach a satisfactory (seldom perfect) solution.

What may be viewed by some as an obnoxious trait of lawyers is actually a good thing in this context. We are adept at turning our method of thinking to the granular, quotidian, and we do not routinely accept mere allegations or propositions as facts.

In general, the way people frame a stressful problem that plagues them has a directly proportional effect on how they view their capabilities in dealing with it. Two people viewing an identical problem can perceive it very dissimilarly (“perceive” being the keyword). This can depend on certain habituated thinking patterns based on their individual experiences, personality, beliefs, or other unique factors.

One person may find the same situation insurmountable or overwhelmingly stressful. The other may interpret the challenges as less problematic and might even see in the situation an opportunity for collateral benefit (this is a type of positive reframing). Developing more adaptive, flexible ways of thinking helps overcome the automatic flooding of a person’s mind with habitual, negative thoughts that render a helpless feeling. It contributes to better coping and more confidence in dealing with problems.

All Things Attorney Well-Being

As lawyers, our professional selves can help teach our personal selves many important lessons. Here are some:

Do what lawyers and judges do well. Come up with challenges and probing questions. Only this time, put yourself in the witness chair as well as at counsel table. Be gentle but firm. Challenging your thinking and coaxing the best from yourself, you will favorably alter the way you view yourself, your abilities, and your environment. The lawyer’s path is well worn—problem-solving for, and with, clients.

    1. Do it for yourself.
    2. Practice positive reframing.
    3. Make it a habit.

Help control automatic, negative thoughts that affect how we feel and act, by recognizing them for what they are: just thoughts, not necessarily facts. They may even be speculation.

Gather accurate facts. Rather than being buffaloed into “believing” the negatives, closely examine the evidence in support of your interpretation of a situation or problem and evaluate the assumptions – for and against.

Recognize that perfectionism is crippling in this context. It’s untenable and unhealthy if only the best solution and nothing short of it will do. Perfect solutions are as rare as hen’s teeth. “Airtight” contracts or “slam dunk” cases are few and far between. Whether involved in litigation or transactions, we have experience in making the best decisions with the information at hand and learning from mistakes.

Consider that when you are worried, avoiding a problem is not a good idea. It will haunt you when you most need rest or focus. Draw the shades, let the light of direct attention stream in, and take the problem apart like you would a testifying expert. One assumption at a time. Methodically. Thoroughly.

In the words of Robert Frost, “The best way out is always through.”

Think back to a time when something you feared would be devastating did happen, but you found ways of dealing with it and were not devastated. You stayed to fight and did not flee. How does that make you feel? A little more confident? Eleanor Roosevelt said it well: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror; I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you cannot do.”

Accept that some things are, indeed, out of our control. It’s part of the human condition and the Serenity Prayer is a useful one to contemplate. One seeks the serenity to accept the things one cannot change, the courage to change the things one can, and the wisdom to know the difference. American philosopher and psychologist, William James, observed that “the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

Appreciate that a little stress can be a good thing. When you are nervous or excited your heart likely beats faster, cortisol surges. It’s natural. There’s a razor-thin line between excitement and anxiety. You can choose to reframe anxiety into the positive emotion of excitement (emotional regulation).

There is no “right” way to formulate questions you ask and answer for yourself. What works for some may not for others. Creative practice, with trial and error in testing our thoughts, will go a long way toward allowing us to exert a degree of control over what we can (such as our perceptions and our reactions), even where other circumstances are outside our control. Taking the time and effort to put pen to paper, we get more facile at getting out of the rut of habituated negative thinking by gathering accurate facts, and coming up with alternative answers.

Camaraderie Among Legal Professionals Boosts Attorney Well-Being

National, state, and local bar associations offer a comforting haven, not just during a pandemic, for deepening old friendships and making new acquaintances among legal professionals. Make it a habit to get involved in the work of our professional organizations. Connecting with fellow lawyers and judges is personally and professionally rewarding, and it boosts well-being.

Some people, particularly younger lawyers, say they avoid socializing with professional adversaries. I can empathize, as I experienced the same reticence. Fortunately, I was encouraged to overcome the barrier, and am grateful for the trust and friendship of many adversaries that ensued. Lawyers generally have something in common, including a proclivity for making friends in the unlikeliest places, no matter which side of the “v.” they are.

With some exceptions, opposing lawyers, judges, co-counsel from different or competitive law firms have become lifelong friends whose wisdom and genuine well-wishes are unaccompanied by mere platitudes, but run deep and are time-tested. Chances are that opposing counsel will also tell you, without pulling any punches, what your strengths and weaknesses are! In different ways, their diverse points of view help sharpen or soften ours.

I’ll share a quick personal anecdote about being inadvertently pushed out of my “comfort zone,” as a young litigator. Years ago, I was on the phone with a lawyer who invariably darkened my day. I’m sure the feeling was mutual! One of my little children was calling my office and I asked the Texas lawyer if I could put him on a brief hold. I hit the wrong button. “Hi darling,” I exclaimed happily, in ringing, cheerful tones. Quick as a flash came the lawyer’s voice—“Nope! Wrong darling!”—I was mortified. But, lo and behold, laughter and camaraderie followed. Chinks of humanity emerged through our suits of armor! We still rattled our sabers, but knew we could be collegial and friendly too. I valued his delightful sense of humor.

You Get the Drift…

If any of the above resonates with you, don’t stop here—be creative. What are the situations you find yourself in? What causes you significant angst? Make a list. Prioritize. Examine those in the light of day. Now make a list of things that are actually shining like a little bit of a silver lining around the stressful difficulties you are managing.

One of the silver linings we can all appreciate is that there is probably no better time than during the COVID-19 pandemic to build and develop habits to replace ingrained ones that are detrimental.

About the Author

Erna Womble is co-president of Clearly Bespoke Strategies, Inc., a strategic advising company founded on a niche in confidential, bespoke leadership presence training she developed as a litigation partner in her beloved firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice [Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP], from which she is now retired. 


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