I recently presented at a “Practicing with Professionalism” training for new lawyers on the topic of dispute resolution. The purpose of the training was to address issues of civility and professionalism in the law. In reviewing the agenda, I noted that the first sub-topic of this training was about “Attorney Well-Being.” When I passed the bar in 1991, there was neither a requirement to take a class like “Practicing with Professionalism” nor any discussions about attorney well-being. Lawyers are protective of our client’s confidences, and we can be uncomfortable with acknowledging or disclosing our own perceived weaknesses.
The Culture of Law, Then and Now
If you ask many attorneys why they went to law school, it is not uncommon to hear that they were motivated by a desire to help people. In the late 1980s, LA Law was a popular television drama about lawyers. Now over 30 years later, these episodes are a reminder of how slowly things change in the legal profession. It’s much easier to notice changes in the fashions (e.g., no more shoulder pads or hair perms). But the need to chase billable hours and attract clients, along with the stress of managing a practice and negotiating diverse personalities, continues today. What is beginning to change is the professions’ recognition that lawyer well-being is not just a luxury afforded to some, but rather is an important consideration for all lawyers in managing the demands of the legal profession.
In 2017, the American Bar Association published a report by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. The first page of the report states, “To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer… This research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.” “Change will require a wide-eyed and candid assessment of our members’ state of being, accompanied by courageous commitment to re-envisioning what it means to live the life of a lawyer.”
As a young attorney in the 90s, I first sought out yoga as a means of stress relief. Within a few years, I also became a yoga teacher. Now, as a family law attorney and mediator, I see more commonality between the practice of yoga and how I practice law than I could have ever imagined. Over the years, I have connected with other attorneys, who have followed similar paths, and I believe there is more awareness of how mindfulness practices help us to not only manage stress but also to thrive personally and professionally. For this article, I reached out to several colleagues and legal professionals about their tips and tools for managing stress, not only in the midst of high-pressure situations but also their suggestions for longer-term practices to help us prepare for managing high-stress situations.
Andrew D. Kang
Andrew is a clinical social worker, therapist, and former practicing lawyer in Boston. Before practicing as a social worker, Andrew practiced law for 12 years. He works with many clients, including attorneys. I asked him what tools he recommends to patients when they are in the midst of stressful circumstances. Andrew told me, “Focusing on the breath, taking a minute or five minutes if you can, makes a big difference.” Walking around, or some type of movement, is another technique which allows a person to vent stress in a healthy way.
When you have time to plan, “Working on adapting things in your life, such as working out and changing your diet” can help in managing stress, continues Andrew. He also believes that “rigorous exercise is often better than any medication.” Lawyers are famous for saying they don’t have time for self-care, but when Andrew works with them, he’ll ask them to reflect: “How are you building in time to be with your spouse or your kids?” Thinking about these things and making small shifts to change the things we don’t like can help us to feel more in control of our lives.
Sue is a full-time support attorney in the Army National Guard Trial Defense Service in Boston. In addition to her work as an attorney, Sue is a yoga teacher and former yoga studio owner. Sue spoke about the research concerning “compassion fatigue,” sometimes known as secondary trauma, which has been characterized as the “cumulative physical, emotional, and psychological effects of being continually exposed to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity.” As attorneys, we aren’t immune from taking on the experiences of others, and we can be affected by our client’s circumstances.
When Sue came back from Operation Desert Storm, she found that by getting on her yoga mat, and by focusing on her breathing, she found relief from stress and anxiety. She observed that when she began teaching yoga in 2005, the class was about 10% men. By 2014, many more men made up yoga classes, and in some cases, such as yoga classes at the Pentagon, the majority of participants were men, who had very stressful positions. In her view, the change in class composition was a big shift, especially because this was the military.
Sue has told veterans she has worked with on the mat and during legal proceedings to focus on “staying in their body” in the midst of stressful or traumatic situations. For example, she tells people to keep their feet on the ground when sitting in a chair, to provide a sense of grounding in the body. Focusing on breathing is another way to bring attention back to the body and to bring on a sense of calm.
Courtney is a special education attorney and life coach in Connecticut. As a coach, Courtney works with individuals who are trying to make changes in their life. “Coaches support a person in clarifying what they want,” she explains. A coach can “help someone to clear out the clutter in their brain, and helps them to listen to their own voice so that person can live the life they were called to live.” Courtney recommends that when a person is in the midst of the “storm,” taking small steps can make a big difference. She says, “Whatever you can do to make your life easier by delegating or automating tasks will be a relief.” She adds that it is important to “cut yourself a break.”
One way to do so is to try to set up systems for tasks and chores such as bill paying, or to find someone who can watch your kids, clean your house, or help you with whatever it is that you need help with, all of which will allow you to work to your highest good. Also, regular journaling, not just writing about what worries you, but also recording the things for which you are grateful, can help you get unstuck. Finally, it is important to try to carve out at least 15 minutes of “me” time each day, and to get enough sleep, water, and healthy food.
Laurie is a family and collaborative law attorney in Dade City, Florida. Laurie believes that the legal culture has to change for lawyers to focus more seriously on their own well-being. For example, she notes that it is unnecessary for every family law situation to be adversarial, nor is it beneficial for the clients. There are better ways to resolve disputes.
This understanding prompts Laurie to focus on mediation and collaborative practice. When she worked at a larger firm, Laurie offered a yoga class as a “thank you” gift for the staff, and they continued that practice for some time. Now, she manages stress by running and through yoga and meditation. She recognizes that if she misses a day, it’s okay, as her practice is not all or nothing. As lawyers, we are often over-achievers, so there is no failure in only managing to squeeze in five minutes of meditation—the end result is that one can still feel better than if we didn’t practice at all.
Lelia is a trust and estates attorney in Troy, Virginia. Lelia is a skilled attorney who also is a yoga teacher. She and her husband Michael have committed to working on their meditation practice. When she is really busy, meditation is usually the last thing she wants to make time for, but even sitting for three or five minutes can make a huge shift in how she approaches her day. It is in those quiet moments that her mind clears. Even a short time “sitting” can be long enough to look at things differently and with greater perspective.
I am grateful to my colleagues for sharing their perspectives about self-care and well-being. I learned so much more from speaking to them, which space does not permit me to share. However, all of their suggestions are simple and manageable and can have a profound impact.
About the Author
Cynthia T. Runge is a divorce mediator and family and collaborative attorney in Boston. She is also vice president of Massachusetts Council for Family Mediation and former co-chair of the Charles River Collaborative Law Practice Group. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.