It has taken at least 10 years for the legal industry to really begin to address the well-being crisis lawyers are facing. We always knew how challenging the practice of law could be for many of us lawyers. This fact was either overlooked or seen as “part of the job.”
It wasn’t until the pandemic was in full swing that we really saw the need to directly address wellness and the well-being of lawyers. In May 2021, a study, “Stress, Drink, Leave: Gender-Specific Risk Factors for Mental Health Problems and Attrition Among Practicing Attorneys, was published as part of a wide-ranging research project conducted in collaboration with the California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar. The study not only found alarming amounts of mental health problems and dangerous levels of drinking among practicing lawyers, but also risk factors and gender disparities with these problems.
Clearly, this issue is only getting worse as time goes on. No longer is it acceptable to ignore, nor accept, practicing lawyers’ mental health challenges and lack of well-being.
An often-over-looked component of any lawyer’s full well-being is the ability to address (know, feel and communicate) our emotions. Oxford Dictionary defines “emotions” as “a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others” as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.
Emotions are the gateway to humans’ ability to self-express who we are authentically. As the definition states, emotions are instinctive and natural. Emotions are about how we process mentally and then respond in relationship to others.
So why would we overlook what is natural to us and what allows us to self-express and relate to others?
This article will examine the history of how we have addressed emotions, and discuss three main reasons why all lawyers need to address their emotions as they practice. I’ll also review the top three methods of incorporating our emotions to build a thriving, authentic and healthy practice and personal life.
HISTORY OF HOW WE HAVE ADDRESSED EMOTIONS
Most of us have been conditioned, directly or indirectly, to suppress and/or ignore our emotions. Either through formal education, religious upbringing, or family values, we were taught at a very young age to be seen and not heard. Along with the notion of not being heard comes the idea that emoting is not appropriate. Perhaps we even got into trouble with our parents and other adults when we allowed ourselves to be open, vulnerable, and expressive of what was in our hearts.
As we grew up, higher education reinforced this dynamic: law school instilled order and hierarchy, the Socratic method made it even more important to keep your head down and only speak up when you were certain of your answers. Otherwise, you risked looking foolish and ill-prepared. We were taught to express our intellect and reasoning.
In addition, law school taught us to look to precedence for answers. Often, this look-back makes logical sense. We can’t ignore what came before and set the stage for our legal worldviews. In many ways though, this action may have shut off our creative, dynamic, forward-looking nature, forcing us to create (and express) based on the past and only the past. It may have felt like we gave up our gift of sitting in the present moment altogether. Look no further than the Supreme Court, which most recently is citing back to the 1700s and English common law regarding issues that have evolved and grown beyond that time and era’s rationale.
Once we graduated from law school, the legal workplace strengthened this digression from our instincts and authentic self. We directly and indirectly were conditioned that our personal lives did not belong at work. “Leave who you are at home” became a mantra that I remember well all those years I practiced securities law in Washington, DC.
For women and minority lawyers, the situation was even worse. Fitting in became crucial for success for us.
As an immigrant woman lawyer, I was determined to be a success and make my parents proud. I had paid for my own law school education. I wanted to use my legal skills to change the world somehow. I recall putting my hair back in a bun, wearing pants suits, studying baseball and doing as much as I could do to fit in (or maybe to become?) one of the male lawyers with whom I worked.
The cost was high. I started to feel like I had lost my identity. I no longer knew who I was outside of being a “lawyer.” The numbness set in. Luckily for me, I didn’t reach for alcohol. My vice was working out and becoming focused on my healthy eating habits. But then again, I wasn’t married at that point in my life, so I had the luxury of self-care and wellness…and self-love.
Should wellness, self-care and self-love be a luxury just because we chose to become lawyers?
THREE REASONS TO ADDRESS YOUR EMOTIONS
Today, even though I don’t practice law anymore by choice, I encourage all lawyers to prioritize their wellness by addressing their emotions – especially at work. My informal research with lawyer clients has shown that doing so allows us to feel more like ourselves, not denying who we are. It also allows us to embrace our practice more. Ironically, the human condition is your unique selling proposition, because every one of us has our own unique way of showing up in the world as humans first, then lawyers.
- Clients hire humans – Legal practices grow because clients can feel the human-to-human connection. They know when we feel for them emotionally and when we don’t. They trust us more and want us to represent them when they trust that we are being authentic and really care. Having just overcome breast cancer, I ended up firing my first oncology surgeon. While she was known to be the “best,” when I was around her I felt small, forgotten and like an afterthought. No one can deny it is difficult to try to emotionally experience everything our clients are going through. Each lawyer has to find a harmonious balance and remember the human element involved in each case. Stop and consider, would you want to hire someone like you? What’s one small change you can make to be someone whom you would want to hire?
- Colleagues work with humans – Too many lawyers complain about opposing counsel or their law partners these days. Maybe when I was practicing law I didn’t always feel a kinship with all my colleagues, but the feedback these days is staggeringly more negative than in my practice days just 20 years ago. Stop and consider, would you want to work with someone like you? What is one small change you can make to be someone with whom you would be proud and happy to work?
- Your health is at stake – Being a breast cancer survivor, I now really value my health above all else. I would rather you not have to go through my experience to also value your health. Suppressing our emotions may not directly lead to disease. However, an effective argument can be made that those of us who express instead of suppress who we are and how we feel experience less anger and frustration. Less anger and frustration leads to more contentness, calm and happiness, which helps us feel healthier. What doesn’t get suppressed, but rather expressed, doesn’t get a chance to fester inside us, mentally and emotionally.
THREE METHODS TO INCORPORATE YOUR EMOTIONS IN YOUR PRACTICE
It’s always easy to give advice and to read about what we could or should be doing. It’s way harder to apply this to our daily lives and world.
My belief is taking a few minutes each week is all that you need to get going. Even thinking about what you read to see if you are headed in the right direction is a good start. Here are three actions you can take to make a difference for yourself and your practice:
- Take 10 – spend 10 minutes a week discovering what is fun for you and makes you happy. Take a pad of paper and make a list of literally anything and everything that truly makes you happy. Do it in your car, at lunch, or even in the shower. My clients and I agree that this is actually a much tougher exercise than it seems.It may sound like a childish activity that won’t grow your career and practice. The exact opposite is true. Any time you can go back to basics and reorient yourself to what actually brings you any amount of happiness, you tap into a primary emotion that allows you to thrive.
- Finish it – Not expressing emotions is a byproduct of not finishing what is on our minds and in our hearts. In other words, we do not tap into what we really want – personally or professionally. We often just stop short of expressing our full thoughts. It’s not enough to give partial, dry, safe answers – to others OR to ourselves. Don’t stop there. Stay self-aware and really stop and think about “WHY” you are saying/thinking/feeling those things. Practice adding another sentence to your thoughts, explanations, and conversations. For example, if you are moved to state: “Opposing counsel is a jerk.” Why do you say this? Your answer may be something as simple as, “Opposing counsel is a jerk. He/she makes me feel angry and frustrated when he/she did x/y/z.” This method allows you to practice really feeling your emotions and expressing them to yourself and then outward to others if you would see fit.
- They finish it – Encourage others around you to finish their thoughts by putting concrete emotions into their stories. Once you feel comfortable allowing yourself to know, feel and express your emotions, you can be the catalyst for others to do the same – personally and professionally. The benefits of this are many. Your relationships flourish. You feel less alone and more connected to your community and your world. Obviously, you feel better anytime you help others.The other benefit of this action is that you will have better clients and thriving practices. For example, I often have lawyers tell me that they got blindsided by a client. If you encourage your clients to express openly what’s on their minds and in their hearts, there will be less of a chance they will blindside you, allowing you to deliver your best legal service and sleep well at night.
Change can feel hard. Transitions require effort, creativity, and energy, to say the least. We are all creatures of habit. It’s easier to keep going down a road that may not be ideal or make us feel good, but at least we know what to expect. As lawyers and humans, we deserve better.
Why else do this? Emoting builds connection, allowing you to be authentic, genuine, and real. It also makes those around you more real for you, making it easier for you to have compassion for the differences we all have as humans. Lastly, emoting makes life easier to manage and makes your relationships more real and safe for you.
About the Author
Katy Goshtasbi is a change catalyst, branding expert, and founder of Puris Consulting. Katy practiced securities law for over 14 years, and is past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. Contact her at email@example.com