Have you ever had an earworm? It’s that little piece of a song (sometimes you don’t even like it) that gets stuck in your head for hours or days and starts to drive you crazy. The workplace has earworms, too—those little tidbits of information and experiences, usually about incredibly aggravating and frequently sexist issues, that wriggle into your head after you observe them and just sit there, sometimes gnawing on your brain and other times feeding into self-doubt. They are not healthy, and they contribute to our everyday stresses as well as feelings of guilt. As women attorneys, we need to remember to take care of our physical and mental health and not feel bad about taking the time to do that.
Clearly, this is not a scholarly article, but rather one that I hope will give other women in the legal field ways of dealing with the workplace earworm based solely on my own personal experiences after practicing law for nearly a quarter century. This article will not tackle any of the #MeToo issues, which are very serious matters and should be examined in a thoughtful manner. Instead, my hope is that a somewhat light-hearted look at my workplace earworms will help others deal positively with theirs.
One recent morning as I was perusing Facebook and willing myself to get out of bed (I have to set my alarm early so I have this special time to myself to see the news or what my friends are doing), I came across a Huffington Post article that really got me thinking. The article, “Women, You’re Not the Problem—Our Sexist Workplace Culture Is,” is enlightening and well worth a read in your spare time. It discusses how our workplaces are sexist in ways that we may not notice, or if we do notice, don’t have the time or energy to change. That commentary, combined with my practice of law, helped me develop this article.
Now more than ever, we need to focus on issues concerning the inherently sexist workplace culture that may be a daily occurrence for women in our industry, and how this culture can create those workplace earworms and further affect the stresses we all face. This built-up stress punctuates our need for a good work/life balance. It is vital to have an outlet so that your regular work stress, which is enhanced by those nagging little workplace earworms, does not end up affecting your own self-worth, relationships with co-workers or clients, your work product, and most importantly, your health. If we do not have healthy ways to alleviate some of our stress, it could result in poor work product, ethical violations, or leaving the profession entirely. Who has not considered quitting the practice of law at one time or another? I probably consider quitting, however fleetingly, at least once a year. But after a bike ride, a talk with friends, or spending time with my niece and nephew, I realize that in the grand scheme of things, I really love what I do. On a lighter note, after some serious reflection, I also sometimes feel like I have been practicing law so long that I no longer know how to do anything else.
We have all read articles about our work lives and how to balance and organize oneself at work so we become more effective and less stressed. You can read books and take entire courses on becoming a highly effective person. Honestly, I sometimes get stressed with the way I am being forced to be organized. I realize that disorganization can also lead to possible ethical problems if it is totally out of control, and perhaps someday that will be a topic for another article.
Earworm: “If we are not working every minute we are not being successful.”
Most of us have heard the statistics about lawyers being at high risk for depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Most of us are also aware that the demands of our jobs are one of the many causes of stress. We have filing deadlines, billable hours, difficult clients, fee collection problems—our plates are full. Let’s face it, many of us are Type A overachievers, and to be successful we often work as much as we can. Sometimes we do this because it is necessary, and other times we do it because it is ingrained in our heads that if we are not working hard, then we are not going to be successful. The older I get and the better I get at dealing with those workplace earworms, the more I start to think that there is a happy medium in here somewhere.
First of all, we all need to realize that success means different things for each one of us, and we don’t and shouldn’t all have the same criteria to get there. For some of us, success might mean making partner, making as much money as possible, having a big house, winning the big case, getting more time off, or it could mean the satisfaction of knowing that you have helped to make somebody’s life better. When your sense of career success gets combined with family obligations and our overachieving need to be successful in our non-work settings as well, it starts to be a recipe for stress.
I am single with no children but have worked with many female colleagues that struggle with sick children, marital problems, and other issues that I cannot even imagine dealing with, so I have much respect for those women. That being said, it does not mean alleviating my stress or keeping as much balance as I can between my home life and my work life is any less important. It is important and necessary for all of us.
When I supervised a department of attorneys, I stressed to my colleagues, especially my female colleagues, the importance of taking care of family. I worked with two female attorneys who had disabled children at home. I made sure to help them adjust their schedules so they could better take care of those children. I consciously tried to be an empathetic supervisor, which sometimes was hard since I don’t have children myself, but I also needed to remain firm and make sure all the work was getting done. When we find ourselves in these positions, it is important for women to help women. Let us not get so ambitious that we step on our sisters to achieve whatever our definition of success is.
Earworm: “You are making good money, so why are you complaining?”
Sometimes we ignore or are too busy to notice other issues that occur in the workplace. These little events are what can create the workplace earworm. Here are some examples of those pesky worms.
I once had a male co-worker who had not been with our employer as long as I was. I was in a top leadership position in my department, and yet this male colleague, who joined a different department, enjoyed a salary that was a great deal higher than mine. I’m sure I was not supposed to know that, but I did. I complained and was told that I was already making a very good sum. Although I was making enough money, that was not the point. That little worm wiggled into my subconscious and sometimes caused me to doubt the value of my work. Did he work harder than I did? No, he didn’t. Was I being all about the money? No, that was not my motivation. Was his work that much better than mine? No, it wasn’t. Rather than let this knowledge eat me alive and make me perpetually angry, I made sure to have people that I trusted (it helps if they don’t work with you) available so that I could complain, blow off steam, and not let it fester. Moreover, I continued to do my best each day and did not let it impact my quality of work, even with the knowledge that I was the one being short-changed.
Earworm: “But he’s my bro.”
Another male colleague was involved in an incident that was to cost him his job. Kid gloves were used when terminating his services. The male colleagues whose job it was to fire him all felt bad and wanted to make sure they could remain friends or had some other excuse to explain the unusual treatment. Once the male colleague had left the workplace, his female assistant was let go without so much as a “See ya.” No golden parachutes were fashioned for her—she was unceremoniously let go. Granted, the male colleague was an attorney and the female was a legal assistant, but the disparate nature of their terminations did not go unnoticed by me and other female co-workers. The disparity in treatment between the man and the woman set one of those little worms free to burrow deep in my mind.
Earworm: “He took the words right out of my mouth.”
I have also been to many a meeting where I realized I must talk so softly that no one can hear me. You know those meetings; the ones where you give legal advice to the group or give your opinion, and no one says anything. Five minutes later, a male says literally the same thing, and suddenly everybody thinks it is the best idea they ever heard. I used to look at one of my co-workers and ask, “When I was speaking before, could you hear the words coming out of my mouth? Was I speaking a different language that nobody understood?” Perhaps my voice wasn’t deep enough. Talk about an aggravating situation that sticks with you. I’m not proud of it, but sometimes when I really needed to get a specific point across, I would whisper what needed to be said to a male colleague, so he could say it and it would be followed. Only once in my legal career so far did the group go with what a male colleague said and not what I suggested. The issue went to court, they lost, and one of my clients said, “Didn’t she tell us to do that in the first place?” It is gratifying to hear that at least once in a career.
Earworm: “Where are you going again?”
Sometimes we must leave the office for perfectly legitimate reasons. It is not uncommon for male colleagues to take time off and play golf or to head to the gym, or even treat the golf as a work meeting, or to take long lunches, without a word being said. I’ve been in situations, however, where I would want to leave the office to do something for myself, even if it was to run errands that could only be done during the day, and I would get the “looks” and the whispers and snide comments about not working or taking my job seriously. Clearly, if I had to have meetings or had work obligations on my calendar then I would not be running errands. After a morning full of contentious meetings or unruly clients, sometimes one needs a moment to decompress. Yes, the workplace earworms were snuggling in for a bit. Sometimes these workplace earworms work on our guilt.
Earworm: “She’s having another baby.”
I have heard male colleagues make disparaging comments about female colleagues who are mothers. For example, a male client made a comment in my presence when one of the attorneys he was working with was out on maternity leave. He implied that the only reason women had children was so they didn’t have to come to work. I walked a fine line in this situation, and let the client know that I thought his comments were inappropriate as well as wholly inaccurate. It was important to me to address this comment, and luckily it did not hurt the attorney-client relationship we had. This worm worked on my anger. Though anger can sometimes be productive, if it isn’t dealt with, it can also be harmful to your mental health.
I don’t want the reader to get the wrong idea. I was still treated well at my workplaces and I feel I have been successful, but I am trying to point out the types of incidents that create the workplace earworms that make our already stressful jobs even more so.
The point is that women attorneys face not only the stresses of the job (and in many cases home life) but the stresses of a sexist culture. So what do we do? Far be it from me to tell anybody exactly what they should do, since we are all different and are not all wired the same. My years of practice have taught me to let some things at work (including a lot of earworms) just roll off my back or to be put aside to be dealt with another day.
I am fortunate to have a network of friends who can take my mind off anything for a while just talking about their crazy lives, but they will also take time to listen to me talk about mine. I am also lucky because I have a very supportive family. Unfortunately, I don’t live that close to them. I live nearly six hours from my niece and nephew and one of my goals in life is to be a good auntie and to be as involved in their lives as I can. Therefore, I have learned (am still learning) not to feel guilty if I leave early from work or take a long weekend a few times a year so I can watch my nephew play one hockey game or watch my niece do gymnastics. I remain available for emails and phone calls, but I have learned that I do not want to miss these parts of my “kids” lives.
Another valuable outlet for me is exercise. This is not my favorite thing to do but I have found that a 30-mile bike ride sometimes helps to organize thoughts and helps to burn off negative energy. My agony when I am on the treadmill makes me think of nothing else for an hour, other than how much I wish I were no longer on the treadmill. I feel great when I am off and I have given my mind a rest. It is important to engage in activities that take your mind away from the office. Do a crossword or jigsaw puzzle, or if you are crafty and adept enough, crochet or knit.
Friends, family, hobbies, travel, exercise, spa days, shoe shopping… these things help me to keep the workplace earworms from taking over and eating away at my brain and adding to my regular stresses. My personal version of success is important to me, but frankly, so are all the things I listed above.
I am not trying to convince you all that I am stress-free and have mastered the art of dodging the workplace earworm, but I am learning to prioritize what I worry about, and more and more I am finding out that it is perfectly okay to worry about me.
About the Author
Sheila Corbine is a partner with Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan, LLP, a firm that works almost solely with Indian tribes and tribal economic development corporations. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402.878.4383.