Balancing the Bar

Happiness and the Practice of Law

Skipping the Misery Groove- Countermeasures to combat lawyer unhappiness

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“The brain that wires together fires together.”  — Rick Hansen author of Buddha’s Brain

”The story lines vary, but the underlying feeling is the same for us all.” -Pema Chödrön  

We define our reality.  Our sense of happiness and unhappiness comes from within.  Others in our work place come and go, but the one constant everyone has is their ability to care and be kind to themselves.  Happiness and the practice of law seem to be opposites at times.  Anyone who works with or is an attorney will tell you there are a lot of very miserable people in our profession.  The thing is most of these people are smart, fun and kind, but don’t necessarily enjoy the drudgery, mundane, and business aspects of being a lawyer.

Misery begets misery and loves company.  The feeling in an office can be greatly enhanced or dampened by those you work around. Suffering of the mental variety is hard to watch either in yourself or others.  When you see it, you are hit by dread and or a sense of impending doom for the other person. Something is off and you can tell.    You can just run in and help, flee or flop down and wallow in the mud right along with the other person (i.e. commiserate).  That miserable person seems to be stuck in their own head and frankly, behaves as their own worst enemy.

There have been many times in my career I have sensed the misery of others  and or been on the receiving end of someone’s sharing of their misery regarding practice of law or firm management or life in general.  Most of the people I know who find themselves at a mid-career misery  moment are unhappy or under strain in other aspects of their lives. Many of them come from chaotic childhoods or have really negative experiences with other lawyers at other firms.  However, they are very bright.  They have advanced degrees and possess the ability to do something about their situations, yet seem frozen in place.  Stuck in the misery groove.  They lack the ability to process anything beyond the pain they feel.  Many times they are even paralyzed by the doubt that things will never improve or fear that the next career move they make is going to be as bad as where they are now.  So, they stay put and their misery can by contagious.

Contrast this with those really looking for a solution which requires them to take control of the situation and do something positive for their future.  It is amazing how few of the last group there are.  This group is not afraid of the consequences of a bad decision.  Or, if they are, they get over it and move toward what feels right or what is required of them.  The Buddhists say that if you have fear you should move toward it and only by doing this you can conquer it.  And if you do fail you should be thankful for the opportunity to learn and grow.  Even your enemies should be your teachers.   Could you imagine what would result if we all adopted these rules?  Taking chances and embracing change are the keys to learning and to career growth.

Is there something wrong with these negative people?  The thing is, being miserable or being drawn down by the negativity of others is perfectly natural.  Our brain is hardwired to dwell on the negatives.  Our brains have not caught up to the emotional rather than physical challenges we face. The brain is still wired to remember the negatives more than positives and can’t distinguish between mental and physical stress. This puts us at a biological disadvantage.  Once burned twice shy was fine when we were running from lions for our lives, but now our challenges are more psychological in nature.    Often times there are hidden memories or feelings of rejection that can surface and cause a mental reaction inappropriate to our situation.    These childhood or early career  triggers work to sabotage our careers and make our work relationships and personal lives

fraught with anxiety, fear, depression and other sorts of emotions.   Learning positive ways to notice this negativity and pause before we commiserate or learning to be empathetic without absorbing the misery of others is an important defensive tool most lawyers need to learn.

We are, in essence, a profession of fixers.  We deal with the problems of others and provide solutions.  This means many times we are dealing with emotional issues of our clients.  To the client, their matter is the most important thing on our desk.  They are in large part ignorant of the steps necessary to get a matter resolved and they have little patience.  Our personal history and client expectations can work to fuel our anxiety and stress levels.  When you add to this the general negative nature of lawyers, many of us work in emotion minefields.

It is important to create a system to deal with the emotions of others.  I have learned to separate my thoughts from that of the other person by identifying “his or her stuff” and list the emotions exhibited by the other party.  Truthfully, very little other people say or do has anything at all to do with us – most of the time their actions are the result of their own thoughts and fears. I find that if I am in doubt I ask for clarification, which short circuits disagreements and can get my relationship with the other person back on track.  It can also help to write about your thoughts in a journal of just a sheet of paper.  This will sort out what the issue really is and eliminate your own thoughts and fears before discussing the matter with the other person.

Expressing gratitude is also a way of reinforcing happiness.   I have recently started a gratitude journal focusing primarily on my work day.  I keep a running list of all the good things that happen in a day from a conversation with a coworker down to what I eat for lunch.   It reinforces the good feeling circuits in your brain and counteracts the negatives of the practice of law.  My outlook is becoming more positive and I am only in my second week.

Finally, if you are not happy in your current t situation start investigating other arrangements and or other options for your career. Staying in a place or job where you are unhappy is not good for you nor is it helpful to those around you.  In a profession full of “half empty” thinkers perhaps it is time reframe your thinking and make a new place for yourself where you can honor what is most important to you.

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Author: Tabitha M. Hochscheid

Attorney since 1995, interested in Attorney Health and Well Being and related issues for lawyers and the general population. Developer and Committee Chair of the Cincinnati Bar Association Health and Well Being Committee.

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