Balancing the Bar

Happiness and the Practice of Law


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Gratitude in the midst of a hectic week.

This week was a quick one.  A few days of feeling like a dart board and by Friday afternoon I left the clean up my office and the aftermath of chaos.  As the week wound to a close, I found a lot to be grateful for in the spite of the hectic nature of my work week.

National Alliance on Mental Illness – I attended the Hamilton County NAMI Annual Celebration Dinner on Thursday.  It was great to be with people who share your common thoughts and common cause.   Also, finding a way to give back to Society and grassroots volunteerism was the theme which invigorated me as well.  I was accompanied by Betsy Jameson, Katherine Jameson & Pat Ross.  Despite their personal loss, the Jameson clan is strong, resilient and at the end of time spent with them, I was grateful for their companionship and our shared commitment to make something good come out of Ken’s tragic death.

Connecting with others–  Feeling connected to those around me is a way I keep myself grounded and more than that I find that as I know people longer there are deeper connections that reveal themselves.  I had that happen a few times this week.  Clients and colleagues I have known  for a long time only to  discover some shared issue,  something deeper that connects us and I am amazed to find these things.  Suddenly, our close connection makes sense.  This happened a few times this week and I am grateful for the revelations.

The ability to say No to others.   I am exceedingly grateful for my ability to say no, to set limits and to maintain my client’s position in the face of hostile and aggressive adversary clients.   Sometimes NO is the best word in the English language.  Learning to set limits on others, to be obstinate and  stoic if necessary is an essential skill.  Being able to do so without aggression has taken a lot of practice on my part and somehow that practice seems to have clicked this week.

A view from the Witness box.  Today I spent time testifying at hearing to enforce settlement agreement against my former client.  Uncomfortable to say the least.  However, by being the witness and not the attorney, I realized how much I miss being in the courtroom.  I was also very very grateful to have fired the client.  Sometimes, it is best to move on because a client and you can no longer agree.  Leaving the case may cost you some unpaid fees, but it may save you time and aggravation.

A busy week, but a lot to take stock of.  Also, for the record, a lot to be frustrated about.  Somehow, however, in light of all that happened I am more grateful than stressed.


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Depression from the Outside – Dealing with depressed colleagues

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Do you think a coworker, a family member or a friend is depressed?  Is there anyway to be sure? What are the signs?  Do you realize there is a depression issue but can’t make sense of it?  Perhaps, you just want to be able to grab the other person and shake them until they stop behaving in such a strange way.  If there were only easy questions with straight forward answers to the issue of depression and  its causes then there would be no need to write and discuss it.  

There are many myths about depression.  The reasons many myths exist is that people without depression, or people viewing depression from the outside, try to make sense of an illness which is  personal and hard to understand for the sufferer himself not to mention the outsider.   Unless, you have lived with someone who is depressed, or have had mental issue yourself you can’t possible hope to understand a depressed persons point of view.  Here are a few statements I have heard others say about depression and or about discussing depression.

  •  Depression is a sign of weakness. 
  • It his personality type that makes him depressed.  I don’t have his personality so I am never going to have that issue.
  • Stress management can cure depression.  It’s just stress.
  • Medication for depression is dangerous it can cause you to commit suicide
  • There is nothing wrong with him he just needs to man up or man out.
  • Discussing depression and mental illness in the legal profession is well depressing, a downer or etc.
  • We can just kick the can down the road and the issue will resolve itself.
  • Just snap out of it – you can decide to stop being depressed. 
  • If I have faith and do everything right, I will succeed and stop feeling this way.

I confess, I have had some of these thoughts in the past.  To be honest, we all can get frustrated when a family member or friend is depressed.  We feel helpless.  Our non-depressed brain starts to: a) tell us how we are different and,  b) tell us what the other person should be able to do to fix the depression; or c) just denies the obvious  – that the person is struggling.   Depression can defy logic and for  lawyers especially it is hard to comprehend and therefore, cannot be fixed.  So, the track most normally followed is  don’t deal with it and it will go away.  So, to bust some of these myths and  help others in my profession understand the illness I have some truths about depression to share.

The Truisms of Depression.

Depression symptoms differ depending on the individual.  In other words, some people are paralyzed by the illness while others still work, but are not as productive.  In addition, depression can vary in strength. Some people have debilitating, can’t get out of bed, depression while others come to work unable to focus, but still show up and tell those around them that they are fine.  There is no predictor of how a person will behave.  You as a supervisor, partner, and friend have to be open to the effects of depression on the person suffering in order to understand how to help.

People with depression can be very strong.  What?  That’s right, it is not easy functioning with depression.  You have to be strong to come to work, to carry such a secret with you and to support your family. Combined with this strength, however,  is a silence of shame and embarrassment because the depressed person feels unable to control the thoughts in their head.  Feelings of failure or worry about failure may be indicators that someone is suffering from either anxiety or depression especially if they occur often.  We all fear lack of success but for some it becomes a dibilitating thought process.

People who are depressed may not label it as depression .   A depressed person may not know that this melancholia they are experiencing is an illness.  Saying you should snap out of it or just get over it or and or punishing that person/employee will not help them get out of the depression.   Point is that someone who is depressed is not going to come right out and acknowledge it to themselves or to others.  So, you have to be willing to look for indicators and proactively address the issue. 

Depression can manifest in the body in such ailments as ulcers, sleep disorders, fatigue and malaise.  There are physical and behavioral manifestations that it pays to know and understand.  Depression can lead to higher risk of certain health disorders such as gastrointestinal and sleep.  Many times the underlying issue for these ailments is depression and it is important to discuss your emotional as well as physcial health with your physician.  If a colleague has severe sleep issues or has stomach issues (i.e. ulcers) perhaps a discussion about their mental well-being is in order. 

Medication helps  depressed people.  You do not have to be “crazy” to fill and begin taking a prescription medication for anxiety or depression.  Medication together with psychotherapy can help you deal with the thoughts which underlie depression in a more effective way.  If your physician thinks you need the medication, then perhaps your should follow that medical advice.  By all means, discuss with a medical professional your depression and get help.  If you are not being  heard by your physician then get a new doctor pronto.  Your physician should be your healthcare partner and not just someone you see when you have to.

Depressed people may appear not to care, or conversely, they may care too much.  Once again depression is different depending on who is suffering.  So, the workaholic may spend even more time at the office and get less done while another person may avoid the office at all cost so people cannot discover their secret.  Shame and embarrassment are two strong forces which keep people silent and untreated.  Depressed people can’t just snap out of it.  They have to learn a new way of thinking and behaving to address the issue effectively.

Depression can co-occur with other mental disorders.  In other words, people can develop drug problems because of depression or they can start out with anxiety over work and wind up being depressed.  You can’t recover from one mental health issues without recovering from the other.  Just because someone stops drinking does not relieve other issues. 

Stress management is very good and a great place to startStress is a contributing factor to anxiety, depression and or substance abuse  suffered by lawyers.   The more stress you have and the worse you manage it, the easier it is to feel overwhelmed and exhausted leading to procrastination or late work product.   Ackowledging your stress is the first step.  We all seem to do that very well.  It is reordering our priorities that seems to be the issue. 

Depression can be a family affair.   Many of us develop patterns of behavior from childhood onward that make us prone to the disease. Behavioral therapy can help you retrain your mind and behavior to manage these tendencies.   In other words, if your parent has depression issues you may learned behaviors which are similar.  Retraining to brain to think and behave differently is possible. 

In closing, it is time that Depression is spoken about and addressed by Lawyers,  Bar Associations, Judges and colleagues. It is an illness that has the capacity to ruin careers, families and lives.  As fellow lawyers, we must address this growing epidemic in our profession.  The first step in doing this is to breakdown the myths associated with the illness and understand that a person with such a condition must be supported, not ostracized, punished or isolated.  In essence, many of us, through perpetuation of the myths above,  are condemning our colleagues to suffer in silence.  For many, discussing mental health issues and depression in particular is “depressing” but the choice not to discuss is it simply is not acceptable given the rates of depression, anxiety and suicide within our profession.  Remember, depression is treatable and many people receive treatment and lead productive balanced lives.  However, they cannot do so unless they can look at the situation and are honest and self-compassionate. 

Taking necessary precautions on a firm or industry level is a start toward addressing the growing trend of mental illness in the legal profession.   If you are unsure whether colleague is ill,  keeping asking them how they are doing,  make yourself available and always provide a supportive nonjudgmental presence.  Wearing blinders, expressing anger at or excuses for the partner or associate who is clearly struggling is not an option.  You can only deal with an issue if you address head on. 

Or, to use another To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus Finch Quote,  “Best way to clear the air is to have it all in the open”. 

Silence, my friends and colleagues,  is a recipe for continued suffering and disaster.


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Court ordered Outpatient Treatment – the Ohio Proposal

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine has an interesting article entitled When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind.  The article is a first hand account of the author and her family’s attempt to get her father committed during one of his Manic Episodes.  The article addresses the biggest issue facing the legal system and our society at large.  How to provide care for the seriously mentally ill and protect their civil liberties? Is there any such way to do this?  Should we force people to take medication to protect themselves from suicide and/or their families from violence?

Several states have attempted to address this issue and Ohio currently has legislation pending.  The Ohio law would change ORC § 5122.01 to clarify the court’s ability to court order out patient treatment.  There many reasons for this law to be enacted not the least of which is to give families tools with which to protect their loved one from suicidial thoughts and actions.  Further, the law will aid attorneys who represent the families by giving in them the ability to creatively address issues in the outpatient context. For more on the proposal,  you can review the National Aliance for the Mentally Ill Ohio (NAMI Ohio) web page.

Such issues of client mental health and treatment touch the areas of family law, elder law, criminal law and juvenile law to name a few.  As attorneys, it is necessary for us to be aware of the possible treatment options for our clients or family members if applicable.  While maintaining a person’s civil liberties, this change will help assure medication compliance and aid families struggling to maintain care for a sick loved one.

What strikes me the most about the NY Times piece and the Ohio NAMI approach is that lawyers are the ones helping families get the treatment needed. The legal system needs more people willing to listen to families and the ill alike.  Lawyers can create individualized solutions out of emotionaly difficult circumstances and the Ohio proposal goes a long way.  The reality is that many of us deal with clients, family or colleagues when they are in the midst of a personal crisises daily.  Knowing what to be alerted to and legal options available is important to the administration of justice and protection of all involved.


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Building a network for business and human connection.

I get asked by younger attorneys and attorneys who are trying to build a practice exactly how to get clients.  I remember well the first time I heard someone say “you should be a good rainmaker”.  Fact is, the best way to advance in your career is to get a keep clients or should I say “paying clients”.  For many this is very challenging.  To newly minted attorneys this is like asking them to run before they can walk.  How can you sell your legal services if you don’t know how to practice law?  So the challenge for managing attorneys is to teach new attorneys how to practice and simultaenously push them to sell their abilities to others.

There are two good books out there on these subjects by Jay Foonberg which are must reads.  Ultimately, however,  it is a individual process.  The process  often leads to discouragement and disillusion especially for those who are worker bees at large firms who decide to strike out on their own and those who cannot find a job after law school  (approximately 45% of this year’s graduating attorneys) who decide to hang out that shingle.

As any good rainmaker knows, it takes awhile to hone these skills and to develop the confidence in your legal ability.  I remember the first time I realized that people were hiring me because I actually DID know what I was doing.   The feeling that you are appreciated for your years of education and skills is good feeling.

Recently,  I ran across a reference to the 7 Pillars of Connecting With Absolutely Anyone which is a blog post from April written by Scott Dinsmore for Forbes.  I read it and said “I must share this.”  Mr. Dinsmore lays out a simple plan for how to make connections in life and this is the essence of what attorneys do when they try to sell their services to clients.  I think the quote at the beginning of the article says it best:

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” – Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

At first read, many may say that connecting with everyone you encounter may not lead to business and or I am too busy to speak to and act interested with the clerk at the courthouse or the cleaning lady in my building.  But the reality is your reputation as a person and as an attorney is built one person at a time.  Every person you meet may be connected to someone else.  The moral is that you need to invest interest and time in others in order for people to invest in you and feel confident in recommending you.

In addition to building of your business, these interactions can help you feel more open hearted, at ease and safer. Being kind to people is a way to stave off the isolation many attorneys particularly solos feel.  For more on the benefits of being friendly you can check out Rick Hanson’s blog post and his book Just One Thing.

The bottem line is that martketing isn’t just a sales pitch.  A law practice is built on interactions and relationships.  Building a network of people from varying industries can benefit you throughout your career and is a great way to feel more centered in your daily life.  Plus, it can reduce your stress and connect you to others who can provide resources you may need in the furture.


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Optimism and the practice of law?

Lawyers are used to seeing glasses half empty. I am bombarded weekly with  negative thinking about cases, client recruitment and or people with a negative idea of their future. This type of thinking can be very detrimental to law firm operation, attorney well being and or client development.  Last night,  I found this article  A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full and it echoed my thoughts on the negative vs. positive thinkers.  So my question is – how does one who is optimistic about life, their practice and their future cope with all the negative lawyers around them?

The article describes Optimistic behavior as “rather than giving up and walking away from difficult situations, optimists attack problems head-on. They plan a course of action, getting advice from others and staying focused on solutions. ”  While pesimists look at situations and say “it can’t be done”.   Trying to find a positive view in difficult situations is sometimes challenging.  But, if one never tries a new approach, sits down and says “I can’t” then they miss out on living an adventurous life full of new experiences.

A great example of this is the lack of Health and Well Being education for lawyers.  We all know there is an issue in our profession, yet we don’t really address the reasons why the issue keeps surfacing.  In fact, I was reluctant to tackle the issue myself until I faced by own stress issues and watched a colleague develop depression.  The point is the CBA Health and Well-Being Committee has developed an optimistic approach to educate people.  The alternative would have been to say “this is just how it is”.  This is the defeatist attitude which dampens the hope an enthusiasm of younger attorneys.  I personally think it is time to be inject a little optimism into the profession.

My favorite quote from the article is “if you are chronically negative and always see only the dark side of things, the optimists in your life may eventually give up on you.”  Does this mean that I will have to give up on most of the lawyers I know?  I hope not.  I think as long as attorneys are interested, the CBA Health and Well Being Committee will give them something that resonates with them and is useful.   Here is to being optimistic.