Balancing the Bar

Happiness and the Practice of Law


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Balanced Living Lecture Series from the Cincinnati Bar Association’s Health and Well-being Committee

The Cincinnati Bar Association’s Health and Well-being Committee has launched a new lecture series to address Health and Well-Being issues faced by lawyers and law students. The Committee developed the program to provide much-needed information on overall mental and physical health. A healthy mind and a healthy body are essential to the long-term happiness of practicing lawyers.

Too much stress is a central issue for lawyers today.   Stress, however, can be both positive and negative.  Stress can be the fuel that drives the success of many in our industry. The thrill of winning a trial or getting a superb result for a client keeps many of us going. However, with all the thrills there is the mundane nature of what we do, the client demands, the struggle to make billable hour requirements and for solos the struggle to make enough money to keep our business going. And, for many of us, its is hard to turn off our bodies natural stress response and relax into the natural flow of our work and life.

Being an attorney and learning how to harness our stress in a positive way is something we should all be interested in. In the Inaugural lecture of the Balanced Living Series we will hear from an expert on performance enhancing stress. The topic of the first lecture is Under Pressure? How to Survive and Thrive Amidst Stress and Life’s Other Realities and will be presented by Ohio State University Assistant Football Coach and Cincinnati native Kerry Coombs.   Mr. Coombs is a 30 year coaching veteran who will discuss adopting the proper mindset in a pressure-filled environment to turn stress into a motivator and help enhance you performance as a lawyer and find satisfaction and reward in your daily routine.  Lawyer’s at all career levels will find something interesting and/or  inspiring.

 
 The event is free to CBA Members and only $10.00 for non members.  If you are interested you can register here.  Be sure to login in the CBA webpage in order to register as a member.  You can also email Dimity Orlet at dvorlet@cincybar.org.    The event is being underwritten by the Cincinnati Bar Foundation’s  Kenneth D. Jameson Health and Well-being Fund which was established in May of 2012 to promote the work of the Committee and to foster a better understanding of the mental health issues unique to practicing attorneys.
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A Birthday reflection on gratitude

Thursday October 4, 2012 was my birthday.  I was 39 for the 4th time.  Yes, that means I was 43.  For many years I have used my birthday to reflect on what has happened in the preceding year and where I want to go in the upcoming year.  Many years I was very critical of myself and would set very definitive goals for the next year of my life.  This year  I did something different.  I made a list of  what I had done or experienced during my 42d year on the earth that I am grateful for.  My list includes the following:

-My relationship with my husband which grows and deepens yearly. Will will be married fifteen (15) years on October 11th

-My mother and father for the strength and stubbornness they bestowed upon me.

-My health both mental and physical and my health care providers.

-My law practice and the relationships with my clients which sustain me on the tough days.

-My co-worker friends they share the ups and downs of being a lawyer on a day-to-day basis.

-The Cincinnati Bar Association and their commitment to lawyer health and well-being.

-The members of the Health and Well Being Committee their willingness to help, to brainstorm and their commitment to helping others is amazing.

-Betsy Jameson, her friendship, her gift to other lawyers through the Kenneth Jameson Health and Well-being fund and her support.

-Meeting new people who are interested in helping the mentally ill and their families.

-For new friends and old friends, who have been with me on life’s journey and for finding and maintaining friendships with all types of people.

-For mindfulness and meditation and all the peace of mind which comes along with that.

My plans for this year of my life are much simpler than they used to be.   I want to live each day in a mindful manner, I want experience each thing or event that happens be it good or bad as a part of my journey in life.  I want to advance the Committee work of the Health and Well-being Committee.  At work, I want to do all I can with what I have, in the time that have, in the place where I am and then go home and get up and do it again the next day.

And finally, for the next year, I plan to post each Friday  a summary of the things about life and work that happened each week for which I am grateful.


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Diagnosis … Legal Industry is in need of change

How many lawyers do you know who are disillusioned with the practice of law?  I ran into a colleague I graduated from law school with last week and he said to me “I don’t know any happy lawyers”.  This got me to thinking what is it about the practice of law (i.e. the business of being a lawyer) which makes the job so difficult.  I came up with a list which says a lot about the business we are all engaged in on a daily basis. This list is not comprehensive and I would love to add to it. (So, comments are appreciated).  Perhaps we can’t even begin to repair a system if we don’t know what ails it.  I think the list below sets out a good case for why we need to change the way we practice and or how we deal with each other.

The Business of law needs to change because …..

  1. The most intellectual people are rarely the most successful lawyers.
  2. Legal profession attracts negative and hostile personality types who are more likely to be successful (i.e. narcissists, sociopaths, bullies and egomaniacs)
  3. Being good at what you do means less than being good at getting clients.
  4. Perfectionism is valued but is a double-edged sword.  It makes for great work product but can cause tremendous stress.
  5. Lawyers are 2 times more like to be depressed.
  6. Lawyers are 3 times more likely to have anxiety disorders
  7. Lawyers get less sleep that most other professionals.
  8. Lawyers have higher suicide rate than the general population, particularly male lawyers in their 50’s.
  9. There are far more lawyers seeking a job than there are jobs. New graduates have only a 50% chance of landing any legal job.
  10. Law school process can lead to depression in 40% of students within the first two years.
  11. We are profession that thrives on anxiety, fear, aggression and we make more money the longer our clients remaind in an adversarial situation.  
  12. We graduate a lot of new lawyers but most of them do not make it past 10 years in practice.
  13. Our law schools have misled applicants about graduate employment rates.
  14. The most successful lawyers are often the ones who are workaholics,  who can’t understand that working more does not make you more productive.
  15. Money neurosis blinds many to need or desire to change.  I make money so why bother. 

I could add others to this list, but I think most people will get my point.  There are way too many things wrong with our system to not address health and well-being on an industry wide basis.   Clearly, there are those who say “it has always been this way”.  My response to this is, so what?  Seriously, that attitude says I am willing to accept the existence of these issues because I am AFRAID to change the system.  Is it really easier to blindly follow a system on the premises “because it is this way at every firm”? To make such statements is to say “I accept to live in the misery I know because it is the same or worse elsewhere.”

Misery or as the Buddhist say “suffering” is so ubiquitous in our profession that it is accepted as standard operating procedure.  This saddens me.  It saddens me to hear about a colleague who develops a substance abuse issues, has depression or other health issues all of which are exacerbated by stress.  And it angers me that colleagues have a mental break downs and that fellow lawyers label those people weak or look for logical reasons why they are ill (i.e., money issues, health and/or divorce).  And worse of all in bothers me that some of the most well-respected lawyers choose to end their lives because of mental health issues.  Suicide is such a horrible end that condemns the lawyer’s family to a lifetime of asking the question why?  Sure, not all lawyers are miserable, but there are more unhappy rather than happy lawyers and that says so much about the way we deal with each other and gives the world around us just another reason to hate and or abhor us. 

Change in our industry starts from within.  It takes consistent diligent efforts like those undertaken by the Cincinnati Bar Association’s Health and Well-being Committee. It takes conscious decisions by each lawyer, judge, law professor and law student to address the issues outlined above.  Until these and other related issues are addressed we will continue to see our colleagues self-destruct in one way or another and the rest of us will be left with regrets and questions.  Or worse, some will say that lawyer was weak to crack under the pressure.


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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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“THERE ARE A LOT OF ILL PEOPLE AT AA MEETINGS”…. An introduction to Lawyers Assistance and the AA Conundrum

A long-term member of Alcoholics Anonymous, who is an attorney  and I recently had a conversation.  It was our first meeting and it was moments before my first speech as Health and Well-being Chair.  His first statement to me after hello was that he did not agree with my statement that stress and mental illness caused people to abuse substances.   After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I responded that I believed medical evidence was on my side and that he should consider the coexisting (comorbidity) condition research.  After all, fifty percent of people who drink are depressed and even if they don’t have a mental illness when they start drinking or consuming the addiction can trigger a disorder.  My colleague’s response was that the medical community treats the addiction first so it couldn’t cause the abuse or they would do the opposite.  Eventually, we agreed to disagree and he actually stayed and listened to my speech.

The conversation stuck with me for a week or so.  For years, I have been reading, or shall I say, absorbing, all the information I could find on neuropsychology, psychology and addiction.  Recently, in preparation for this speech I even attended a NAMI seminar on comorbidity of mental illness and substance abuse.  Was I misinformed?  What in the world did AA teach people about their brain and mental health?

So, I spent some time online researching AA and its role in helping people obtain and maintain sobriety.   I even put an app on my phone so I can read the Big Book as it is known.  What I discovered were sentiments such as “AA is a cult”.  That seemed a little extreme.  Yet, there is some element of AA which tends to be insular in nature.  And, then there are parts of program that have very religious overtones.  After all AA’s twelve steps contain many mentions of the “power greater than ourselves” and mentions to God “as we understood him”.

Clearly, AA works for many people.  Some people have used the supportive nature and sponsor system to obtain and maintain sobriety for decades and or a life time.  But, only 5% of AA members make it to one year.  In fact, many relapse and some never maintain a sober life.  AA does not work for everyone and there are other support groups and alternative treatments to assist struggling attorneys in their battle against addiction. AA is a support group and as a social support group it works well.  It is not psychotherapy and it should not be used as a substitute for psychotherapy.

Why then is AA so prevalently used by Lawyers Assistance Programs? I think that answer is simple-most Lawyers Assistance Programs were started by recovering alcohol judges and lawyers. But, the bigger issue is how can we as lawyers provide complimentary programming to lawyers with substance abuse AND mental health issues?  Or even more basic, should we?  My answer to this is simple.  YES.  It is time that science, psychotherapy and AA be used in combination by Lawyers Assistance Programs throughout this country to help struggling attorneys.

Recently, I asked a different colleague, one  who helps struggling attorneys, to take me to an AA meeting.  I also told him about my interaction with the long time AA attorney.    The phrase he used sums up the problem in a nutshell -“there are a lot of ill people at AA meetings”.  Now, this is coming from a man who knows the legal system and the problems lawyers face.  He helps lawyers in crisis.  He explained to me that AA is about accountability and that some AA members have lots of mental health issues.  Of course, he has promised to take me to an open meeting to learn more about the program.

So, my question is – why is our profession relying on AA to support attorneys in recovery.  Is it just because it has helped those in charge of the Lawyers Assistance programs quit or just because “we have always done this”?  Isn’t it time to face the reality that many people need more than AA.  Are we setting people up for failure?  Is the use of AA promoting a religion and insisting troubled lawyers adopt a faith-based system?

I am going to be asking all of these questions and reporting back on my findings.  First, I am going to a meeting and if there are lawyers there I am going to ask them why they drink and if the practice of law contributed in any way to their addiction.  Further, I want to know what if anything the bar association could do to stop others from developing addiction issues. Then, I am going to review some disciplinary case statistics and just see how well the AA solution has worked for lawyers in crisis.   Updates will be forthcoming.


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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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What would happen if your firm adopted a “no jerks” policy?

I just found a link to the following article called  No Jerks: Some Firms Argue that Collegiality Pays – Magazine – ABA Journal.  Can you imagine what would happen in most firms if you  rid them of “slackers, downers and bullies”?  According to this article you would be making a good business decision.   My thought is — what would happen to all the law firms out there?

By and far if you put a group of attorneys together and call them a firm you will get  lawyers who are slackers, negative, emotionally down  and there will always be a bully.  There is always one person who “feels” as if they are in charge.   Sometimes there is more than one and they clash.  We have all experienced this personality and unfortunately, there is no shortage of attorneys who prefer to bully their way through life.

The second type I will call the “perpetually lost”.  They aren’t sure why they show up for work.  They just don’t seem to get it.  They have never launched into adulthood.  You are constantly following behind them to make sure they a) show up for work and b) are really giving a matter the attention it deserves.

Finally, you got the negative nellies who, no matter what happens, always put a negative spin on things.  They may state that no one likes them, everyone is out to get them and they are paralyzed to help themselves.  Sadly, these are often very bright people who lack self confidence to obtain clients on their own.

You take these three attorney types away and you are left with people who want to work, enjoy their client relationships and believe firms exist for the betterment of all members not just a select few. A few people with this personality type exist, but we are always maneuvering around the other personality types in order to have a practice and enjoy our lives.

Wouldn’t it be great to be around a group of attorneys who are hard working, dedicated and positive about the prospect of building a business together.  I purposefully try to seek these people out.  I enjoy my relationships with this personality type both in my firm and elsewhere.  Sadly, however, this type doesn’t seem as prevalent as the three described above.   But, one can always hope for the future of the profession……