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    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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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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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.

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Time flies ….

So much for more posts on this blog.  I am dedicated to this endeavor more than ever.  In fact, I think about it every day but by the time I get home from the office I am exhausted.  I fall flat of my face on the bed and have no energy for anything.   Despite this, I am still moving the project at the CBA forward.  On March 1, 2012, the Health and Wellness Committee had its first official meeting.  There are 8 articles already planned for the CBA Report and a few more in the works.  The members of the committee are energetic and ready to contribute in any way they can.  It is a rewarding experience to be in a room with people who have the same interest in attorney well being as you do.  It is also very validating to have them echo your thoughts and set goals that are beyond what you originally hoped for.  Some of the issues we have to explore is what exactly do we want this committee to do, set a mission statement and hopefully, set up some sort of peer to peer counseling locally.

My first article (the introduction to the Committee and its work) is due tomorrow.  I have at least one new possible committee person to contact thanks to Ellen Wolf and I am excited about the direction the committee members are interested in taking the CBA.  So many people are excited and so much can happen because of this committee and its members.  Many things are coming together and making sense to me.  On the 27th I participated in a conference call with Joan Englund, an attorney in Cleveland who is one of the Mental Health task force members at the Cleveland Bar Association.  We be compared notes and discussed a state wide approach to many issues particularly as they relate to OLAP and Law students. It was nice to see what they were doing and to address some of the ways we can work together.

Two weeks ago, I spoke with Betsy, my friend Ken’s widow.  I am always humbled by her strength and love for her children.  She is such a strong person and has so much faith.  I asked her to be on the advisory committee and instead, she volunteered to write an article for the CBA.  I was so thrilled to have her contribute.  Some times as lawyers we forget the roles our families play in our lives.  Let’s face it; focusing on your family can really help us stay strong when work seems to be grinding us down.  They live with us and because of what we do they live with the practice of law.  After speaking with her I could help but think of my own life and how glad I am that I have such a supportive spouse.

So, things are progressing and there is a lot of commitment both inside and outside of the practice of law. The next few months will bring an introduction of the committee to members of the Bar Association and articles on relevant topics will appear every month in the CBA Report.  I am still humbled by the fact that that my ideas are actually being adopted.  Most of all, however, I am very grateful for the opportunity to help others and to improve my profession.