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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Friday’s Weekly Gratitude Post – October 12, 2012

As I posted last week, I intend to post a list of things I am grateful for weekly. This is my first post and this week was a rocky one.  A lot of deadline pressure at the office, a broken a/c unit, preparation of my 2011 tax return, and well just way to much to do and not much time.   Doesn’t sound like there was much to be grateful for but in reality there were many things to be grateful for so here is a list:

My marriage – my husband celebrated 15 years of marriage on the 11th.  It is great to look back and think of how far we have come together and what a good friendship and marriage we have.

Volunteer activities –  I attended my first South West Ohio Mental Health Advocacy Coalition meeting.  It was my first meeting and I was the only attorney there.  It is interesting to view the issue of mental health with non attorneys it gives me perspective on the issues from a sociological perspective. And it is nice to try to find ways to bridge the divide between the legal community and the mental health community.

My partners and co-workers They help me stay balanced and are there to listen when I am having a bad days.  All lawyers need support.  One of the great things about being in a law firm is that you can find someone to commiserate with, to run something by or to share a funny story with.  Stress can be managed better with help.  It is something the legal community forgets.  We all have similar stresses and issues no one is an island.

Mental Health days – Today, I stayed home and took what I call a mental health day. The reasons were many but the core of my issue was need peace, quiet and calm to get a few things that were behind done. So, I stayed home used remote access and motored through a lot of work.  I called it a mental health day because I could spend the day with my cats, focusing on a few specific tasks and not get overwhelmed by work accumulating in my office.  I am always grateful for having a busy law practice, for having clients that depend on and value my work, but sometimes you have to change the scenery to be productive.   This means working when and where you can best focus.

Some great things to be grateful for.  A good week, a welcome celebration of my marriage and a less chaotic end to the week.  Now I am ready for a weekend of fun and relaxation.


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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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THE LAW SCHOOL MYTH: STUDYING VS. PRACTICING LAW

The formula seemed simple. You do well in undergraduate, spend three years studying the law and then graduate, pass the bar exam (or two if you are me) and then viola you are an attorney.  Sound familiar?   All attorneys I know have been there at some point.  But, quickly this stellar accomplishment falls to the wayside and you are stuck with the business of practicing law.  The preparation of law school seems suddenly useless as you figure out what your client or senior partner wants.

As we attend law school we are filled with anticipation and hope at finding ourselves as advisors and advocates for others. We are also told that if we excel at the law school game (good grades, law review and/or moot court) we will land a lucrative big firm job.  We are never told what the reality of practicing law is really all about.   As we progress through our career, we find that there is little if anything about being an attorney that is predictable.   There is no easy way to sugar coat this fact – we cannot control everything in your business, your job or life for that matter.

What does your average lawyer struggle with – control, imagining and forestalling against worst case scenarios, and attaining perfection. Some of us also struggle with being what our clients want and how to manage that expectation.  The biggest challenge of all is making money to support ourselves and in most cases our families. Has money become the primary motivator in our business has passionate advocacy and dedication to improving our profession fallen by the wayside?

As we all know, there are many ways to deal with lawyer compensation within law firms.  So, many that I will not go into great detail here.  Money at th e large firm can be great but there is a cost you pay in terms of quality of life.  On the other hand, there are lots of solo and small firm people who have to live life on a tight rope monthly and yearly.  One of the great things about being an attorney is the ability to set out a shingle and be your own boss.  Even if you are not a solo, you can still be quite entrepreneurial in your own office.  It is thrilling to get that first fee check and first client.  But there can be downsides.  Depending on the type of practice you have you may go months without steady fees.  Contingency personal injury, class action and probate fees can take months if not years to earn.  Then you have clients who you allowed to pay on a monthly basis and stiff you.  Not to mention the ones that fain outrage when they find out you bill for emails and phone calls .

So, how do you manage the instability which comes with the business of being a lawyer?  Personally, I find that my practice goes through a change every few years on its own as the needs of the credit community changes.  What used to be a stable income ,can go away when the regulatory climate changes or the economy collapses.  It is best to understand the industry you serve and to develop back up plans.  Further, never lose contact with possible client referrals.  Stay connected even if it is a Holiday Card.  People need to know where you are and what you do even if they can’t use your services right now they may be able to later.  Also, whether you realize it or not, the practice of law is all about clients.  Specifically, attorneys who seem to do the best are those with the ability to get and keep clients.  If you don’t feel comfortable with the “sales” aspect of being an attorney, then you need to accept that your earning potential will be lower, that you may never make partner and or that you will have less control as you would if you had clients of your own.

Also, law school was law school. You can’t always be the best and the brightest.   Sad but true, law school has little if anything to do with being a successful legal practitioner. Many very smart people graduate and never practice.   Or, they practice for a while and find alternative careers which better suit their needs. If you are not satisfied with the instability and frankly, drudgery, of a legal career then it may behoove you to pursue other options.  There are many things you can do with a law degree which can be rewarding and enjoyable.

Finally, just because you ranked highly in your law school , does not mean you will succeed at the business of law.  The instability and constant retooling is not for everyone, but for those who can and do want to be practitioners there are ways to stay ahead of or keep pace with the constant changes and demands.  In the alternative, we can learn to accept instability is a part of life and embrace each change as a new opportunity to grow and learn.   Personally, change is something I have learned to be grateful for.  The sooner you realize that uncertainty is a part of  the job then the quicker you can make the life adjustment you need.


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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.