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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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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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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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.