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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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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Defining Attorney Well-Being

What is well-being?  Is it about physical health, diet, exercise, mental health and/or spirituality?  Does the idea that we as lawyers are in the business of using our brain in the service of our clients, justice or to make a living make a difference in how we define well-being in the legal community?  Our brain is surely our greatest resource.  All attorneys should be interested in taking care of their number one resource.   So, the question is how do we best take care of ourselves?  How do we have a well brain and body which support us as we take care of the problems of others and maneuver in the legal arena?

Is health and well-being an appropriate goal for lawyers?  Or, does our profession accept that stress, depression and substance abuse are the risks we take when we make a career in the Law.   To me it seems we lose sense of ourselves and our center because of the stress and pressure.  These are real issues. Issues which, if you start to pause and observe, are so present that it is as if we are in a pressure cooker every day.  The reality is that every lawyer is prone to the effects of too much work, too much stress and too much self criticism.  How these problems manifest in our body, brain and mind is the essence of the challenges we face in being balanced humans who happen to practice law for a living?

We have all either experienced for ourselves or been exposed to co workers, friends and or opposing counsel who seems to be a little bit stressed, suffering from depression, overly emotional, sleeping too little, working longer hours without getting any more done or just sitting at a desk not focusing and trying to figure out just where to start as the work just seems to pile up above our heads.  These are inherent issues with the practice law and are treated by many as a part of the job.   I personally have experience many of stress signals.

The adversarial nature of the practice of law and the natural competitive tendencies of those of the profession only increase the pressure.  Some of the things that annoy us on a daily basis can be method to measure the stress level we have.  Pressure can come at you from different angles, finances, clients and just be in a adversarial relationship with others.

The excuse most people who practice law make is that “things have always been this way”.  People must look like, walk like and talk like the mirror image of older lawyers or they are branded difficult or eccentric.  Many attorneys find themselves in solo practice because they can’t or won’t deal with the law firm life and culture or because they feel more in control relying solely on themselves.  Even those of us who practice in a typical law firm setting can still feel isolated and alone when our suggestions for change are rejected or by the culture which allows for little individuality.

So, what is the answer?  Is there room for change in our profession?  For many, change is exciting but most lawyers are not fans of the concept.  However, when I discuss the idea of health and well-being with them they get the importance and are interested.  Combined this with the stunning statistics of the prevalence of anxiety and depression it seems like a no brainer, we should educate ourselves about the our body, brain and mind.  We must protect our most valuable assets to preserve our ability to continue to represent our clients, support our families and relate to one another in a professional matter.  It is essential to care for our most important resources because the other alternative is no alternative at all.  There are far too many people who leave the practice of law, face disciplinary issues or worse yet have substance abuse or mental health issues.  Health and Well-being is possible, but it takes commitment and vigilance by those of us who care about their fellow attorneys and by each individual attorney who wishes to protect their ability to continue their legal career.

Well-being comes from within.  No matter the information we present for benefit of others or how many self help articles or books you read you must make the decision to find your own sense of balance. Simply put, our sense of well-being is personal.  My sense of balance and my well-being is not the same as that of others.  Thus, the most important purpose of the Health and Well-being Committee is to provide information for people about health and well-being.   Simply stated the legal profession needs a base knowledge that conveys the message that a) attorneys need not suffer stress, anxiety or depression alone; b) stress/anxiety is not an unchangeable fact of life; c) you can change your reaction to your stressors and improve your mental and physical health; and d) there is life outside the law and to have one means you become a better more effective attorney.

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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.