Keeva on Life and Practice

Take Care of Yourself


Last month I ended my column about a great law firm’s untimely demise with an observation about lawyers in general: Although they are terrific at fighting and ne­go­­tiating on behalf of their clients, they tend to be pretty lousy when it comes to taking care of their own needs. This, I believe, is particularly true in the domain of quality-of-life issues.

I’ve been intrigued by this paradox ever since writing a profile a few years ago of Dallas criminal defense and family lawyer John McShane. One of the happiest and most balanced lawyers I’ve ever met, he gave praise to his fellow attorneys for their advocacy skills but also said this: “The problem is that we lawyers often misuse our boldness and don’t use it to claim full and rich lives for ourselves. We can be timid souls when it comes to doing it.”

Factors to Consider

Since the article was published, McShane has given talks to countless groups of lawyers, and, he says, people who have read the article show more interest in this paradox than in anything else in the piece. “It’s been incredibly consistent,” he says. “And I have never been told by anyone that I’m wrong about that.”

I can’t claim to understand exactly why this is so, but I’d like to offer a swirl of factors, issues and images that might contribute to our understanding of the problem:

• The urgency factor. At any given time, we tend to parcel out our attention to whoever or whatever we perceive needs it most. The press of clients’ needs, wheth­er tacit or explicit, rarely abates, while personal concerns don’t tend to rate very high on the urgency scale. Taking time for family and friends, for example, or simply for quiet reflection tends to be shunted, figuratively, into the “Yeah, sure, someday” file.

• The gladiator factor. The legal profession’s tacit prohibition against showing weakness can militate against even acknowledging your emotional needs, let alone taking time to, in some way, honor that part of yourself.

• Learned helplessness. Professor Susan Daicoff of the Florida Coastal School of Law, probably the foremost expert in the country on the lawyer personality, points out that law students often complain of a kind of learned help­lessness that is brought on by a handful of uncontrollable, stress-creating factors. These include time and performance pressures, lack of free time, the competitive and demanding nature of legal studies, and lack of opportunity to socialize or engage in recreation. I would add the fact that until very recently, virtually no law schools acknowledged the need for self-care. Are these difficulties limited to law school? Take a good look at the practicing bar.

• The pigeonhole factor. Just after the turn of the 20th century, Harvard law professor Thomas Reed Powell penned these memorable words: “If you think that you can think about a thing inextricably attached to something else without thinking of the thing which it is attached to, then you have a legal mind.” This ability to see things as discrete–existing apart from all that might support and contextualize them–can be dangerous. It becomes truly worrisome when the lawyer himself loses a sense of context in his own life, leaving him alone with only emotional scraps to sustain him.

• The billable hour. The dominant method of legal billing can, if you let it, subvert your ability “to claim a full and rich life for yourself,” as McShane put it. Think about it. Billing by the hour is extraordinary in the way in which it so nakedly equates money with time. It thereby offers no incentive at all to stop working. The taskmaster par excellence, it can reduce grown professionals to slavish piece workers.

• The analytical bind. Because lawyers tend to be analytical people, many seem to find their own feelings and needs somewhat foreign. Clearly, people who don’t make room in their lives for that side of themselves have little chance of claiming full and rich lives for themselves.

A few years ago, I interviewed Rob Lehman, a onetime practicing lawyer and law teacher who, when we met, was president of the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Mich. Lehman was particularly interested in ways in which people’s inner lives informed the work they do. When I asked how that might relate to the legal profession, he said, “Well, the law is the tissue of the outer life.”

I found that intriguing, so I asked him what that suggested about lawyers themselves and the lives they lead. “Well, it’s a sad thing,” he said, “but because lawyers work with the law all the time, they tend to live above the surface, alone.” In other words, even more than most busy professionals, lawyers tend to ignore their inner lives. But that is the very source of understanding of how to take care of ourselves.

Finally, I offer an image that might help redress the tilt away from self-care that law practice seems to create. In the old days, on farms in the upper Midwest, farmers used to tie a cord from the back door of their houses to their barns in winter. That way, despite the sometimes savage weather, they would never lose their way between what were essentially the poles of their existence. Lawyers need something similar, so that even as their work makes greater and greater demands on them, they can find a thread that, when followed, offers both some peace and the strength to claim what makes them happy.

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