A healing response to 'The Lawyer, the Addict'

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J. Kim Wright

J. Kim Wright

By now, most lawyers have read or heard about the recent New York Times article, “The Lawyer, the Addict.”

It is the sad story of the death of a high-powered Silicon Valley attorney, written by his ex-wife who uncovered drug abuse in the profession. Some people were shocked about drug abuse by the attorney, seemingly at the peak of his career success.

The Crisis in the Legal Profession

When I became a lawyer in 1989, there were already studies about a crisis in the legal profession. Back in 1990, a study showed lawyers had high rates of depression. The profession has high rates of suicide. Sometime in the 1990s, a state bar study found that on a weekly basis, 1 in 11 lawyers considered suicide. Research in other countries has similar results. Study after study has pointed to a crisis in the profession.

We keep talking about it, but it doesn’t seem to be getting much better.

There are a lot of theories about what is going on in the legal profession. Something is broken. Lawyers often believe they are the broken piece of the system, rather than the culture is dysfunctional, the entire legal system broken. Other lawyers think—or even say—“I’m doing fine, and if you aren’t doing fine, it is your fault.” We’re left to our own devices to find a way to fix ourselves.

Getting help is risky. We fear being seen as weak or ineffective. We don’t want our colleagues to know we are in distress. A recent Wall Street Journal article (sub. req.) reported that (finally) some law firms were beginning to allow their lawyers to seek therapy, while others still resist the idea.

Over the years, a lot of researchers have hypothesized about the causes of our distress. I have my own theories, of course. (Being a lawyer, I have theories about everything.) The research and lack of change could easily paint a picture of hopelessness and despair—more of the problem!

I am glad there are people out there who want to get to the root of the problem, but I prefer to spend my time on the solutions that have been found to work.

What can we do about it?

In 1999, I met Susan Daicoff, a law professor and a psychologist who had been studying the dysfunction in the legal profession. In her research, Daicoff saw a lot of the dysfunction that other researchers had reported, but she saw something else: Some lawyers were happier and healthier. They didn’t experience the distress of other lawyers. When she inquired further, she identified several models in what she called the Comprehensive Law Movement.

This movement takes an explicitly comprehensive, integrated, humanistic, interdisciplinary, restorative, and often therapeutic approach to law and lawyering. It is the result of a synthesis of a number of new disciplines within law and legal practice that have been rapidly gaining visibility, acceptance, and popularity in the last decade-and-a-half. These disciplines represent a number of emerging, new, or alternative forms of law practice, dispute resolution, and criminal justice. The converging main “vectors” of this movement are (1) collaborative law, (2) creative problem-solving, (3) holistic justice, (4) preventive law, (5) problem-solving courts, (6) procedural justice, (7) restorative justice, (8) therapeutic jurisprudence, and (9) transformative mediation. (From “Law as a Healing Profession: The ‘Comprehensive Law Movement’” (Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Journal, 2005).

Later Larry Krieger and Ken Sheldon’s study on lawyer happiness added more evidence to arguments that lawyers who have meaning in their lives do better than those who don’t.

The Integrative Law Movement

Susan Daicoff’s Comprehensive Law Movement has evolved over the years. In 2011, a group of leaders came together and chose a different name, the Integrative Law Movement, which included Daicoff’s vectors and several other emerging trends.

I’ve dedicated the last decade of my life to the Integrative Law Movement. Integrative law reflects the emerging trend to see law as more holistic and human and thus honors the wholeness and humanity of lawyers. I think it is the answer to many of the ills of the legal profession, the beginning of a new culture of law that is healthier for lawyers and society.

A Broader Education

Law schools do a good job of teaching us how to think like lawyers. They do not train the whole lawyer. The case method is based on precedent, looking toward the past. Today’s law students will practice in the profession of the future, and the market and clients have different demands. Several studies have shown that relational skills are important for success in law practice. Compassion, empathy, conflict resolution, and ability to work together on a team are not in the typical law school curriculum (except perhaps clinics), but they are critical to the healthy practice of law.

Integrative lawyers have the same analytical legal training and skills as other lawyers. To those, they often add many other skills and different fields of knowledge. Often, integrative lawyers have studied other disciplines—psychology, human dynamics, organizational development, neuroscience, coaching—which they incorporate into their practices.

The What-To-Do List

I can’t say that every integrative lawyer is happy and has no problems, but I do notice that as a group, they are happier than lawyers who aren’t on that path. Integrative lawyers are excited and empowered to apply their creative problem-solving skills to issues that matter to them. They are curious and willing to step out of the purely legal perspective to explore their clients’ values, wants and needs in addition to their rights.

For the lawyer who is immersed in traditional legal culture, wondering how to take control of their life and practice, it may be hard to figure out where to start. We aren’t given a to-do list about being a whole person or finding a satisfying career.

With my coaching clients, I have a six-month program which includes questions and actions like these:

    1. Reflect on why you went to law school in the first place. What difference did you want to make? How would you like to make the world a better place now? If you’re having a hard time with this question, think about what breaks your heart, what enrages you, what you really care about. The answer is somewhere in there.

    2. Who are you? What are your values? What is your passion? What is your vision for a better world? Do you have a life purpose, something you came to fulfill, that excites and empowers you?

    3. Begin to live your current life according to those values. You will probably immediately notice the places where you are not living according to your values. Law practice places a lot of demands for putting our own values aside. Our clients are also asked to forgo their values for those of the adversarial system. As you reflect on your values and how to live by them, you will probably see ways your clients can be more true to themselves. You may become a zealous advocate for what your clients really value.

    4. Actually write down your own mission, vision, values statement. Writing down makes it more official. The document may always be in rough draft as you live it and learn from it. It can serve as the foundation of your strategic plan of success.

    5. Get a community of support around you. You are not alone, even though we lawyers tend to be solitary. It is good to do the values inquiry with the help of someone who can push up against you, challenge you and discuss options. Since this sort of work is not typical of legal culture, you also need the courage that comes with belonging to a community. There are also virtual communities of support.

    6. Explore the many creative approaches and new models of law practice. One reason I write about the Integrative Law Movement is to showcase the creative models and approaches of integrative lawyers. Once that creativity is unleashed, many lawyers have their own innovative ideas. You can also learn more at my Youtube channel. I interviewed more than 100 of the trailblazers of the movement (including Daicoff and Krieger) in 2008-2010. There is an integrative approach for every practice area. I talk about some of those in this webinar: (Webinar with NC Bar Association, June 2017.)

    7. Redesign your law career or law firm based on who you are and the people you want to serve. This is not an overnight task and generally takes time to implement. If you are a solo, you have more power to do it quickly. If you are in a law firm, it may not be possible to completely make the shift, but you can take some steps. One task that I often assign is to create a rating system for new clients. Ideal clients “earn” points, and clients who don’t fit your values have negative points. As your practice shifts toward a more values-based practice, the minimum client score shifts accordingly until all clients are a fit. Enroll your staff in the redesign project. Create a collaborative law office working relationship. Express more gratitude for those who take care of the details, those who make your life and law practice work. Maybe even have a conversation about their values and how to incorporate those in the job.

    8. Be entrepreneurial. Lawyers aren’t trained as businesspeople, but we do have good problem-solving minds. Explore social entrepreneurship, conscious business, and community programs that match your values. Unleash your creative spirit. Be willing to play big enough that you will sometimes fail and embrace the adventure.

Law practice doesn’t have to be boring, and neither do you.

J. Kim Wright is the author of two American Bar Association best-sellers: Lawyers as Peacemakers, Practicing Holistic, Problem-Solving Law and Lawyers as Changemakers, The Global Integrative Law Movement. Since 2008, she has been a nomad, traveling the world, building a community of integrative lawyers. She is a coach for lawyers, a consultant to conscious companies, a catalyst, convenor, and connector for the movement.

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