Looking Ahead to 2021

10 New Year's resolutions lawyers can make for resilience in 2021

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James Gray Robinson.

Many people are grateful that 2020 is coming to an end. Between the social disruptions, political disruptions, business chaos and all the changes happening in our lives, people are thinking more in terms of survival than life improvement.

Now is the time when people usually think about changes they can make to improve their lives—otherwise known as New Year’s resolutions—but with the uncertainly facing us in 2021, many people are just trying to make it day by day.

Lawyers are facing changes in their law practice, which probably looks far different now than it did a year ago. We have changed over to a virtual world, which may or may not be permanent. With so much uncertainly, New Year’s resolutions are probably the last thing we are thinking about.

Rather than list changes we can make to our business approach, food intake or exercise routine—often the top three categories for New Year’s resolutions—here is a list of 10 resolutions that can dramatically increase your resilience, lower your stress and anxiety, and catapult you into 2021.

Resilience is the ability to remember the big picture while being seemingly overwhelmed by irritations. As my mother used to say, “When you are up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.” When we are stressed or depressed, it takes resilience to remember why we chose the practice of law. Another word I like to use is “grit.” It takes “true grit” to rise above the challenges of practicing law and thrive.

You can choose one or all of these 10 resolutions; it depends on how much you want to change your life.

1. Plan your week

Many lawyers have calendars that scarcely leave enough time to even go to the bathroom. Sometimes we unconsciously surround ourselves with chaos because it makes us feel like we are important and busy. It only adds stress and anxiety to our day.

We have to prioritize our time and decide where to allocate our resources. We have to learn how to do our work efficiently without sacrificing our life in the process. When we know what we need to accomplish during the week, this will allow you to see where you may not be efficient. It is not all about billable hours.

It is also important to plan time for family and well-being. As the saying goes, “The law is a jealous mistress.” We have to hardwire work-life balance into our schedules if we want to build resilience. We have to decide what is a healthy work-life balance and prioritize the “life” part of the equation. If you are not doing that now, this will be the most important resolution for 2021.

2. Identify three issues in your life you would like to resolve

Prioritize them and start with the easiest to deal with. It may be a misunderstanding with a colleague, a problem with your health, or something that is missing in your life. Remember that all you have to do is take baby steps. You don’t have to come up with a solution right away. Having a goal to release the stress of personal and professional issues is the first step toward resilience.

3. Reconnect

We are hardwired to crave personal relationships. We suffer when we isolate ourselves, either because we are stressed, addicted or because of social restrictions (many imposed by COVID-19). Studies of inmates put into solitary confinement show how unhealthy isolation is. Reconnecting with old friends is a good way to avoid isolating. Commit to call one person a week, or whatever is comfortable for you. You will probably be surprised how much this will be help.

4. Team building

Join or form a group of colleagues (inside or outside your firm) to talk about issues of the day. I call this a “team.” You will be giving yourself the gift of support. Some of us have a misconception that we have to do everything alone because our work is confidential. Building relationships with other lawyers can be hugely beneficial. If you have questions about confidentiality, ask.

5. Take five-minute breaks

Taking five minutes every few hours to calm down and center is a great way to relieve stress and increase resilience. Just looking (or going) outside for five minutes, focusing on the view and taking your mind off of your work can allow your mind to reset and calm down. If you are in meetings all day, do it between meetings. If you are in court, do it during recess.

6. Breathe

Many of us are not breathing properly. We breathe too shallowly, which decreases oxygen flow to our frontal cortex. This can activate our limpid brain, known as fight, flight or freeze. When we breathe deeply and inhale maximum amounts of oxygen, we can reduce stress and employ our rational minds.

Check frequently (five-minute breaks) that you are inhaling to a count of four, holding to a count of four, exhaling to a count of six, holding to a count of four. This is a variation of the technique known as “Box Breathing” or “Square Breathing” Not only will this create resilience, it will activate your vagus nerve and your parasympathetic system, which has a lot of great health benefits, including reducing stress and anxiety.

7. Find inspirational quotes or funny jokes

Resilience often requires inspiration. Make the last thing you do during your day researching inspirational quotes or jokes for the following day. Being inspired and smiling are contagious. Walking around smiling about a joke you found is highly beneficial. Smiling is a healthy habit which increases the amount of dopamine in your brain (with happy benefits).

8. Focus on a happy thought or mantra

We can only focus on one thought at a time, even if we have thousands of thoughts a day. Focusing on a happy, affirmative thought helps relieve stress and anxiety. “I’ve got this!”, “I am enough!” or “I love my work” can get you through the stressful times. Resilience takes effort, discipline and repetition. We are our thoughts. Make them good ones.

9. Get a blood test

A lot of us would rather suffer in silence than take a proactive approach and find out if we have any medical issues. Sometimes, there is a medical reason we feel exhausted, stress and depressed. Long-term stress places huge burdens on our body, and it can cause hormonal and chemical imbalances. Getting a blood test regularly to check hormones, cholesterol and other important markers can not only alert us to potential problems, but it can also detect current medical issues.

10. Get help

Unfortunately, lawyers are statistically at higher risk of stress and burnout than other professions. COVID-19 has not made this any easier. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that symptoms of PTSD has significantly increased during 2020. The added layer of trauma experienced in 2020 due to isolation, business failures, media reports and increased crime is being felt everywhere.

If you are having trouble sleeping, feeling depressed or exhausted, get help. You can call your local Lawyer’s Assistance Programs to get advice on how to cope, increase your resilience and start having more success.

I am very excited about 2021. Change is good. With increased resilience, we can reduce the impact of the emotional roller-coaster many people are on and open ourselves to opportunities. With new thoughts, a new attitude and positive thoughts and actions we can build a better tomorrow.

I am reminded that only 8% of New Year’s resolutions are kept, but I know that if you keep on doing what you are doing, you will keep getting what you are getting. Implement some or all of these New Year’s resolutions and you will have a Happy New Year!

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “8 tips for lawyers on how to build resilience”


James Gray Robinson was a third-generation trial attorney specializing in family law for 27 years in his native North Carolina. Burned out and emotionally spent practicing law, he quit in 2004 and spent the next 16 years doing extensive research and innovative training to help others facing burnout and personal crises to heal. In 2017, at age 64, using the tools and strategies he learned, Robinson passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at lawyerlifeline.net or email him at [email protected]


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