Lawyers weigh in: How to prevent stress, substance abuse and depression in the profession
Dina Roth Port
Recently I wrote the Your Voice column "Lawyers weigh in: Why is there a depression epidemic in the profession?" Even though I’ve learned a lot about this topic through my job at Rocket Matter, I was still shocked by the responses and by how attorneys view their own industry.
However, what inspired me is the hope that many lawyers offer in the face of this epidemic. Some brave lawyers are starting to talk about mental health so that they and their colleagues can get some much needed help. For each attorney who joins the conversation, the stigma around mental health issues continues to erode. Also, countless organizations are taking steps to help prevent or at least mitigate depression, substance abuse and stress among lawyers.
In other words, the tide seems to finally be turning.
Here, lawyers share their insights on how they themselves ward off these serious issues and on what else they think needs to be done:
“I think the relief comes in the form of boundaries and asserting hard stops. When I get home and it’s 7 p.m., I’m no longer going to check my messages. When I’m on vacation, I’ll set a protocol with my office that my colleagues should not call, email or text me unless it is an emergency. Importantly, your office will need to enforce that protocol. With effective pressure relief valves, it will be easier to keep perspective … and hope.”
“A family-friendly firm culture could help. For example, some firms allow lawyers to work remotely. Others don’t require lawyers to work on the weekends and/or permit lawyers to work reasonable hours (such as 8 a.m. to 6 pm). These accommodations can go a long way in breaking up the monotony that is sometimes associated with the practice of law— wake up, go to work, come home late, eat alone, go to bed, repeat.”
“Lawyers, especially young lawyers, need to keep in mind that they won’t be any use to their clients if they burn themselves out, and that it’s OK to take breaks or turn down new files.”
“One way to help reduce this problem is to start during the law school application process. Many aspiring lawyers have a misconception of what their life will be like as derived from television and other popular culture stereotypes. The law schools don’t do much to discourage this line of thinking. However, in reality, by the time they graduate law school, law students have a pile of debt and little choice but to strive to make as much money as possible just to get by. They are disappointed by the huge disconnect between what they expected the practice of law would be like and what it actually is. If we gave law students a more realistic picture of what to expect before they were admitted, perhaps with some early screenings and demonstration of the practical reality of practicing law, it might help reduce the problem and steer those away from the practice of law who would be most fulfilled in a different career path.”
“I’m a practicing litigation attorney and a former enlisted Marine. From my combat experience, I’ve learned how to prevent anxiety as a lawyer. For instance, I’ve learned to make sure to separate life from work as much as possible, which I have to admit is hard at times. Also, in veteran circles, one of the ways we try to prevent stress and anxiety is by having close relationships with each other. We check in on one another and let others know we have their backs. Talking about things with someone—either professionally or just over coffee—goes a long way.”
“Don’t jump into or settle for a practice area if you think the anxiety or stress is going to be more than you can handle. Also, go with your gut: You will know when you have had too much. As the saying goes, ‘If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one.’ You’ve got to do that before it’s too late.”
“Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, yoga, creative activities, and even simple breathing techniques interrupt the patterns often leading to depression and allow stressed attorneys to stop, step back, and return to center. Mindfulness has changed my law practice, my physical health and my mental health.”
“To the American Bar Association and other organizations’ credit, there are hotlines, materials, and even personal counselors available to help remedy these issues. There also appears to be a trend now for attorneys facing these issues to take ownership of them. It’s important to remember that clients chose attorneys based on their qualities and attributes, and, at the end of the day, a client would always rather have a healthy attorney.”
“The only way to combat these negative impacts is to be aware of them and then to try to reduce their causes. This proactive mentality is especially important for anyone who has a history of depression or who is beginning to experience symptoms. Helpful strategies might include deciding to stop working whenever you have already accomplished plenty for the day so that you can exercise or enjoy time with family and friends; trying to resolve cases presuit or during a mediation (and trying to use conciliatory strategies whenever possible); consciously accepting fewer cases; taking more frequent vacations, and accepting less than perfect on any projects that really aren’t that important. Also, stop working at a reasonable time every night—I actually lock myself out of my computer when I’ve had enough using an app called Cold Turkey.”
“State bar associations need significant reform in dealing with depression or mental illness. Lawyers, like all people, should be able to seek treatment for substance abuse, depression, or mental illness without being afraid that they will lose their livelihood over it. Most state bar associations regulate the legal profession by being granted the authority from their state supreme courts. This means it is not enough for state bar associations to change their rules. They also have to convince their state supreme courts to do so as well. The alternative is to have legislation that can provide safeguards for lawyers who seek help—they should not be required to self-report it to their state bar. I believe that would help encourage lawyers to seek help and mitigate a lot of these issues.”
“As attorneys, we are our own worst enemies. We are used to being high achievers in school, and then we work in a field measured by how much we continue to achieve. We put so much pressure on ourselves that we forget to give ourselves a break. Our lives would be better if we could accept that we are human and that all humans make mistakes. Those mistakes don’t define us. It’s OK to be human.”
“It is important for all practicing attorneys to have co-counsels or lawyers they trust who can cover court hearings in the event of illness, family emergency or scheduling conflict. In other words, have a sufficient support structure, not just at home but also at work.”
“There’s a moral gray area that lawyers often wander into: We all have personal beliefs, but those personal beliefs are sometimes called into question when we act with a civic duty to our clients. The only surefire method to deal with such issues is to develop a clear line between personal ethics and morals and the duties of the job. It requires a hardened conscience and a lot of mental training, which a therapist or psychologist might help with. Forgiveness of the self and separation of your career as a lawyer and humanity as an individual are the only ways to handle jobs that are so polarizing and challenging.”
“My view is that there is no magic solution for ameliorating the problems because risk comes with the territory. That said, good systems help. That means make sure you have checklists that you use for routine tasks so you are sure that they are done right. It also means coming up with a good calendaring system and sticking to it. Finally, it means auditing your files periodically to resolve problems before they get out of hand. The other thing that helps is to realize you are not alone: anyone in practice is dealing with these issues in some form. Then take time for yourself and reflect on why you are a lawyer, be it for the paycheck, the interesting cases, or whatever other reason you go to work every day. Try to mold your work to give you as much of what you want with as little risk as possible. Finally, remember that risk exists in everything we do. As long as you know you aren’t alone, and that risk can be managed but never tamed, you can start to enjoy your way through what can be a tough profession.”
“The legal profession has to acknowledge there is a problem, and leaders in the profession need to start emphasizing lawyer well-being and actively work to reduce the stigma surrounding these issues. Until that happens, the toxicity in the profession will continue to march on, and a lot of lawyers will continue to suffer in silence.”
“Taking a few minutes several times a day to take deep, rhythmic breaths will produce calm and clarity when things are chaotic. When we are dealing with fear, we tend to take shorter, more shallow breaths which reduces the amount of oxygen going to the frontal cortex. We go into panic mode often called ‘fight or flight syndrome.’ Deep breathing will keep us calm.”
Dina Roth Port is director of content at Rocket Matter, a leading cloud-based legal practice management software company. She is also an award-winning book author and freelance writer.
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