By Tyrone Glover and Jake Eisenstein
Days on end in adversarial pressure cookers. Unrelenting deadlines, long hours, financial uncertainty, and no tolerance for mistakes. As lawyers, these factors have been ingrained in our collective consciousness as normal. They ultimately combine to trip our amygdala into a semi-perpetual state of fight or flight. Is it any wonder that the legal profession’s rates of substance abuse, anxiety, depression and suicide are well above national averages? Are we surprised that our profession has a wellness problem?
But there is hope! Interestingly, despite the inarguably difficult nature of lawyering, we are almost never in the kind of mortal danger that warrants an actual fight or flight response. There are no hungry lions in the jury box waiting to pounce on unwary counsel. A missed deadline, while serious, will not be punished with death. What’s more, research has shown that these types of fight or flight reactions do not actually help performance. So why do we continue to turn our cortisol knobs to spinal tap levels when it serves no real purpose but to make us miserable?
At the most basic level it comes down to deeply entrenched fear. We fear that if we are not suffering from stress and deadlines, if we are not trying to live up to an impossible standard of perfection, if we don’t punish ourselves for mistakes, or if we don’t grind for one more hour preparing for a deposition, hearing or whatever the next task demands, that we aren’t worthy. This has unfortunately, for many in our profession, become the status quo. And our egos, our sense of rationalization, the various committee members that make up our thinking brains, they all try to keep this status quo alive and well. “It’s worked so far” they whisper in our subconscious, “don’t change horses now!” But what if it didn’t have be like this?
In the past few years, with COVID-19 as a possible catalyst, more and more lawyers are waking up to the possibility that there is another way, beginning with making the conscious choice to be kind to yourself. Loosely, this is what we mean when we’re discussing wellness. Recognize your limits, take time to exercise, to be with your family, to meditate, read, play an instrument. Create space to go to therapy or take a day off and do nothing. When you make a mistake or have an unproductive day, because believe it or not, you are human, forgive yourself. When you start to be kind to yourself, like a passenger who listened to the flight attendant and put on their own mask first, you start to notice opportunities to be kind to others — even…drumroll… opposing counsel. And when that happens it creates ripples in the system that not only affect your own wellbeing but have the potential to cause a sea change in the entire profession. And all, as research has shown, without sacrificing performance.
This change in mindset will not be easy. The status quo of our expectations is firmly entrenched in our own minds and in our community. The task of shifting thinking in one of societies oldest professions is no small task. It is, however, an important undertaking and one that both individuals and institutions in the legal profession are embracing. From the highly anticipated Colorado Supreme Court’s report on lawyer wellbeing, to some law schools, law firms, and bars associations commitment to both understanding and valuing wellness, our profession is ripe for a shift in thought and behavior. At present, these evolving beliefs and attitudes are prevalent in a unique and inspiring way. People are talking openly about these issues more than they ever have. And when we as a profession open this dialogue, we will hopefully realize that we really are all in it together.
The road to wellness, like anything worth doing, will take time. There is no miracle solution. There will be successes and setbacks, but when we collectively think about our priorities given our limited and fleeting time on this planet, is being kinder to yourself really that hard of a decision? Take a lesson from Sisyphus. The boulder will still be there tomorrow.
In the now classic 1999 movie The Matrix, one of the heroes, Morpheus offers the main protagonist, Neo, a choice between a red pill and a blue pill. Take the blue pill and wake up in bed going about business as usual. Take the red pill and see how deep the new and exciting rabbit hole goes. Over the course of the next several months, the DBA will show you glimpses of that red pill. Bar leaders and Bar members will offer tips, practice pointers, and general gleaned knowledge regarding lawyer wellness and wellbeing. It is our hope that we as a profession can embrace this healthier way, all while continuing to do great work.