Focus shift: What can we learn from healthy, satisfied attorneys?

Pick up any bar journal in America and you will surely find an article on attorney wellness and well-being. The topic is, of necessity, a timely one.

In the years since the 2016 landmark study from the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation concluded that overwhelming numbers of lawyers were suffering from depression, anxiety and substance abuse, the impetus to take action has gained renewed traction. In 2017, the American Bar Association National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being released its own conclusions and recommendations stating: “to be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer.”

The reasons behind the stark number in the Hazelden study – between 21-36 percent of lawyers are problem drinkers, 28 percent suffer from depression, 19 percent anxiety and 23 percent stress – are varied, but most of lawyers can make an educated guess. The stress of daily practice, the uncertainty inherent in litigation, the 24-hour nature of modern American life, a general lack of control over one’s schedule, business pressures, difficult opposing counsel, clients in conflict with unrealistic expectations, the list goes on. The demands on the modern lawyer run the gamut, and some of these challenges always have been inherent to the practice of law.

The evidence suggests that at least part of the problem begins in law school. Far from the profession simply attracting “type A” personalities predisposed to these challenges (or so the conventional wisdom claims) the reality is that most enter law school with a psychological profile similar to the general public, yet leave with 20 to 40 percent having psychological dysfunction. Stress among law students is reported at 96 percent in some studies, compared with 70 percent for medical students and 43 percent in graduate students.

But the alarming statistics alone do not explain the challenges practicing attorneys face. Why are so many attorneys unhappy? How do we fix a problem that the ABA concluded is reaching epidemic proportions and ultimately affects the quality of legal services delivered to clients? And how can we as a profession overcome some of our own biases about these issues, a factor clearly singled out as problematic in the ABA studies?

For some, attorney wellness topics such as resilience training, development of “grit,” examination of secondary trauma issues (particularly for prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys,) awareness of addiction and mental health risk factors and warning signs, are a welcome addition to their practice toolkit. For others, the notions of “wellness” and “mindfulness” conjure up unwelcome and perhaps unwanted images of yoga sessions and suggest an absence of the “mental toughness” necessary to practice law.

This real debate is playing out in jurisdictions wrestling with certification of continuing legal education programs aimed at lawyer well-being and designed to tackle the crisis. In a profession predicated upon an understanding of the rules and regulations, we do tend to focus our efforts by studying past problems (the “case-method” in law school) and professional regulations.

However, in the area of wellness and lawyer success, I’d suggest that is a little like trying to learn how to become a winning NASCAR driver by reading speed limit statutes and auto-accident case law. Statutes and failures teach us what not to do, but they do little to teach us what to do.

Thus, just as it is important to understand the factors creating the crises and how these unhappy statistics collide with professional conduct regulations, leaders in the profession must examine the other side of the statistics to move forward and better train lawyers. What makes some attorneys successful and, if we dare say it, even happy to be a lawyer? If we understand that point along with the risks of the profession, we can begin to build a better bar and lessen the suffering too many of our colleagues live with every day.

Fortunately, there is another dimension to this harsh landscape. While the statistics are alarming, not every attorney is depressed. Not every attorney suffers from crippling anxiety. And most importantly, not every attorney is unhappy in their career and wouldn’t recommend it to someone starting out.

So, who are these satisfied lawyers and what can we learn from them?

We all likely know some, and you may even be one. Their success doesn’t come from some fad exercise routine or a special daily planner. They may practice yoga or meditation, but most probably do not. They may seek recognition, or they may quietly go about their work.

For nearly a decade, I’ve had the opportunity to work with attorneys, but largely outside of the opposing counsel mindset that marked my previous decade in private and government practice. I have worked closely with lawyers as they celebrated career achievements and milestones, contemplated financial contributions to future generations and engaged in building a better legal education system. I now have the great privilege to work with them as they volunteer their time and talent to bar activities and the regulation and improvement of the profession.

From my observation, the success of these attorneys, and perhaps the antidote to our broader challenges as a profession, come from five distinguishing factors.

First, these successful attorneys are grounded not only in their substantive knowledge of the law, but importantly in their knowledge of who they are personally and professionally. Second, they are steady in the way they approach their practice and life. Third, they are continual learners, both personally and professionally. Fourth, outside of the practice of law, they have something that gives them joy. And finally, they have a fifth practice, almost universally: They give back to their communities and to their profession.

Does that description match the satisfied and successful attorneys you know? And let me suggest the opposite: Does that description match the attorneys you know who are struggling mightily? While there are always exceptions, and certainly addiction and depression come in many disguises, I am hypothesizing it does not.

Forgetting lawyers for a moment, does that description match the successful non-attorneys you interact with? I’d venture to guess, yes. In reality, we can find these distinguishing characteristics in individuals from all walks of life who are living life in a way that most of us aspire to.

So, let’s ask a few questions. Can one successfully navigate modern law practice without knowing the fundamentals, let alone having a good personal grounding? Likely not well.

Can a lawyer be “steady” without practicing mediation? Yes, though certainly meditation might be a way of staying grounded or steady. So too might be walking, or playing bridge, or fly-fishing. But can one be steady by burning the candle at both ends, never taking care of the physical body and binging after every trial or brief filing? Science, let alone common sense, would tell us that the answer is no.

Can one be a highly peer-rated attorney without having something outside of law that gives “joy,” or without being a “continual learner?” Maybe, but I’m not sure I’ve met any. Have you?

What about giving back – do you have to “give back?” Well, you don’t have to, but some of the happiest moments I’ve experienced as an attorney were working with other lawyers to give back, whether that’s financially, or more commonly, through judging a speech meet, participating in a bar activity, or serving on a local nonprofit board.

Why do attorneys who live and work this way, who appear to embody these five characteristics, seem to be the most satisfied and successful in navigating the pressures of practice? Surely something must be at work.

One answer can be found, in part, in what science is telling us about the brain. Recent studies at the University of California, Berkley, demonstrated that chronic stress actually rewires brain circuitry potentially making an individual predisposed to more stress and placing the brain in a constant state of fight or flight. (Does that sound like any lawyers you know?)

That research lends credence to the statistics revealing that what begins with the stress of law school has manifested itself in significant mental health issues by early career for many attorneys. And the cumulative effects of stress make real biological changes leading one to be more susceptible to major depression.

The antidote is in the behaviors that counteract stress-related hormones and enhance positive neurotransmitters and feelings of well-being. That’s not “new-age” thinking, but what hard science tells us about the chemical composition of our brains and what is necessary to counteract these changes without pharmacological intervention.

Not surprisingly, being grounded, steady and a continual learner all correlate to positive health. Any number of studies have reached that conclusion, which author John Coleman succinctly noted in a 2017 Harvard Business Review column: “The reasons to continue learning are many, and the weight of the evidence would indicate that life-long learning isn’t simply an economic imperative but a social, emotional, and physical one as well.”

As I’ve said in past columns, recent studies also confirm the positive correlation between things like joy and gratitude in developing positive mental well-being. These studies show that giving and altruism stimulate the reward areas in the brain.

Thus, while the five factors described above were deduced through observation and experience, each finds support in modern neuroscience. Are these lawyers happy because they have always practiced these five factors, or are they not unhappy because these ways of living mitigate the inherent stresses of the profession?

Whether predictive or prescriptive, we know that these satisfied and successful lawyers are on the right side of the statistical ledger when we think about well-being. It seems that these five characteristics can tell us something about why that is.

Perhaps we should take a step back to study the lawyers who are successful in navigating the pressures of this profession, not just the statistics. As we move forward with this important national discussion, that may give us a better map to our own enjoyment, satisfaction and success.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of the Montana Lawyer.

5 thoughts on “Focus shift: What can we learn from healthy, satisfied attorneys?

  1. Pingback: Jumping into the “Five Factors” with both feet. – Life at the Peak*

  2. Pingback: Grounded. – Life at the Peak*

  3. Pingback: Being steady. – Life at the Peak*

  4. Pingback: Factor Three: Keep Learning. – Life at the Peak*

  5. Pingback: Change simply requires that we begin. – Life at the Peak*

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.