I graduated from University at Buffalo in 2003. It seems like both forever ago and also like a blink of an eye. I’ve learned a lot over the past 13 years and I have battle scars to prove it. However, many of those scars were unnecessary and could’ve been avoided had I learned some important skills in law school.
When I say self-regulation, what I mean is the ability to manage difficult emotions and the ability to add a moment of pause before reacting. It’s the difference between immediately pounding out an in-kind, nasty, hostile email to my opposing counsel and giving myself an opportunity to cool down, clear my head then write a thoughtful response.
Lawyers are in the conflict management business and there will be many situations in your legal career where you’ll wish ill on the other person. Learning how to work with difficult emotions is critically important as a lawyer.
2. Managing Vicarious Trauma
Lawyers witness a lot of suffering. Afterall, rarely do clients come to meet with a lawyer with happy news. When I first started practicing law as an Assistant State Attorney, I was assigned to the domestic violence court. There are images that I’ll never be able to unsee, stories I’ll never be able to unhear.
Vicarious trauma is the emotional residue, or the impact you as the helper experiences by listening to the experience of trauma. It’s unfortunate that in other profession, namely therapists, social worker, and others that work in the mental health profession field gets a lot of training on this subject, but lawyers do not.
The key question is this—how do you maintain your humanity, your compassion without losing yourself in your client’s suffering? How do you not view the world as a very dark, and scary place in light of all the awful things we know can happen? How do you put up a good fight in court, but not approach your spouse or loved one as though she’s a hostile witness?
I see too many lawyers practice what I call “martyrdom law.” We think putting clients above our own well-being is what is required to be a good lawyer. This is faulty thinking. Just as the instruction repeated during every safety announcement on a flight, you must “secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” I’ve seen too many lawyers suffer from chronic stress, anxiety, depression, substance/alcohol abuse, and the most tragic of all, suicide, because they did not pay attention to their own wellness and well being.
Practicing self-care allows you to recharge your own battery, fill your own fuel tank so that you can be the best attorney possible. It does not make you selfish.
Talking About The Solution
There’s a lot of discussion about the mental health of the legal profession. We know that lawyers suffer from a much higher rate of stress/anxiety, substance/alcohol abuse, depression and suicide in comparison to the general population. This is simply unacceptable. As lawyers, we have an incredible opportunity to make a huge impact in the world and we simply cannot do our best if we’re not healthy—physically, psychologically and emotionally.
Learning how to work with difficult emotions is critically important as a lawyer.
I too suffered from many years of severe anxiety. Like many lawyers, I suffered in silence. The solution I found to be effective is a regular meditation and mindfulness practice. Thousands of research studies also suggests that mindfulness and meditation is effective for reducing stress/anxiety, impact of depression, and also increases self-regulation, focus and concentration. There’s no side effect and it takes just a few minutes per day.
I’m not going to tell you that mindfulness and meditation practice is for everyone. However, I do want to urge you to give it a try. Starting Sept. 7, my co-author, Karen Gifford and I will be partnering with National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) in offering a free 8-week mindfulness and meditation workshop. We’ll also be running a concurrent study—first of its kind to measure the impact of mindfulness and meditation practices on lawyers and others in the legal profession. We also put together a facilitation kit so you can start a wellness and mindfulness program at your law school.
It’s critical to develop healthy habits as early as possible so you can have a long, joyful and satisfying law career.