So many of us have heard the buzz words “mindfulness” and “sustainability” lately. My local organic produce market leaps to mind. The mindfulness buzzards have been circling the corporate world for a few years and are now settling on law firms as well. Mindfulness has become one of the legal world’s new “shoulds.” We haven’t all embraced it, but we know we should. And in a perfect world, we would.*
Less often do we consider law practice paired with sustainability. Perhaps we should be mindful about the sustainability of our vaunted profession as well.
To lead a mindful, sustainable life, we all know the basics:
- meditation and aerobic exercise in the wee hours of the morning;
- nutritiously balanced, family-centered morning and evening meals;
- efficient drafting at our standing desks;
- focused client and team meetings;
- hourly breaks for 1 to 5 minutes each;
- supportive communication with administrative staff;
- thoughtful mentoring for associates;
- regular network-building activities in the evenings;
- article and presentation writing or continuing legal education in our spare evening or weekend hours;
- a weekly date night with our significant other, and so on.
In each moment, mindfulness requires singular engagement in the task at hand. How many attorneys do you know whose lives actually look like this?
REAL LIFE AS A LAWYER.
Lawyers live a multitasking marathoner’s life with nearly no down time. An attorney’s profession, by its nature, is already tough. I used to tell one client, “I’m paid to worry for you.” We act as bulldogs, constantly patrolling in defense of our clients’ property and interests.
As a July article in The New York Times highlights, the practice of law is on a crash-course with attorneys’ individual humanity. Few people are naturally as perfect or as driven as the practice of law at big firms currently requires.
This is where the need for sustainability enters. How can we inject more sustainability and presence into our lives? We wear myriad hats, each of which requires us to maintain a unique set of balls rotating in the air. For this reason, lawyers desperately need support networks, champions and trusting relationships. Due to the billing demands and organizational structures at most law firms, we do not all have those there.
What can we each do to change this situation? It won’t take much effort if all of us flex a little. Yes, I said “all.”
In my experience, law firms often rely on each attorney’s innate competitive drive and their workaholic perfectionism to propel results. By increasing billable hours requirements and expanding business development responsibilities to associates as well as partners, many law firms push attorneys to work longer hours for increasingly less compensation. Business development pressures at these firms often drive attorneys to horde work or clients from their law firm colleagues. The “eat-what-you-kill” mentality disincentivizes teamwork, resulting in firms filled with mavericks and mini-partnerships competing viciously for a larger slice of the communal catch. This intense competition also invites intra-firm distrust.
Each of us attorneys has necessarily become our own miniature business development department. Law firms compete against other law firms for clients as well as against businesses like Axiom Legal, that enable companies to hire legal services for less. The sheer number of attorneys worldwide has also contributed to this dilemma. Attracting clients and building a law business is equally, if not more, important than writing flawless briefs and presenting unimpeachable legal arguments with up-to-the-minute information. This heightened competition within and without law firms can create crushing pressures on all attorneys.
Due to technology and the aforementioned factors, we no longer live in a world that tolerates slow, contemplative legal practices. Most attorneys at large firms bill over two thousand hours annually and many partners and senior associates spend at least half as many hours on business development activities. We speak and publish and lead charity boards and edit legal publications and rub elbows with community leaders at society events and pitch our services to as many of those contacts as we can.
Attorneys sell their knowledge. Their ability to innovate by building strategic approaches to legal hurdles defines their value in the marketplace. This critical competency must be maintained while the current state of the law in every specialty constantly evolves. On top of our billable and business-development hours, we must invest additional time (and often our own money) in continuing legal education to remain on the cutting edge of changes in the law. We also must keep abreast of news events.
Globalization has made litigation available to all and attorney services necessary to most. Since everyone can sue anyone, including their attorney, any error, however minuscule, exposes an attorney to career-ending malpractice lawsuits and/or lost clients.
Lawyers are only too aware of our own humanity. To prevent these errors, we spend even longer hours agonizing over one word or two, researching legal principles into the wee hours of the night and engaging in intense debates with colleagues over the manner in which we present what the rest of the world would deem minutia—all because we know that it’s relevant and could be used against our client or against us by our client.
This is a crushing load to bear when we add in time for family and basic health maintenance activities. As a mother of young children, I have often wondered when I will have time to sleep within a 24-hour cycle!
Lawyers pay steep prices for their career choice. Lawyers are fabulous self-managers who thrive on their ability to control situations. These multifaceted career demands—the work itself, business development and continuing education—in addition to the modern demand for immediate, flawless answers at Walmart prices, leave little time for relationships. The dark side of success reveals itself in the unusually high substance abuse, mental illness, suicide, divorce and early death statistics for attorneys, which often result in or arise out of broken relationships with others and ourselves.
The same brain chemical that facilitates our professional success is also the one that is fueled by substance abuse. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter created in the body from protein sources. It regulates various bodily functions and acts on different areas of the brain in different ways. We experience euphoria when dopamine is released. Activities that trigger dopamine release are activities that bring us pleasure or that result in a reward at the end. For example, attorneys receive a dopamine boost from high achievement in law school and from courtroom victories. The pleasure we experience due to a dopamine reinforces our desire to repeat the behavior that caused the euphoria, promoting high achievement in school and in professional realms. However, “[c]ocaine, nicotine, alcohol and gambling all [trigger our bodies to, in copious amounts,] release dopamine. … When dopamine is the primary driver, we may achieve a lot but we will feel lonely and unfulfilled no matter how rich or powerful we get. We live lives of quick hits in search of the next rush.” Drug-stimulated dopamine release is significantly greater than the release people naturally receive from their daily achievements. Over time, only more drugs can give the drug user a dopamine boost.
According to the American Bar Association’s Alcohol Abuse and Dependence web page, nearly one in five attorneys is a problem drinker, which is twice the national rate for alcohol addiction in the general population. A 1990 study found that the rate of depression for attorneys is 3.6 times that of non-lawyers in the United States. When measured by occupation, lawyers have the fifth highest rates of suicide and commit suicide sixty percent more often than other members of the general public. Mental illness and substance abuse are frequently factors in suicide according to data published by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lawyer divorce rates also reflect this unhappy state, as they also rank higher than those of the average U.S. population.
A 2016 survey of 12,825 licensed, employed attorneys throughout the United States determined that 20.6% of the attorneys had an abusive relationship with alcohol and significant numbers of the surveyed attorneys also suffered from depression (28%), anxiety (19%) and stress (23%). Attorneys employed at private firms, and especially associates, tended to have the highest rates of alcohol consumption. Partners and other attorneys later in their careers tended to have lower rates of alcohol abuse. Study participants reported fear of others discovering their substance dependency issues as well as their desire for confidentiality and privacy as barriers to obtaining treatment. As Eilene Zimmerman highlights in her poignant article on her ex-husband, a high-profile Silicone Valley attorney who died of a drug overdose in 2015, this study relied on anonymous, self-reported data from attorneys. Actual alcohol and drug abuse statistics among attorneys is very likely much higher. Eilene Zimmerman’s interviews with people involved in attorney substance abuse recovery programs supported this conclusion. “‘Alcohol is legal,’ Mr. Krill said, not to mention socially acceptable. ‘So admitting you drink too much is not directly at odds with your role as a licensed attorney.’ Illicit drug use, however, is illegal. ‘I think the incidence of drug use and abuse is significantly underreported.’”
A 2012 article by the Butler Center for Research reported that studies have shown that the longer an attorney remains in the profession, the greater his or her chances of becoming a problem drinker, with 25% of attorneys in the profession for longer than 20 years suffering from alcoholism. These results are contrasted with the 2016 study above, but are worth consideration since the 2016 study was based upon self-reporting by members of various state bar associations. The 2012 study also found that attorneys with substance abuse problems are more likely than members of other professions to have an additional psychological disorder and three times as likely to struggle with depression. Lawyers who abuse substances also commit and are prosecuted for malpractice more frequently.
As lifetime high-achievers, lawyers have also achieved higher rates of alcoholism and other substance abuse rates, divorce rates, early death rates and mental illness rates than other professions. That’s not an A+ that any of us want!
Every layer of the lawyer’s professional world has an unsafe quality. This sentiment is especially vivid where attorneys do not have supportive, trusting relationships at work. In trauma theory, “psychic trauma occurs when a sudden, unexpected, overwhelming intense emotional blow or a series of blows assaults the person from outside,” and the person’s “internal and external resources are inadequate to cope with the external threat.” Furthermore, a “traumatic experience impacts the whole person – the way we think, the way we learn, the way we remember things, the way we feel about ourselves, the way we feel about other people, and the way we make sense of the world are all profoundly altered by the traumatic experience.” Firms and corporations that promote mavericks intensify this feeling, leaving many attorneys in a constant state of fight or flight. When people are exposed to a constant barrage of danger, they become “unusually sensitive” to this stimuli, “so that even minor threats can trigger off this sequence of physical, emotional and cognitive responses.” Therefore, it’s no wonder that so many attorneys seek to escape this intense pressure through substance abuse.
Let’s reverse these trends. For decades, research has told us that when stressed, people “cannot think clearly, we cannot consider the long-range consequences of our behavior, we cannot weigh all of the possible options before making a decision, we cannot take the time to obtain all the necessary information that goes into making good decisions. Our decisions tend to be based on impulse and are based on an experienced need to self-protect. As a consequence, these decisions are inflexible, oversimplified, directed toward action, and are often very poorly constructed.” As lawyers are paid for sound judgment, it is mandatory for us to manage our stress constructively.
We can counteract the constant stress experienced by many attorneys by creating safe, empowering environments where attorneys build trusting relationships with their colleagues. Historically, law was a contemplative profession. Lawyers studied books and wrote eloquent, persuasive prose. Every town or region had an attorney to whom people brought myriad issues for the attorney to ponder and research before presenting a thoughtful response. Law was an honorable, but not necessarily profitable profession. Clients paid for legal services however and whenever they could.
Practicing law now is so unhealthy that the United States has an entire industry focused on helping attorneys transition to alternate careers. No other profession has such an industry. What more will it take before we make real changes in our vaunted profession?
So many members of our beloved, honorable profession are falling apart. The addiction statistics are so high in our beloved, honorable profession that chances are that we each know at least one attorney afflicted by these issues. We cannot continue to operate at this frenzied pace. It is up to all of us who love our vocation to rebuild this profession into a sustainable one. Lawyers, our staff and our clients would all benefit if lawyers made more time to catch our breath, think, learn and nurture our relationships and our physical, mental and emotional health.
CHANGES AT THE ORGANIZATIONAL-LEVEL
No one would deny that lawyers have grit. We’re as tough as they come. But grit can backfire. At a certain point, an excess of grit makes us unable to empathize with others, to the detriment of our relationships. Relationships are key to success in organizations. Lawyers need to temper our grit and talk to our coworkers about their real lives. Who are they when they aren’t at work? Who and what inspires them?
Studies indicate that self-compassion promotes psychological well-being. Self-compassion requires us to acknowledge our own humanity. Ironically, silencing our judgment and embracing our vulnerable selves when we err leads to another type of mental toughness—one that will allow us to thrive as we ride out the demands of our crazy jobs.
A 2015 study of Japanese workers confirmed that regular meditation has a significant positive impact on workforce performance, engagement and satisfaction. Likewise, this study confirmed that when employees engaged in physical activity at work and in their leisure time, their performance and engagement improved. Other studies have also shown that mindfulness practices, whether through meditation or other methods, strengthens our anterior cingulate cortex, which controls our ability to self-regulate. A Harvard Study showed that mindfulness meditation builds the hippocampus as well, improving our introspection, self-awareness and compassion.
Law practice requires constant mental and emotional agility. People who are more in control of their emotions, respond better to positive feedback and approach challenges with heightened resilience. Promoting thoughtfulness by incorporating naps, meditation and aerobic exercise into our employees’ work days would greatly benefit our law practices.
How can we build an office environment from which we do not feel the need to escape daily? You do not need to operate from a traditional leadership position to effect change within your law firm. Leaders can lead from any seat by connecting with and empowering those around them. Help your organization build collaborative, respectful, cohesive tribes. When this behavior proliferates, we all benefit.
In his 2016 book Leaders Eat Last—Why Some Teams Pull Together And Others Don’t, Simon Sinek explores the mechanics of “high-performing organizations, the ones in which the people feel safe when they come to work.” He explains that “if certain conditions are met” that allow the people in an organization to “feel safe among each other, they will work together to achieve things none of them could have ever achieved alone. The result is that their organization towers over their competitors.”
Sinek calls a trusting, committed and supportive culture a “Circle of Safety”. This name derives from Aesop’s fable about the lion and four oxen, in which the oxen form a circle with their heads inside and tails outside to protect themselves from the lion. The lion finally eats them all when the oxen have a fight and fail to form their protective circle when approached by the lion. “By creating a Circle of Safety around the people in the organization, leadership reduces the threats people feel inside the group, which frees them up to focus more time and energy to protect the organization from the constant dangers outside and seize the big opportunities. Without a Circle of Safety, people are forced to spend too much time and energy protecting themselves from each other.” Social bonds were critical to our ancestors’ survival. The United States military excels at creating strong Circles of Safety because unity is likewise critical in military situations. We word warriors would be wise to follow their lead.
We must embrace our own humanity by making systemic changes that lead to a sustainable profession. Attorneys can build sustainability into our careers by removing our professional masks in the office, revealing our vulnerability and forging true Circles of Safety within our organizations. When we trust our team members, we can rely on others to contribute their best skills.
If one or two members of the team excel at business development and a few others excel at practicing law, why not let the rainmakers devote themselves to making more rain, and allow the more traditional attorneys devote themselves to practicing law full time. This reallocation of resources frees up everyone to spend more time doing what they’re best at, thereby making them more efficient and effective. With this increased time in their work days, they can squeeze in more time for legal education, mentoring younger attorneys, and strengthening their family and other relationships outside of work. With stronger relationships inside and outside their law practices, attorneys may find enough satisfaction in their jobs that they crave the dopamine rush from alcohol and other substances less.
Substance abuse treatment centers for CEOs and other high-functioning addicts have known for years about the need to build trust and embrace people as they are. Treatment centers focus on “‘building trust [with patients] at the outset, by listening to the individual in ways that he might not expect,’” and “‘a medley of psychological and behavioral approaches. medication when needed, and mind-body methods are more effective.’”
Oxytocin is hormone and neurotransmitter associated with love and trust. Recent research has revealed that oxytocin might be employed to treat substance abuse as well. We activate this chemical by engaging in positive interactions with others.
When law firms care for their employees as if they were family, they begin to combat the disease poisoning our profession. A law firm leader’s responsibility to her tribe is like that of a parent with a child. Parents make constant sacrifices in service of their children’s interests and well-being. This level of devotion breeds loyalty. Effective leaders lead by example. They do not shy away from revealing their vulnerabilities to and empathizing with their team members. Sinek reminds us that “[e]mpathy is not something we offer to our customers or our employees from nine to five. Empathy is … ‘a second by second, minute by minute service that we owe to everyone if we want to call ourselves a leader.” When leaders behave in these ways, their employees and colleagues feel safe and begin taking off their professional masks and learning to be vulnerable with team members, further expanding and strengthening their teams.
Relationships built on trust develop organically. Firms with a shared mission driven by an inspirational vision that is not merely monetary gain or global domination, but a super-sized challenge decimate their competition while providing their employees with a healthy raison d’être—think Apple, or Microsoft in the 1980s. Leaders in these organizations facilitate support for this shared purpose by connecting in person with as many members of the organization as many as possible up to 150 people. Through his research, Robin Dunbar determined that humans cannot maintain more than 150 close relationships. Some businesses even organize their offices around Dunbar’s number.
Until law firms learn to circle the wagons internally, their employee attrition will continue. Organizational science tells us that successful organizations cultivate mutual respect, cooperation and collaboration among employees at all levels of the organization. This advice applies to all organizations that desire enhanced employee loyalty and organizational effectiveness.
Lawyers are smart, dedicated, determined individuals. If we resolve to change our lives, we will. There is such a desperate urgency for us to change our law firm cultures because our own lives are not the only ones impacted by these changes.
The ripple effect of our daily choices multiplies exponentially at home and in the office. Be present to your impact on your world. Mindfulness matters. I invite you to talk to the loved ones of an attorney who committed suicide, especially one who died of an overdose, or of a substance abuser, or the small children of divorced parents. You have the ability to buoy your life and the lives of countless others by making time to check in with others and for daily mindfulness practices and exercise.
It’s up to us to turn our office cultures into models of cultural perfection, ones that embrace honesty, teamwork, mindfulness, exercise and real, support; offices where staff, paralegals and attorneys have a shared mission, supported by respect and collaboration. Only with these changes will our profession become more sustainable.
Whether you are an associate or a partner, your organization needs you to step up and speak up for true collaboration. Build your circles of safety. You need them more than most professionals. Luckily, you have the brains and drive to do this well, too.
You might be surprised at how rapidly your office culture shifts when you resolve to greet every employee with a smile every day, regardless of the train wreck your morning shaped up to be, or leave the office at 5:00 p.m. twice weekly and refuse to power up your laptop or check your email until 7:00 a.m. the next day. If you dare to take the evening off, go for a run or spend your free time with people who you genuinely enjoy. Let them know how much you appreciate them by giving them your undivided, device-free attention.
The more time we invest in our professional and personal relationships, the stronger our support networks become, increasing our effectiveness and making our professional lives more sustainable.
By Allison Post Harris, co-active coach and attorney.
*Footnoted version containing citations is available upon request.