As many lawyers return to the office, we can use this disruption to create new habits that promote happiness and balance in the practice of law while handling all our clients’ needs. This article shares some thoughts about balance and some suggestions for forming new habits.
Perhaps you recognize these lyrics from the song “Surface Pressure,” from the Disney movie, Encanto, which is a profound yet utterly entertaining movie for both adults and children, in case you missed it. This song in particular captures what it can mean when the expectations we have for ourselves or that others have for us start to weigh us down.
High expectations are especially true for lawyers and the law students with whom we interact. We and they were the high achievers through grade school, high school, and college. Of course, the expectations are high because we are the ones that gained admission to law school, and law school is nothing if not an environment teeming with pressure. Law school is only the beginning as the pressure on lawyers continues to grow for them to represent their clients well and bring their matters to a successful conclusion while juggling the myriad obligations of family, household, community service, and on and on.
Of the 13,000 attorneys surveyed by the American Bar Association as part of a study it conducted, 21% qualify as problem drinkers, which is nearly double the rate for other highly educated professionals. Twenty-eight percent struggle with depression, while 19% have symptoms of anxiety. The survey found that two-thirds of women reported severe stress as compared to 49% of men; some 23% of women reported moderate or severe anxiety compared to 15% of men.
The statistics for law students are similarly grim. A survey of 3300 law students, summarized in the ABA report, disclosed that 53% of law students got drunk in the prior 30 days and 45% binge drank at least once in the prior two weeks. Seventeen percent of students reported suffering from depression, while 14% reported severe anxiety, and 23% reported mild or moderate anxiety.
The ABA study does not suggest the cause for these various results, but one has to wonder if they are not due in part to the pressure of being a lawyer or a law student.
So where does this lead us? Possibly to the obvious conclusion but one that bears repeating: we must strive to have more realistic expectations for ourselves and to model for our students the importance of not trying to do it all and have it all. I am of the strong belief that we can’t have it all, and no one should expect us to try. Much like a prix fixe menu, one can choose among the various options, but a choice here forecloses a different choice there. The fact that one opts for the prix fixe menu does not signal weakness. Rather, it means that one is much less likely to overeat to a state of discomfort.
Maybe the best we can do for our students is to encourage our students to set high goals but strive to be realistic—not everyone will grade on to law review or snag the “high A” in every course, and that’s okay. It seems we also have an obligation to continue to remind students of the importance of taking care of their own mental health and being alert to the stressors that may be affecting their peers—we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in that regard. Of course, we need to take care of our own mental health and be sensitive to students who may be struggling.
Finally, as trite as it seems, we need to encourage our students to stop and smell the roses. We ought to, and our students should be encouraged to, seek things that bring them joy or simple pleasure. It might help relieve some of the pressure we face.
Guest Post Bridget M. Fuselier
Professor of Law, Baylor University School of Law
Leading by example. We often use that phrase, but what does it mean? In my experience, we most often think if we model practices and traits we want to see in our students or young lawyers we mentor, then we can lead them to adopt those behaviors. When it comes to professionalism, civility, ethics, and hard work, most of us do a good job of leading by example. But what about when it comes to mental health?
In February 2016, The Journal of Addiction Medicine published a study conducted by Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. The study reported that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualified as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggled with some level of depression, and 19 percent demonstrated symptoms of anxiety. The study found that younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibited the highest incidence of these problems.
In a 2018 Legal Trends Report prepared by Clio, 75% of lawyers reported frequently or always working outside of regular business hours, and that 39% of lawyers say these long hours negatively affected their personal lives. Additionally, according to the Dave Nee Foundation, new law school students exhibit rates of depression around 8-9%—but after three years in law school, 40% of students are depressed.
During the past 18 months plus, we have all had a lot of time with our thoughts, both positive and negative. The isolation, anxiety, confusion, and fear has left us all mentally exhausted. It has also helped us to refocus on our own physical and mental health and the importance of self-care. As we have been gradually going back to “normal,” are we leading by example? Taking time for our mental health is just as important as our physical health. And our mental health does actually impact physical health. According to one article, “mental health plays a huge role in your general well-being. Being in a good mental state can keep you healthy and help prevent serious health conditions. A study found that positive psychological well-being can reduce the risks of heart attacks and strokes. On the other hand, poor mental health can lead to poor physical health or harmful behaviors.” Depression has been linked to diabetes, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis. Mental health conditions also contribute to sleep disorders like insomnia.
As leaders, we have to model good habits of self-care and prioritizing mental health. If we are open to talking about mental health, it will open up a dialogue for those who look to us as examples. I have found that when I open up about my own challenges, others feel more comfortable about taking care of themselves and seeking the care they need. However, if you are not comfortable sharing your own experiences, there are still ways to meaningfully connect and engage. Here are some examples that I have used and received positive feedback from students:
- Sharing relevant articles regarding mental health can provide information to students and open the door for conversation. The ABA often has great articles like the one found at this link, https://www.lawpracticetoday.org/article/managing-depression/, that can be used as a resource.
- On Mondays, start class with a “Motivation Monday” power point slide. I find a funny meme or inspirational quote to get the week started. It is a fun way to not only show a human side but to maybe brighten someone’s day that isn’t going so well.
- At final exam time, share prayers, scriptures, inspirational quotes, or words of encouragement to let students know they are not alone, and we understand the stress.
- Communicate with students that you are a safe person to turn to if they need to talk about mental health challenges and get help finding resources.
If we want to be good leaders today, and cultivate good leaders for tomorrow, let’s prioritize mental health and end the stigma.
– Bridget Fuselier