By Paige Marie Robinson Greene • March 07, 2018•Ms. JD, Careers, Other Career Issues, Law School, Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life, Mentoring and Networking, Features, •Guest Bloggers and Profiles of Women in the Law, Myths & Truths
THE CURRENT CLIMATE
Burnout, stress, anxiety, depression – whatever you want to call it – if you’re in the legal profession there is a chance that you’ll feel it at some point in your career. Lawyers are constantly reaching for a professional-personal life balance, and the pressure to deliver can feel enormous for even the most confident and most competent lawyers.
Unsurprisingly, burnout starts in law school. A 2014 research survey on law student well-being revealed that law students might have higher rates of anxiety and depression than other graduate students. (Jerome M. Organ et al., “Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and The Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns” Journal of Legal Education, Vol. 66 No. 1., 2016) In addition, the survey revealed that law students are drinking more heavily than twenty years ago, suggesting that students are turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms to manage stress and anxiety.
The results of this survey and similar studies have not been overlooked by the American Bar Association (the “ABA”) and other organizations. In fact, in 2017 the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, an ABA-created group, investigated the problem and produced recommendations for the legal profession based on studies of lawyers and law student and mental health, including the aforementioned survey. (National Task Force On Lawyer Well-Being, Creating a Movement to Improve Well-Being in the Legal Profession, 2017).
“Younger lawyers,” the report cites “in the first ten years of practice and those working in private firms experience the highest rates of problem drinking and depression.” (It is essential to note that burnout is, of course, not limited to lawyers in law firms. It is a ubiquitous problem throughout the legal profession.)
For women and women of color, the burnout and stress can feel even more amplified. Although more women are going to law school than ever before, women still enter a male-dominated profession where gender inequality and implicit bias are barriers to advancement and development. The isolation that many women feel due to inequality and bias in the workplace can add an additional layer to the baseline levels of stress, anxiety, and burnout that most lawyers typically face.
So how does a female lawyer or law student find a way to beat the burnout, manage a successful professional life and have a fulfilling personal life? The simple answer is that while it absolutely differs for everyone, healthy actions like setting fitness and nutrition routine and practicing self-care are helpful for beating the burnout.
SET A ROUTINE THAT WORKS FOR YOU
Law students and lawyers alike are often strapped for time and wellness practices like fitness, for example, end up on the backburner when briefs are due, and transactions have to close.
Just ask Candace Johnson, a first-year litigation associate at Carmody MacDonald P.C. in St. Louis, MO. She is a busy lawyer and a mother, so she has to be careful with her time. Working out at five in the morning, meal preparation and eating healthy are vital components of her wellness routine despite the time constraints.
“[My] workouts aren’t as long and are more intentional,” Johnson says. “Routine is key for me. I learned that if I don’t do it in the morning, I won’t.” She rationalizes her early morning workouts by telling herself that if anyone else needed her at that time – her husband, her daughter or even a partner or client – she would wake up and handle what needs to be done. So, she figures that she can apply that same level of dedication to herself.
Being intentional about making time for fitness is definitely one important way to combat burnout, anxiety, and stress. But it’s equally important for lawyers and law students not to punish themselves for failing to adhere to a perfect routine all the time.
“If you have a week where you only get to the gym once that week that’s fine,” Johnson advises. “Don’t let your inability to do it every single day stop you from doing something.”
For Jenny E. Bobbitt, a second-year corporate associate at Bingham Greenebaum Doll in Louisville, KY, her fitness habits and routines actually change depending on what is happening in her personal life and the business of her work schedule. Currently, she is pregnant with her first child.
“I reinvent my workout and my nutrition plan every 9-10 months,” Bobbitt says. “When you go through different phases of your life, your fitness habits should change because you change.”
While her fitness and nutrition routines are still important to Bobbitt during this phase of her life, she’s not stressing out about missing a workout. “My fitness habits have been wholly centered around what feels good for my changing body,” she says. “Sometimes not working out or indulging in unhealthy food has felt really good, and that is perfectly okay – pregnant or not.”
Bobbitt notes that at the end of the day, it is almost always a matter of priority and personal accountability. While a busy class or work schedule might make it more difficult to find enough personal time, it’s worth it to fit it in in a way that makes you feel good and is on your terms.
In addition to fitness and nutrition, self-care is an often elusive yet equally important component of wellness. Besides being a millennial buzz phrase, self-care is sometimes characterized as practicing habits that boost mental, emotional health and well-being. The great thing about practicing self-care is that it can really be anything that makes you feel good.
For example, solo traveling is one of third-year Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP litigation associate, Abimbola Oladokun’s favorite ways to practice self-care and wellness.
“There is so much freedom in understanding what you really enjoy without the outside forces,” Oladokun says. “I love the exposure to different people and I learn something new about myself every single time [I travel alone].” Besides being a great way to put that hard-earned paid time off to good use, Oladokun says that she enjoys the “psychological and emotional development that comes with traveling.”
Jenny Bobbitt, also an avid-traveler, says one way she practices self-care is by nurturing her close personal relationships, especially the one with her husband. Bobbitt’s husband is also a lawyer and they commute to work together. She says that during their morning commute she puts her phone away and is intentional about maximizing their time together during that small window before they start their busy workdays.
“My biggest investment is my relationship [with him] and that is the ultimate self-care, to love him and be loved by him.” She says. There is nothing that will promote you more than being loved by someone you love – whether it’s a parent, friend, child, romantic partner or maybe even your own love for yourself.”
Traveling and nurturing personal relationships aren’t always the most obvious self-care practices that come to mind. Too many people feel guilty about taking time off from work to indulge in their inner wanderlust or making time with friends or loved ones, especially if it takes away from work obligations.
But despite the guilt or the pressure she feels, Oladokun has learned to just to let it go. “You have to take control over the life you’re trying to have,” she says.
LAW SCHOOLS AND LEGAL EMPLOYERS MUST DO BETTER
The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being offered recommendations for overcoming burnout to law schools, legal employers, and other stakeholders. Well-being committees, policies promoting a work-life balance, and encouraging lawyers to engage outside of work are some of the suggestions to legal employers. As for law schools, the Task Force calls for more resources to address burnout in law schools, a showing of concern by faculty for student well-being, and professional responsibility courses with a mental health component.
Taylor Dewberry, a first-year employment associate at Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan, LLP in Raleigh, NC, echoes these sentiments.
“Schools could provide spaces for students to talk about the stress they are feeling,” Dewberry says. “I think having a more open dialogue would encourage brainstorming about coping mechanisms and students may realize others are feeling equally stressed.”
In terms of legal employers, Dewberry says that “Mentorship helps a lot [and having] programs that match young lawyers with more experienced associates or partners, who have experienced the same stress that young lawyer is experiencing. “
Along the same lines, Abimbola Oladokun believes that “a happy lawyer is a good lawyer is a profitable lawyer, and quality of work is dependent on your mind and your mindset.”
She says that legal employers “can acknowledge that the job is tough and provide resources to be happy at work.” For example, her firm has a weekly mindfulness program where lawyers are encouraged to leave their workspace and practice a proctored mindfulness exercise.
These suggestions are not even the tip of the iceberg. While it is important for individuals to take initiative for themselves, it’s just as significant for law schools and legal employers to meet their students and lawyers somewhere in the middle.
The legal profession is totally demanding, especially for young ambitious lawyers. But a few things are clear. First, it is important that legal employers and law schools take action to improve their employees’ and students’ well-being. Second, taking accountability for individual wellness can really help people beat the burnout.
Wellbeing will improve, and burnout will decrease as students and lawyers realize that mental and physical health are the keys to success. So, here’s a new call to action: Seek help when you need it. Prepare a personal wellness routine the same way you prepare for law school class or for a deposition. Be intentional about the experience that you want to have in school and in your career. Ultimately, just take care of yourself!