Offering practical mindfulness instruction, tips, and resources to help take your legal mind from burdened to brilliant.
Author Archives: Claire E. Parsons
Claire E. Parsons is a Member at Wood + Lamping LLP in Cincinnati, Ohio. She has practiced for the last twelve years in the areas of litigation, employment, school law, special education, and municipal law. Claire lives in Union, Kentucky with her husband, Brian, their two daughters, and two dogs.
Claire is an active leader in her community and in the legal profession. She has led innovative charitable programs in her community, statewide legal organizations, committees relating to the promotion of women professionals. Claire is also a frequent writer and speaker for these and other organizations. She has published and spoken about numerous topics, ranging from complex legal issues, to law practice, networking and marketing, as well as mindfulness and wellness for lawyers and other professionals. She writes regularly on LinkedIn and even co-authored a book this year with 19 other women lawyers about how they used the platform to network and pursue career goals during the pandemic.
In 2013, Claire began a mindfulness practice early in her law career and as she was learning to be a new mom to her eldest daughter, Sophie. When Claire began the practice, she saw it gradually transform her life for the better by helping her to reduce overthinking, manage stress, and infuse compassion practices into her daily life. Over the next few years, she continued to study mindfulness practices and attend retreats.
In 2018, Claire began speaking and writing on these topics and she quickly became regarded as a resource for professionals as someone who can explain meditation practices in an approachable and practical way. In 2020, she completed the online meditation teacher certification program with The Mindfulness Center founded by Deborah Norris, Ph.D., to refine her understanding of the science of mindfulness and its practical applications. In 2021, Claire also completed the 500-hour yoga teacher training from My Vinyasa Practice as well as numerous courses relating to compassion practices, including Mindful Self-Compassion and Compassion Cultivation Training. Claire enjoys sharing her experience with mindfulness in her practical, and often humorous voice, to help humanize the legal profession and to make life a little easier for her community.
There is a common idea that confidence is this feeling of empowerment. Some people define it in the negative as if it the absence of fear or doubt. I don’t like those definitions. Perhaps they are true for some, but based on my own experience they are incomplete.
I think confidence is more of a process than an emotion. Thus, the test can’t be how you feel in any given moment. It has to be based on what you do over time.
So, when Attorney at Law magazine reached out to me to ask for a guest blog post, it didn’t take long for me to come up with a topic. I knew I had to write about confidence and explain it is really. I also wanted to explain why mindfulness and compassion are powerful tools for building confidence.
To learn more, check out the full guest post here:
People curious about my decision to quit drinking alcohol usually ask me (privately) some version of the same two questions: Why? and How?
The “Why” is different for everybody.
My “Why” was like an everything bagel – a really stale one.
Some people quit out of necessity. They get in legal trouble, their spouse threatens divorce, the doctor (or priest) says “it’s time,” they develop an allergy (that’s a real thing), they “accidentally” say something that incinerates a most-cherished relationship, their boss threatens them with termination, etc.
Others quit because they see the effects of alcohol around them and they just want to do things differently. They’re tired of the drama, the missed deadlines, the prurient behavior, the disappointments, the dishonesty, the worrying, etc. Alcohol weighs them down – indirectly, but in a powerful way. And it’s just plain exhausting.
Some quit for financial reasons. Regular boozing is expensive. I did the math for myself, and I figure (conservatively) that if I had never started drinking in the first place, I would have saved enough money to pay cash for law school.
Look: 21 years of drinking (I’m 42 and it actually started way earlier than that) x $25 (average) per day = $191,625. My law school charged me a whopping $120,000 (plus a boatload of compounding interest).
If that math sounds wonky to you, try this one: I quit 981 days ago. My sobriety tracker app estimates I’ve saved myself $24,425 since quitting. Think about what that means moving forward. I’m hoping to get another 50 years out of this ride!
Even moderate drinking drains the bank. A 6-pack of beer costs $6 – $10. If I bought one every other day (no more than three beers a day): that’s $18 – $40 a week; $936 – $2,080 a year; $46,800 – $104,000 in 50 years.
The numbers above don’t even account for lost productivity or the healthcare costs associated with regular or prolonged drinking. When I started my journey, I estimated I spent one hour a day drinking (it was way more). I’ve earned back almost 1,000 hours of my life – but it feels like a million. My productivity now is threefold what it was when I quit. I have three active boys, a busy law practice with my spouse, and a side-gig as an artist and marketer. I need all the energy I can get. And I love all of the energy that I have!
Truth is: there are a million different reasons to quit. No matter what yours are, have been or will be, keep a few things in mind:
1. Your “why” is the most important “why” for you, even if someone else tells you it is silly, stupid, meaningless, an overreaction etc. Nobody knows you like you. DO YOU. All the rest of it is just noise.
2. No one else’s “why” is better or worse than yours. Playing the comparison game will not – I repeat – will not help you. Compare yourself only to yourself and keep moving! It’s a game of progress not perfection.
3. Your “why” is not a point of shame – no matter how bad you think it is. YOUR WHY IS YOUR SUPERPOWER. Own it. Love it. Remember it. Honor it. Your “Why” got you where you are. And that, my friends, is a blessing – even if it hurts in the beginning. It won’t hurt forever, I promise!
4. You are allowed to share your “why” with others, but you don’t have to, especially if you’re not ready. Take your time. You may not even really understand your “why” fully until you’ve had some time to clear your mind and think about the impact of your choices and actions. Be patient with yourself and with others. Growth takes time. A lot of it. You’re allowed a little privacy in this process.
First,talk kindly to yourself. When you quit drinking, you are going to have feelings. Lots of them. Some may be painful or uncomfortable. And some may be wonderful beyond your wildest expectations. Positive self-talk is absolutely essential to riding this roller coaster. If you’re lucky, your parents taught you how to do this and you’re already good at it. But lots of folks are clueless when it comes to self-soothing. So, try this simple exercise: Imagine yourself 20 years into the future. Close your eyes and picture what you look like, how you feel and all of the wisdom you’ve earned over the years. Picture yourself happy, content, fulfilled and proud. Now, ask that future version of you to talk to the current you. Do it out loud. And keep it simple: “You can do this.” “I’m proud of you.” “This will pass.” “Just breathe.” Do this every. single. day. Keep in mind, there is no such thing as a right way or a wrong way. Just do your best and thank yourself for the effort!
Second, if you’re going to quit drinking, you’ve got to replace old habits with new ones. Use your hands. Try knitting, whittling, braiding leather, stringing beads, weaving. Get yourself a cheap sketchbook, a pocket-sized watercolor set, a notebook, a camera (your smart phone works!). Paint, write, draw, photograph, write poetry, imagine. Whatever you use, it needs to be portable, it needs to be mind-numbing and it needs to be with you all the time. Something you can carry through airport security (okay, maybe not a whittling knife). Every time you feel the old habit creep up, grab your “thing” and get those hands busy. Don’t stop until the urge passes. It will pass.
Third, there will be plenty of days when you want to drink. Have a plan. When I first decided to quit drinking, I took all the alcohol out of the house. We were in Covid lockdown so there was really no place for me to go to drink, so that made it easy (easier). But, if you know that going to Happy Hour on Thursdays with your coworkers will be a temptation for you, don’t go. Go see a movie instead or check out your local park or nature trail. If you do socialize with drinking friends, ask the bartender in advance to make you a fancy, refillable “mocktail.” I kept a pretty glass, soda water and fresh lemon and lime on hand at all times for the first year. Hot tea is a great sippy cup substitute also.
Fourth, sweat out that stress. You absolutely have to exercise. Make time. If you had time to drink yesterday, you have time to sweat today. At my drinking peak, I used alcohol daily to blunt a fairly heavy level of work/parenting stress. So when I quit, that energy had to go somewhere. I literally felt like I was going to explode. The first 60 days were the worst. Then my mom and sisters insisted we do remote cardio classes together. I cursed them for days. But it worked. With their help, I started a new habit, and prevented what I thought was sure to be a case of premature death by spontaneous combustion. Remember, exercise doesn’t have to be expensive. Cleaning house counts. Yard work counts. Just move. And make sure you’re sweating when you do it.
Fifth, ask for help if you need it. Everybody’s circumstances are different. You may have an unsupportive roommate or partner. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start (or how to stop). Maybe you feel trapped or ashamed or like you’re just not strong enough to weather the next storm. There are people who are ready to help you. Ask a doctor, a priest, a family member, a close friend, a local non-profit or a support group. Reach out to someone you trust. Loving arms will catch you.
Finally, think about how you see alcohol in your life. Look around. We are bombarded with advertising encouraging alcohol consumption in every one of life’s most glorious occasions: weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, the Super Bowl. We use it for celebration and in moments of sorrow. Did you get dumped? Blow that big presentation? Fail your final exam? There’s a concoction for that!
Alcohol. Is. Literally. Everywhere. I never really noticed this until I decided to quit. And then I asked myself, why do they want me to drink so much? It’s an odd thing, really.
I often wonder how things would be if, instead of asking “How” and “Why” a person quits drinking, we were to ask “How” and “Why” we all start drinking in the first place. The answer, of course, does not matter. All that matters is what you do today. And I have a question for you: What have you got to lose?
Author Bio: Christina T. Mazaheri is Managing Partner at Mazaheri & Mazaheri where she practices primarily in the areas of Employment & Civil Rights Law. She is a native South Carolinian and met her husband and law partner, Bernie, while working at the nation’s largest plaintiffs’ firm in Florida. Christina and her family (Bernie, their three boys and their Great Danes) moved to their “forever home” in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky in 2018. Christina handles cases in several states, and she has published articles and spoken on topics dealing with Wage & Hour, Age Discrimination, Arbitration and Family Medical Leave issues in the workplace. When she’s not practicing law, Christina takes an active role in educating her children, who are full-time practitioners of the Art of Fencing. Christina also enjoys creative urban agriculture, historic renovation, painting, music & textile arts, raising and showing Great Danes, and remaining active with her church.
It should come as no great surprise that someone who loves writing enough to have written a book and founded a blog loves to talk about writing. But do you what’s even better? Talking about writing with another writer.
This week, I got to do that two times in one day. On Wednesday I recorded a podcast for The Write Approach podcast with my lawyer friend and fellow author, Jeremy Richter. (Stay tuned for that one. It should be released soon.) That evening, I also got to talk to coach, author, and former attorney Bob Levant for the Iron Advocate Mindset Virtual Book Club.
The conversation with Bob was great because, like me, he’s also a fan of mindfulness. He does yoga regularly and explores the concept in his own book, Finding Polaris. Since as Bob describes, he covers the topic in less of a “deep dive” than my book, we get into some of the finer points in this interview.
This week, we offer a guest post from a friend and supporter of the blog who is doing great work out in the world. Joseline Jean-Louis Hardrick found me and the blog on LinkedIn and she’s been an active supporter of it. We love her work to promote diversity, inclusion, and wellness in the legal profession and want to support her back here. Welcome Joseline to Brilliant Legal Mind!
Many lawyers and other professionals are experiencing burnout. Are you going through a hard time in your life and career and are constantly struggling with chronic stress that leaves you feeling exhausted to the core and helpless to the extent where you think nothing can ever go right?
No job in this world is easy. Every task, every goal, and every journey has its fair share of struggles and obstacles. That said, being a lawyer has its troubles on another level. It is certainly not easy to tackle difficult cases, prepare strategies for your client, and stand strong in the grueling atmosphere of the courtroom. This job and your daily routine certainly take a toll on your well-being and can easily produce a state of complete burnout.
What Burnout Does to You
Burnout is a traumatizing state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion that makes you feel swamped and shattered. It is normal to have occasional or even routine bouts of stress, particularly in this line of work. However, things take an unexpected, undesirable turn when you do not manage your stress on time and soothe it daily.
When you don’t address the routine stress, it grows bigger and more monstrous. There then comes the point when you become so emotionally drained and overwhelmed that your body and mind keep you from going any further. You lose the motivation to take on any case; you feel withdrawn from even the activities you once found incredibly enjoyable, and you simply let go of the will to push yourself any harder.
You become cynical, hopeless, pessimistic, lethargic, exhausted, and even highly resentful. You do not wish to progress in life because you feel you don’t have that spark anymore. Burnout manifests itself in many different symptoms, including feeling drained, emotionally and physically, all the time; having muscular pain frequently, drastic changes in appetite, insomnia, lowered immunity, and a very low sense of self-esteem, among other things. If you experience any of these daily, it is clear you are not in a healthy physical, emotional, and mental state.
Whether you work as a litigator or as a transactional attorney, or you’re in academia or government, if you find yourself overwhelmed and cynical often, that’s because of burnout. Fortunately, a creative way out of this rut is a unique approach to soothe burnout and reclaim your energy, motivation, and life for good.
A Creative Solution to Handle Burnout
Having struggled with burnout excessively and frequently myself, I realized that I would have to find a unique fix for the problem to turn things around. When we are stuck in a bad rut, often, our go-to approach to get ourselves out of the problem is to push past the walls. We keep pushing ourselves forward to end the problem, but we only exhaust ourselves more in the process.
The right way to turn the tables around in your favor is to look for a new angle, just like you do in a deposition. Instead of beating around the bush, you bring up a completely new and creative perspective on the table and turn the odds in your favor. Similarly, to soothe your burnout, you need to adopt an innovative approach.
This approach is about finding joy in the journey by engaging yourself in useful activities that help you channel your stressful energy into something positive, meaningful, and productive. I call this approach “RENEWAL.”
What is Renewal?
The RENEWAL process involves the following:
R: Review your strengths, priorities, and talents and review your schedule to understand everything better.
E: Energize yourself by eating healthily, sleeping well, and taking care of your body.
N: Noticing things peacefully and becoming more mindful of yourself and your surroundings.
E: Expressing gratitude for everything you have to attain contentment from within.
W: Withdrawing yourself from the digital world to give yourself a break from the online media and different technological tools.
A: Assess your routine and responsibilities and prioritize things that matter to you.
L: Love is an essential requirement to live happily, so you need to infuse meaningful relationships and connections in your life.
This approach helps you change your thinking and behavior to modify your current state of life. Understand that nothing always happens as you plan it, but you need to let go of your former ideas and create a new you to improve on things.
While doing that, understand that you must have a clear goal moving forward, especially in the study and practice of law.
In case you’re wondering if any of these ideas are backed by research – they are! The anecdotal evidence and your personal lived experience tell you that being a law student and lawyer is stressful. But so do all the studies. The studies also show that the techniques can lead to lawyer satisfaction in their personal and professional lives.
One thing they noticed is that most law students and lawyers focus almost exclusively on external factors. These factors include money and status-such as earnings, partnership in a law firm, law school debt, class rank, law review membership, and U.S. News & World Report’s law school rankings. But the study shows almost no correlation between those external factors and lawyer well-being.
But they found that internal and psychological factors correlate to “happiness” and “satisfaction.” But unfortunately, focusing on the internal factors, such as autonomy, interest, freedom, a sense of worth, choices regarding family and personal life, erode in law school.
Interestingly, money and status factors and demographic differences were least important in lawyer happiness. Different practice types and settings further exemplified the issues that arise with a misplaced focus between internal and external factors. For example, lawyers in large firms and other prestigious positions were not “as happy” as public service attorneys. This held true even though the latter had much better grades and pay than the former group. And junior partners in law firms show no significant improvement in happiness than senior associates. Even with the higher pay, benefits, and prestige of a partner, there was no actual increase in the sense of satisfaction.
The bottom line is, lawyers are like everybody else. Despite specialized cognitive training and the common perception that lawyers are fundamentally different, we are people first and lawyers second.
So do yourself a favor, practice RENEWAL regularly to prevent and overcome burnout because the world needs and deserves, well-balanced attorneys.
If you’ve followed the blog, you probably know by now that I am a fan of Peloton. Historically, however, I haven’t really used the Peloton platform to support my meditation practice because I prefer unguided meditation. Late last year, however, one of my favorite yoga instructors Aditi Shah announced the new intro to meditation program. As a maven of meditation, I did the program myself so I could tell you about it here.
Here’s an overview of the program, a summary of what I liked and didn’t like, and a bottom line conclusion for those of you considering it for yourself.
The Intro to Meditation Program structure is available on the Peloton app or any Peloton device. You don’t need any equipment to use it, though some headphones and a meditation spot or cushion sure help. The program is designed to be completed over the course of 3 weeks and consists of short (5-minute) instructional videos to explain basic concepts and 5 or 10-minute guided meditations for practice. The concepts covered include mindfulness of thoughts, mindfulness of body, metta (loving-kindness), and them mindfulness of emotions.
What I Like About the Program
Overall, I think the Intro to Meditation is a good start for those new to meditation and mindfulness. Here’s what I liked most.
I don’t normally do guided meditations because I enjoy silence, so I was pleasantly surprised that the program meditations actually included some silent spaces. I have done some Peloton meditations in the past that I wouldn’t even call meditations because they were so infused with imagery or storytelling that there was no space for my own awareness. These were comparatively less filled with words and allowed some space to experience the concepts taught in the program.
Even though I am a fan of Peloton and adore Aditi, I have to admit that the program is not perfect. Here are the things that I didn’t love about it.
Aditi Sounds Rehearsed at Times.
Aditi sounds pretty natural when I take her yoga classes, but she sounded rehearsed for most of the explanation videos. And, though I understand that Peloton sells fitness apparel, I thought it was silly that Aditi was wearing a sports bra with no shirt or sweatshirt when she was teaching the passive activity of meditation. To be fair, this was likely the result of a new format and the fact that Aditi was teaching in a new way. In order to get the content delivered in a time efficient way, she almost certainly had to be reading from a script. In other words, the experience of watching the explanation videos lacks the connection you might get even from other prerecorded Peloton classes.
Information Was Conveyed But Real Teaching Was Rare.
Along the same lines as the point above, the Intro to Meditation program provides information about meditation but it doesn’t really teach the subject. Clearly, this is a result of the forum and the intent for the program to only be an introduction to meditation. Even so, the explanation videos could have provided a few more stories or examples to give the content more life. The few that Aditi offered in the videos appeared heartfelt and were effective, so I hope future Peloton programs will dig a bit deeper on this point.
The Order of the Program Felt Scattered.
As I experienced when writing my book, it can be hard to identify the “best” starting point when teaching meditation. Though meditation practices often select a single focal point, our experience is rarely so isolated and usually includes a mishmash of sensory information, body sensations, thoughts, emotions, and external stimuli. Though I like that the Program included the right topics, I found the order somewhat confusing and scattered.
The Structure May Not Be the Best Tool for Establishing a Habit.
The Intro to Meditation Program is an accessible tool to help the millions of Peloton users worldwide learn the basics of meditation practice. Though the Program doesn’t stand on its own to support a long-term meditation practice, that may not be a bad thing. It will likely leave users wanting more but meditation practice is to some degree about exploration. Because the Program makes trying meditation simple and easy, it is a good start for anyone new to meditation but hopefully not a final destination.
There are a lot of ways to learn about meditation. At first, I learned the practice from books and podcasts. Those offer great tips and tools, but nothing changed in my life until I started meditating consistently. That’s because meditation is an experiential practice – you have to do it to understand it.
It’s sort of like civil procedure. Do you remember how hard it was to make sense of the civil rules in law school from just reading about them? I do, but I’m a litigator now and they make sense (at least most of the time) because I have used the rules when litigating real cases. In much the same way, you will not fully understand meditation until you do it for yourself. So just start.
Don’t worry about doing it wrong because, if you make meditation a lasting habit, you will 100% do things wrong or learn that aspects of your practice need to change. That’s not just okay and part of being human, it is the path you have to take to learn any new skill, including meditation.
If this sounds scary, remember that my next tip is to start small. And by this, I mean very small. If you can sit for 5 minutes right away, go for it. I started with 1 minute because it was all I could handle. My thoughts were copious and judgmental and doing nothing was not my forte. But I quickly discovered benefits from tolerating the awkwardness and added minutes until I eventually worked up to 30.
In other words, starting small doesn’t mean staying small. It’s just a foot in the doorway to a life with an active meditation practice. Once you get started and learn a few things, you can let your practice grow at a pace that works for you.
I have been watching the clock today because I know I am supposed to write a blog post to be published tomorrow. It’s my 100th blog post and tomorrow (December 27th) is the second anniversary of the founding of the blog. You’d think the words would flow like the bubbles from a bottle of champagne, but they haven’t. After publishing my first book this November, I think I am a bit celebrated out. And, I have a work-related project that is occupying my mind.
As I have written before, I am a self-doubter. On a normal day, I would have liked the post and said something encouraging. But on this day, when things were not going as I had planned, the post made my mind start to churn. “Wait,” it posited, “am I letting myself be enough by struggling to get this post written just because of some arbitrary numbers?” When I couldn’t answer the question immediately, it sensed weakness and roared “Were you letting yourself be enough when you started this blog?”
As we head into 2023, I hope that you are reflecting on the fact that you are enough. I hope you know that you don’t need to accomplish huge goals or amazing resolutions in the new year to be enough. But when you’ve got being enough down, I hope you celebrate it and share it with the world. I hope you let yourself thrive and take the weird paths your soul asks you to take. That’s what I have done these past two years. I’m so grateful I had enough faith in myself to do it and to all of you for celebrating it with me.
The other day, my good friend Talar Herculian Coursey shared a post on LinkedIn about the most common problem new meditators experience: the inability to “clear one’s mind.” In response, numerous people commented that they “couldn’t” meditate for this very reason. As I shared in my new book, I tried my best to explain that this isn’t the purpose of meditation. Nevertheless, the comments kept coming, so I am explaining here why you can’t clear your mind in meditation and you don’t really want to anyway.
When I speak about mindfulness, I often joke that this isn’t really a bad thing because it’s a surefire way to know that you are still alive. If you meditate long enough, you’ll eventually come to the realization that one of the functions of the mind is to generate thoughts. So, a thinking mind, annoying as it can sometimes be, is a healthy one.
Even so, many of us lawyers don’t have the best relationship with our minds. Some of us may view our minds as bullies who boss us around, shame us, call us names, and annoy us when we are trying to focus or sleep. When we sit to meditate, we may have grand delusions of regaining control over our lives by silencing the bully in our minds.
What’s the big difference here between bully and child? The difference is that I was bothered, incredibly bothered, by the bully mind, but I could let the child mind be. In a word, the difference is acceptance. At a certain point, and I can’t tell you exactly when, meditation helped me see that the mind just made thoughts and they didn’t always have to control what I did or how I felt.
What you can learn to do, however, is to find clarity about your mind. Meditation can help you do that because (certain forms of it) require you to sit and watch your mind. Though it seems like it sometimes, this is not a cruel joke. You aren’t supposed to learn how to clear your mind. You’re supposed to see that the nature of the mind is not to be empty, but you can still find clarity in it.
If you start meditating and you notice that you can’t clear your mind, perhaps consider this as something other than a pain point or a personal failure. Instead, it’s a preliminary realization that can lead to far more significant insights if you let it. Yes, you can’t clear your mind, so stop trying to clear your mind. Accept it. Accept yourself. Go back to the breath. And see what happens next.
This post contains references to suicide. It is published with permission from and deep respect for the family of the affected attorney. It is written by my dear friend, Robyn Smith, who I met in law school. Though we have handled cases on the opposite sides of the “v” for much of our practices, we have remained friends and benefitted from sharing our different experiences. We recently shared a post from Bob Coursey, an employer-side employment lawyer. This post from Robyn offers a different perspective but I think you’ll find that both Robyn and Bob think humanity and decency are essential to law practice.
Just in time for Christmas, Ryan Reynolds, Will Ferrell, and Octavia Spencer star in Spirited, a musical comedy adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It’s a fantastic story of human struggle, self-loathing, and redemption. If you have not yet seen the movie, go watch it right now. We’ll wait.
Finished? You’re welcome. It was great, wasn’t it?
And there could not be a better cinematic explanation of people struggling with something called moral injury – a concept that describes the price paid by people like us, attorneys who work as we are taught, and who exist within a system that tests our personal senses of right and wrong … and who are hurt by it. Moral injury, according to Veterans Affairs, is a psychological injury that comes from perpetrating, failing to prevent, or witnessing events that go against a your deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.
These injuries have been studied in the instances of combat veterans who have had to inflict harm on others, as well as health care workers who have had to turn away people in need of care. Scientists have noted that it changes the brain, but not in the same ways as PTSD. Spirited depicts several folks struggling with their own pasts, presents, and futures, as their choices and career paths have consequences.
The Spirited character to have watched was Octavia Spencer’s. She does as she is told. She conducts the opposition research. She works up the facts. She discloses the truth. She knows how it will be used. She is hurt as the fruits of her efforts are used to destroy other people’s lives. She knows that’s how it will go. But she is just researching, like we do. She’s just portraying facts, like we do. She’s just doing her job … like we do.
I believe that the law industry is designed to subject lawyers to moral injury. We are trained to work in our clients’ best interests and to keep their confidences. We are permitted to withdraw from representations most of the time – but not all. We may only raise an alert when a client is about to inflict certain types of injuries on other human beings. We have knowledge that can weigh on us. We have to argue things that we do not admire or respect. We are complicit in systems that oppress and injure. And whoever structured this industry decided that was okay, at our peril.
Not all of us, and not all of the time, of course. But our ethical rules do not allow us to prioritize our own morality – ever. I don’t think I’ve met a lawyer who has not had to take a position she abhors, or oppose a person she truly believed to be in the right. In those circumstances, we are told, we have to consider our clients’ best interests, the integrity of the tribunal, and a handful of other things that are not our own precious peace of mind.
I represent workers, including attorneys. Some of them know what is happening around them is wrong, and they feel gaslit by the failure of others to speak up or break free. It’s a lonely feeling. Some of the people I admire the most are people who, astonished, have asked me “Am I crazy?” after recognizing a severe and unbearable moral injury and declaring the pain of it. And suffering the fallout. Speaking out against the machine is taboo, isn’t it?
I had an attorney friend who undertook a very important job overseeing Kentucky’s unemployment insurance agency in early 2020. When the pandemic set in, he went to work, putting every ounce of his energy into connecting newly locked-down workers with the money they needed to buy food, medicine, diapers, and medicine. He would call it “the most important thing I’ve ever done.” He saw problems with the system, some ethical, others legal. He rationalized what he could. He opposed the rest. My friend was fired.
He spent the next several months watching in horror as the benefits system crumbled, with workers spending endless months without benefits, hitting metaphoric brick walls in the agency, and having nobody in the agency empowered to advocate for them. My friend gave an interview to a national media outlet, and when the reporter asked how it felt to watch all of the people in pain as they waited for help that was promised but never provided, he responded simply, “It kills me.” A few weeks later, my friend took his own life.
For well over a year, I did what many people affected by suicide do. I talked with people. I raged against the people who hurt my friend and his family. I blamed myself. I researched and read, looking for something to make it make sense. I looked at studies. Everything I learned about depression, anxiety, PTSD, secondary trauma, and how they affected lawyers was really insightful, but never really a complete picture.
Then one day, I was in my car, listening to a science podcast about the “invisible epidemic” of moral injury. I gripped my steering wheel and yelled, struck by the realization that this was the piece that fit. When a principled person leans into his moral fortitude at a time when very little else is available, and when that sense of morality is shattered … it’s a whole lot to come back from. And we are made of flesh and bone, not iron and steel.
I had been staring into the same abyss as my friend. Because the fact is that I truly believed that I had let him down. And I carried with me every cut from every point in my career when I had helped people advance their own interests against my own sense of morality. In recent years, I opened my own firm. I represent only people I want to and do a lot of pro bono.
While I don’t represent people I don’t want to represent, I am still at risk for moral injury every time I see the justice system (that I prop up) hurt people who don’t deserve it. I’ve watched my opposing counsel wince as they open old wounds in my clients in depositions because it is their job. I’ve heard a government lawyer lament, “Robyn, I have no discretion here” when a person’s ability to feed a family was at stake. I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, and I know that it’s real.
You are reading this piece on a blogsite where my dear friend Claire gives you tools to process, understand, and heal. You are here to learn about the tools to help you work within the sphere of your own control. But in case nobody has told you this lately, it’s okay to conclude that the things outside your control might be wrong. Real wrong. And you are not a freak for wanting to break free from it. It’s incredibly okay to leave. To adapt. To grow.
My favorite scene from Spirited is a deleted scene showcased in the credits. Will Ferrell’s character wants to know what the everlasting effect of a single act can be – a “ripple.” He wonders, “I have to believe, inside the worst of us there is some decency there … we can achieve something miraculous if we only dare.” That’s true. It is. It’s true of our clients, and it is always true of us.
Because it’s not about winning. Or raking in money. Or having other people be afraid of you. That’s the old way of evaluating success in our industry. The new way, and the way Spirited has considerately reminded us of, is that you can take account of your own worth. And you can decide when someone has asked of you the unaskable. And you can say “no.” You can heal, and you can help others heal. And you can determine your fate from there.
Robyn Smith is an employee-side lawyer at The Law Office of Robyn Smith in Louisville, Kentucky. She chose the area of employment law to protect workers, who she believes are Kentucky’s greatest resource. Robyn has represented workers in litigation against massive institutions, both public and private. She is also a mother of two and committed to improving her community and the profession. Robyn has been honored for her pro bono work, is a coach for law school client counseling competitions, and teaches Law Practice Management at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville.
Our culture has this trope of the long-suffering tortured artist. There’s this idea that creativity comes from strife and is fueled by addiction and misery. I don’t say things like this often, but I want that idea to die.
Think about it. When do most of us drink? Nights and weekends. When do most lawyers have free time to write and pursue personal hobbies or goals? You got it. Nights and weekends. When I started limiting how frequently I drank, I created more pockets of time in which I felt energetic and clear-minded enough to write. And, when things calmed down a bit and I had longer stretches, I could reliably bank a few thousand words at a time until I had a book.