Severance: A Thought Provoking Show about Controlling Thoughts

How would it feel to be fully present at home, without a thought or worry about any work-related issue?

How would you feel if you could experience that same presence while at work?

If that sounds appealing, would you ever consider a procedure that could create complete work/life separation?

That’s the premise of Severance, a sci-fi series set in a fictional town in which employees undergo a surgical procedure to separate their thoughts about work and home. Employees who are “severed” can’t think about work once they leave the office and they can’t carry their home stressors into the workplace.

I binge watched the series this summer and I can’t stop thinking about it, both because of its stellar cast and the thought-provoking questions it presents.

The first season focused on Mark, an office worker who undergoes the severance procedure as a way to deal with the loss of his wife. The procedure enables him to shed his grief each day as he rides the elevator to his office. Once the elevator doors open, Mark has no awareness of his life outside the office, which enables him and his colleagues to focus solely on their work.

At least that’s the intention. The reality is that the severed employees spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about their “outies,” their selves outside the workplace. They wonder if they have families, whether they are good people and if they are happy. And when they need support, the severed employees are treated to stories about their “outies,” which suggests that the company understands how important it is for the workers to understand all aspects of their lives.

Although the show provides an extreme example of corporate culture and the quest for work/life balance, it presents some fascinating questions like:

  • What does it mean to be fully present? Is it necessary to clear our mind from distracting thoughts in order to focus on the present moment? If you’ve studied or practiced mindfulness, you know how unrealistic that is. And even in the fictional world of Severance, the goal of having a singular focus is not achieved, despite surgical intervention.
  • Is there an expectation that we can (or should) be able to compartmentalize our lives? In the show, the severance procedure is touted as a way to be more productive at work and to be more present at home. But is separating these parts of our lives a good thing? Do we want coworkers who can’t draw on life lessons, ambitions and beliefs formed outside the workplace? Is it good for them to be severed from the connections that ground them and the commitments that provide the motivation to tackle hard things? Conversely, don’t we want people to apply lessons learned on the job in their lives outside the workplace? And don’t we want coworkers to build connections and support networks outside the office?
  • Do we sometimes use work as an escape? Mark’s choice to undergo the severance procedure to escape his grief is not unlike the choices many people make to keep themselves busy and avoid feeling difficult emotions. [Spoiler alert] In the show, as in real life, that doesn’t really work.
  • What happens when we can’t find meaning, purpose or a reasonable amount of autonomy in our work? Mark and his team work in the Department of Macrodata Refinement sorting numbers. Aside from being told that their jobs are “mysterious and important,” they don’t understand the purpose of their work or how it fits into the larger picture. Instead, they are given rigid instructions, kept under constant surveillance and given meager incentives like company branded finger traps and team photos. Not surprisingly, this creates discontent, makes them less invested in their work and [another spoiler alert] sets them on a journey to change things. It is not that hard to see how this part of the series is an example of the disconnect that often exists between what employers think will lead to job satisfaction and what employees need or want.

My takeaway from Severance is that a complete separation of thoughts about your work and home life is neither achievable nor desirable. Although you may view the person you are at work as different than the person you are to your family and friends, the reality is that we bring our whole selves to the workplace – our experiences, our biases, our feelings, our thoughts, our hopes – all of it. And when we leave the job at the end of
the day, a piece of that work self comes home with us.

The story of Mark and his severed coworkers also shows what can happen when we are stuck in a life that exists solely for work. It demonstrates how connection is a powerful motivator and that even surgically induced-work life separation or carefully curated employee incentives are no match for the human need for community and purpose.

Laura Anthony is a lawyer who is fascinated by the intersection of law and human behavior. She is an education lawyer as well as a mediator, investigator and hearing officer and often draws upon her background and interest in psychology in her practice. She is also a not-so-regular practitioner of yoga and meditation and brings her real-world struggles making healthy choices to her role as the chair of her firm’s Wellness
Committee. Laura can be found posting about her practice and her love of chocolate and libraries on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

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Neurodiversity in Law Advocate, Haley Moss, Shares Her Thoughts on Extraordinary Attorney Woo

This blog usually encourages you to meditate, but in this post I’m going to make a recommendation that you may not expect: watch some Korean TV. You may have heard or watched Squid Game, but if that’s your only frame of reference you are missing out. Kingdom was a great political period drama but also with zombies. Rookie Historian was a great political period drama but also with the most deliciously awkward romantic subplot I have ever seen. Inspector Koo was a great mystery show but with a female detective so unruly she might make Veronica Mars laugh out loud and blush at the same time.

Even though I don’t really love legal TV dramas, this background compelled me to take note when my lawyer friends started to talk about Extraordinary Attorney Woo, now streaming on Netflix. I’m a school lawyer and have extensive experience with special education matters. One of the neat things I’ve seen evolve during the last decade is the increased attention to disability issues and neurodiversity in popular culture. As the show tells us, Attorney Woo is about a young attorney starting her practice in Korea but she’s an attorney who was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

The show is entertaining and it definitely has some of that delicious awkward romantic tension I loved from Rookie Historian. Critically, though, it also educates and advocates at the same time. When I saw this, Haley Moss immediately came to mind.

I have never met Haley, but I was supposed to in March, 2020 when we were both honored by Ms. JD. Unfortunately, the awards ceremony was the same week that states of emergency relating to COVID-19 began rolling out and so I never met Haley. Fortunately, though, I stayed connected with her and watched her work progress.

Haley is a leader on disability inclusion, autism and neurodiversity in the workplace, the author of 4 books, and, upon her swearing in, she became Florida’s first documented openly autistic attorney in 2019. At this point, she’s also an unofficial expert of Extraordinary Attorney Woo because she has been busy lately talking to numerous Korean press outlets about it.

I reached out to Haley to get her thoughts on the show. Here’s my brief interview with her:

Q: You’ve expressed a favorable reaction to Extraordinary Attorney Woo in past interviews, what about the show is exciting to you? 

A: The show definitely pushed some boundaries in a good way, although it isn’t enough and it’s a trend that needs to continue. I love how Attorney Woo has “main character energy” and gets to grow and learn and be her best self like many nondisabled characters do. She isn’t a prop for someone else’s growth. She has friends, hobbies, family – very “typical” things like any other young lawyer should have.

There is a pivotal moment to me where she represents an autistic person and comments on autism perceptions throughout history and how 80 years ago we weren’t worthy of life apparently and casting doubt on Hans Asperger’s legacy (if you didn’t know: he’s problematic – and Woo calls it out!). The show has slowly pushed boundaries, especially by showing someone in the legal field, a woman no less, and that monologue really got me. 

Q. Most of us know that lawyer TV shows aren’t always the most realistic, but was there anything about Attorney Woo that spoke to your experience as an attorney?

A: I can’t even comment on the realism too much since we know the Korean legal system and American legal system are not the same! But, how Attorney Woo approaches problem solving and is creative with a different thought process than her colleagues is most similar to what my experiences have been. 

Q. In this blog, we focus on mindfulness and mental health topics for lawyers and professionals. What role, if any, does the representation of neurodiversity in popular media have on mental health? 

A. Neurodiversity and mental health go hand in hand. I think that’s something that gets lost a lot in both the mainstream neurodiversity conversation and the mainstream mental health conversation – especially for lawyers. 

Mainstream neurodiversity has an overarching focus on autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities that may require less workplace support or perceived as superpowers; traditionally this focuses on who society perceives as being more “desirable.” But what media representation we get out of autism, especially in popular media, is limited and often damaging; think Rain Man, a movie that is older than me and lives on in peoples’ minds about what autism is.   

Lawyer mental health almost exclusively focuses on depression, anxiety, and substance use – which leaves out people with more highly stigmatized mental health conditions, and ignores the fact that nearly all of these conditions are forms of neurodivergence. In addition, most “traditional” forms of neurodivergence (for lack of a better word; i.e., autism, ADHD, learning disabilities) more often than not do have co-occurring mental health conditions. 

Q: If the streaming higher powers bring us an American remake of Attorney Woo, what would you like to see done differently and why? 

A: Well, I’d like to consult on it! There are known autistic attorneys in the U.S., so not inviting our perspective would be a massive faux pas. There are also no autistic actors, writers, directors, or creatives involved in the show, which is disheartening. Disability (and autism) representation in Hollywood has always been an inclusion issue that’s poorly addressed. How we’re portrayed also matters.

Q. What other shows, movies or other media (besides your own books which I already plugged) do you recommend for lawyers who want to  learn more about neurodiversity at work? 

A: I love some of the resources from Genius Within CIC, Victoria Honeybourne’s “The Neurodiverse Workplace,” (although it is a little UK-centric), and some big company employee resource groups are really doing great stuff. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot solely dedicated to lawyers but I am working hard to change that! 

Have you watched Extraordinary Attorney Woo? What did you think about it? Leave us a comment to let us know.

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What Kendrick Lamar’s New Album Gets Right about Mental Health

If you are wondering what on earth a post about Kendrick Lamar is doing on a blog about mindfulness for lawyers, you probably haven’t listened to it yet. Even if rap isn’t a part of your musical mainstay, you should be familiar with Kendrick Lamar’s work. Lamar took the musical world by storm in the last decade, racking up Grammys, a Pulitzer, a Super Bowl appearance, and huge commercial success. In recent years, however, Lamar has been quiet and the public may not have understood why until the release of his latest album, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers

In the opening track, Lamar shares that he has been “going through something” for the last “1855 days.” As you listen on, you see that he’s talking about a mental health journey that he took while managing the pressures of living as a world musical superstar and family breadwinner. Now, I imagine, you probably understand what this has to do with your life as a lawyer. If, like me, you’ve experienced mental health challenges and faced inner demons while trying to maintain appearances for the public, do your job, and manage your family, you’ll hear a lot in Mr. Morale to which you can relate. 

So, what is it that makes me enthusiastic about this album? First, I am thrilled that someone in Lamar’s position is using his voice to tell the truth about his experience. Awareness of mental health is better than it once was, but stigma and fear about mental health issues remain. As lawyers, we also may feel pressure to hide our experiences for fear of hurting how others perceive us. Lamar has been honest in the past about his life, but Mr. Morale includes descriptions of his personal failings and childhood trauma. It takes courage to face those things, let alone share them publicly, but by doing so Lamar helps his fans feel a little less shame about their own struggles. 

Second, it’s also significant that Lamar doesn’t pretend that he faced his demons alone. The voice of his partner, Whitney, is sprinkled throughout Mr. Morale. She instructs Lamar to tell his listeners “the truth” in the opening songs of the album and celebrates with him and their children at the conclusion for ending a “generational curse.” References to therapy, mentors, and spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, are replete on the album as well. Why is this important? It’s important because it’s real. For many of us, shame can be a part of mental health challenges. This can make it harder for us to seek out the help we need. Lamar’s honest description of the help he received to heal from his past shows how even the most powerful people need and deserve help sometimes. 

Finally, Lamar tells his story not just as a personal one but as a human one. I’ve talked before about how self-compassion is critical for healing, including the essential element of “common humanity”. The story that Lamar tells on Mr. Morale is deeply personal and unique to him, but in telling it he links it with a broader community. Lamar uses musical elements throughout the album that call to black musical artists throughout the decades and all the way back to the era of jazz. He also speaks directly of the broader trauma that institutional racism in the United States has caused. In doing so, Lamar honors his own experience but does so in a way that honors, inspires, and gives voice to others who have shared it.

Like any pop musician, Lamar does not shy away from provocation in Mr. Morale. There is some justifiable and well-reasoned criticism of the album based on some of his comments and lyrical choices, including his claims about “cancel culture.” Still, though, Mr. Morale tells a story about mental health that the public needs to hear and demonstrates how personal accountability is part of the healing process. It shows us that extreme fame, wealth, and talent aren’t necessarily an aegis against past trauma or the influence of race and class.

If you listen to the entire album, you’ll see the full story take shape, and understand what it can feel like when you do the inner work needed to move forward in life. At the end, you will not just have a soundtrack to supplement the movie of your own journey, but some ideas that any powerful person in the public eye can use to face their own demons to live a better, happier life.

Have you listened to Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers? Leave us a comment to let us know what you thought.

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What Law Firm Leaders Can Learn from Better Call Saul

I was watching Better Call Saul with my husband as Howard Hamlin, the law firm partner with perfectly quaffed blonde hair and a toothpaste commercial grin, appeared on screen. After meeting with the title character, Saul Goodman, Howard gets into an expensive vehicle and drives away to reveal a vanity plate that reads “NAMAST3”. We already knew that Howard had been struggling with his past and had turned to yoga and new-found spirituality to tame his inner demons. Unfortunately, as the audience eventually learns, Howard’s inner peace is much like the spelling on his vanity plate: not quite right. 

My husband smirked, turned to me and said, “Does that irritate you?” He was mocking me, but I was nerding out far too hard to acknowledge it. Instead of rolling my eyes at him, I replied “No, this is a great example about how easy it is to gaslight ourselves with spirituality.” Indeed it was, but it turned out to be a tragic one too. In Better Call Saul, Howard had turned to yoga and mindfulness to soothe his tortured soul after the downfall and death of his mentor and Saul’s brother, Charles McGill. 

Despite this new-found ethos, however, there is little evidence of reflection on Howard’s part about his preoccupation with appearing perfect or the practices of his own law firm. Tragically, Howard’s obsession with his reputation left him vulnerable to Saul’s tricks, and it ultimately lead to his own death and the implosion of his firm.

I talk about the power of mindfulness all the time, so it may seem strange that I would draw attention to Howard Hamlin. If anything, he shows us that mindfulness has limits, right? And, to be sure, the characters on Better Call Saul are generally examples of what not to do as attorneys. So why talk about them? 

I talk about them because, of course, there are limits to mindfulness practices. As Howard demonstrates, one of the dangers of mindfulness practice is that it can help you feel better temporarily or on a surface level without achieving the clarity needed for real peace. If you don’t have other supports to ground you, you may end up deluding yourself instead of growing and understanding yourself better.

The show doesn’t tell us what practices and teachers Howard relied on to develop his mindfulness practice, though his license plate suggests he went for yogic practices. The show offers clues, however, that Howard is otherwise intent on appearing serene when his life in many ways seems to be falling apart. Though he experienced the death of his law partner, strife in his firm, and an impending divorce, Howard seems intent on showing everyone how happy and at ease he is. There’s also no mention of Howard trying additional strategies, like therapy for example, to support himself.

I don’t say these things to suggest that Howard was a bad guy. He really wanted to be a good guy. He wanted to be a mentor to young lawyers. He wanted to be a good leader and build a law firm that lasted. The problem is that Howard was not an aware guy because he was afraid to see himself as he really was. In this way, Howard Hamlin was entirely human, but his obsession with looking at peace tragically got in the way of him ever finding it. 

Research is clear that mindfulness practices, including yoga, can help you reduce stress and feel more at peace. They do that, though, by helping you face yourself as you are and life as it is. Part of that means accepting your own imperfections and learning how to share them with others. As Howard Hamlin shows us, your so-called inner peace can get torn apart very easily when you can’t allow yourself to do this. 

The legal profession certainly needs more law firm leaders who are willing to be examples about leading a good life, including the practices that help them do it. So, if you are a serious yogi, go ahead and talk about it and keep that yoga mat in your office. But, don’t just talk about it and throw a vanity plate on your car. You also need to act on the values that have served you well. You need to be real in a way that Howard Hamlin never let himself be about the struggles you’ve had rather than merely trying to convey an illusion of spiritual purity. Not only do you deserve all the support you can get when you deal with hardships in life, your law firm may need you to get it. 

Indeed, research suggests that emotional intelligence and relationship-building are essential leadership traits. Even the best lawyers would struggle to do either of these things without being honest with themselves and others about who they really are. Law firm leaders who embrace mindfulness to help stabilize themselves can certainly use the practices to become better leaders for their firms.

But they shouldn’t do so with the objective of always looking calm and serene, especially not when real crises in life or law practice are happening. Instead, the practices are there to help you accept and face what is there–in yourself or in life–and greet it with compassion. When you can do this, there will be no need to tell people how at peace you are because you’ll show it with your life, law practice, and leadership every day.

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A Socratic Dialogue with Thor about Anger in Meditation

If you went to see Thor: Love and Thunder last month, you probably spent less time focused on Thor’s discussion of meditation with genius scientist and lost love, Jane Foster. As the two discuss their past, they confided that they each had tried meditation to heal from their losses. Rather hilariously, Thor proclaimed that it didn’t work for him because it “just made him angrier.” It was a relatable quip that most people in the audience may have heard, laughed about, and moved on from to the rest of the movie. 

When I heard it, though, the biggest “well actually” line of dialogue began streaming through my mind. Obviously, I had to restrain myself from announcing this in the theater, but that only made me think about it more later. Because Thor’s misconceptions about meditation and anger are likely shared by many of us mere mortals, I offer this imagined dialog with Thor. Not sure it’s truly a Socratic method but what we experienced in law school probably wasn’t either, so close enough. 

Camera pans out to reveal a strange light in the sky. The light grows into a bright white circle. From it, emerges a woman never before seen in the movie and who does not rightfully belong in it. Thor stands back from the light and reaches for his weapons in alarm. When he sees it is just a woman who clearly has no martial arts training beyond the occasional Peloton shadow boxing class, he stands confused but at ease. 

Thor: Who are you and what are you doing here? 

Claire: Hey, Thor, I am a human from earth. You and Jane are doing a great job showing vulnerability to address some unresolved issues. I don’t want to derail that but you said something about meditation that isn’t quite right. 

Thor: How did you get here? Did Gorr the God Butcher send you?

Claire: I have no idea but no, Gorr is clearly the bad guy here. If only he had learned how to hold his grief, we wouldn’t be in this mess. That’s why I am here to talk about meditation and anger. 

Thor: You don’t appear to be one of Gorr’s monsters, but I’d really like to get back to talking to Jane. 

Claire: We all want you to get back to talking with Jane, so I’ll get to the point. That thing you said about meditation just “making you angrier” it’s not really true. 

Thor: Now I am concerned that you are Loki trying to trick me. Are you trying to tell me you know my experience better than I do?

Claire: Not at all. I also don’t know what kind of meditation you were doing. But, I’m guessing you tried to sit and focus on your breath or something? Did you try Headspace or 10% Happier?

Thor: I have an app called ZenGod. It’s specifically for gods but similar. Yes, I tried to focus on my breath, but I couldn’t because I just became filled with rage. 

Claire: Got it. And yes, that is totally normal. It happens to the best of us. What did you do when the rage came up?

Thor: I immediately stopped meditating and went to kill monsters with my ax.  

Claire: Did that help you feel less angry?

Thor: It felt pretty good to kill those monsters, but the feeling didn’t last. 

Claire: That’s really good too. Not good that you felt that way, but that you noticed it. 

Thor: What do you mean? How could it possibly be good that I noticed this?

Claire: Well, the reason we meditate is to notice what’s there. When we notice what’s there, over time that becomes wisdom and we are in a better position to know what to do about what’s there. Sometimes the only thing we can do is to let things be, but the wisdom is seeing this. 

Thor: I am a god. I don’t “let things be.” I hit bad things with my ax and summon power from the universe to destroy them. 

Claire: Well, how did that approach work for your anger?

Thor: It didn’t work at all and I can tell because I am getting very angry right now. 

Claire: That’s okay. It’s perfect actually. There’s nothing wrong with anger. You have every right to be angry. You’ve lost a lot. You’ve taken on a lot for other people. Your anger has helped you to protect others several times. Can you just let it be there now?

Thor: It’s hard. I don’t like it. I am very powerful and it makes me nervous to feel like I can’t control it. 

Claire: Excellent. You are doing so great. Anger does scare a lot of us because it makes us feel out of control. The more powerful we are the harder it can be because we are responsible for a lot and we don’t want to do something bad. But, remember, you are holding it now. What exactly does your anger feel like now?

Thor: Feel like? It’s anger. Why do I need to explain it?

Claire: Great job again. You are so good at this. You don’t need to explain it to me or anyone else. What I’m saying is to feel it. Where in your body do you feel the anger? What sensations are there that tell your brain you are angry?

Thor: My jaw is clenched. My hands are gripping my ax. My shoulders are tight. I feel like I am holding my breath. My neck and cheeks feel hot. I want to hit something. 

Claire: Wonderful. You are doing great. All of those things are normal. That feeling of wanting to hit is energy. We may not like it, but the function of anger is to make it clear to us when something is wrong and motivate us to act. Because you are a superhero, your habit is to discharge angry energy by hitting things. That can be good sometimes, but it can also be good to just learn to hold it for the times when you aren’t fighting monsters. 

Thor: So what do I do when I need to hold it? I still feel angry now. 

Claire: The first thing is to do what you just did. Notice what’s there. Recognize it as anger. Allow yourself to feel how you feel. After that, the most common way to come back to neutral is to breathe. 

Thor: Breathe? That’s so basic. I’m a superhero. Can’t you do better than that?

Claire: You are a god but you have enough human in you such that the breath is the way you can calm down the body. Think of your breath as the ax you use to fight the monster of anger? Does that help? When you focus on your breath, specifically the exhale, it sends a signal to the body that things are okay, that you’re safe. Try it out. Take a deep breath in, feeling what sensations happen as your lungs expand. Hold it for a moment. Then exhale and sense what it feels like to let go. 

Thor: *Rolls eyes but tries breathing* 

Claire: Let’s try that one more time. This time see if you can make that exhale just a beat longer than the inhale. 

Thor: *Continues on and then opens eyes*

Claire: Great job. How was that?

Thor: It helped. I still feel a little angry but I no longer wish to hit anything. But, I’m confused. I thought I was supposed to be calm when I meditated. You told me to feel angry. 

Claire: Excellent question. Meditation isn’t about just feeling calm. Many people do it to learn how to get calm or get back to it. But the real object of meditation is to learn to be present with whatever comes up. If that’s anger, then it’s practicing presence with anger. The reason this helps you get calm is that eventually you learn that when you are angry, you can just be angry and you don’t always have to act based on it. 

Thor: But what if I screw it up when things are too much?

Claire: You are going to screw things up. Meditation doesn’t make you perfect. It just gives you a new tool to use. The next part is forgiving yourself but I think the rest of the movie is going to cover that, so I will let you and Jane be. 

Thor: Movie? What? 

Claire: Ummm, errr . . . I just mean that I know you will figure that one out. But, if not, feel free to DM me @BrilliantLegalMind and we can talk again. Good luck with Gorr! 

Thor: Goodbye, strange woman from Earth! 

A bright light emerges again in the sky and a white circle enshrouds Claire. Thor and Jane return to talking and Claire continues watching from her seat in the theater. 

Don’t get me wrong, this post is not intended to tell you to meditation-splain to random people out in the world, particularly not if they are large superheroes with magical axes. But, if you have ever struggled with anger in meditation, at least you know you are in good company. Best of luck in your practice, fighting whatever monsters in life you have to fight, and I hope you enjoy the summer blockbuster movies as much as I have.

If you struggle with anger in meditation or otherwise, you aren’t alone. Check out this article I wrote for Above the Law which shared my experience with it and what helped me. If you have any strategies or practices that have helped you, leave us a comment to share your wisdom with others.

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Which Encanto Character Are You? Law Firm Edition

If you have small children or have just not been living under a rock for the last month, you probably know the lyrics to “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” by heart. Both of my girls are under 10, so although we don’t talk about Bruno we definitely have been singing about him, constantly, on a loop, for weeks now. And we have had vigorous philosophical debates about which character we like best and which is the worst. As someone who came of age in the era of internet identity tests, I couldn’t help but wonder which Encanto character I am. As a law firm partner, the next imaginings on the topic turned to my colleagues and lawyer friends.

When you think about it, the struggle of the family Madrigal in the midst of crisis and change isn’t too far off from the situations of many law firms trying to navigate technology, wellness, diversity, succession planning, and pandemic issues and move into the future. If you aren’t so sure, read on and find out which Encanto character you and your law firm colleagues might be.

Mirabel

Do you work in a firm and just stare blankly at people when they tell you that “you just have to find your niche”? You might be Mirabel. Although you haven’t quite figured out your superpower just yet, you are curious, collegial, and brave. If you have the support of compassionate firm mentors and enough freedom to explore, you might become a great leader because of your ability to see things that others ignore.

Abuela

Let’s be clear, the senior partners run the show. But, just like Abuela, they can become so fixated on stability that they block innovation and new leadership. At their worst, they may lead from fear and create toxic situations for others even when their intentions are good. Like Abuela, senior partners deserve respect for their ability to build stability in the midst of change over time but if that respect overawes all other voices the firm can’t evolve and it may alienate and stifle talented attorneys.

Luisa

In the firm setting, Luisa can come in many forms. They can be the big rainmaker who brings in the lion’s share of the firm business but feels burdened by the job. They might be the person who is effective at managing firm housekeeping and either volunteers or is voluntold for all the committees. It can even be that support staff member who goes out of their way to take care of others but gets taken advantage of when all the filing deadlines fall on the same day. These people struggle to ask for help and make a point of making things look easy. They are wonderful and critical elements of the team, but good firm leaders know to be proactive to check in on their status regularly to ensure that they don’t feel like a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus.

Isabela

The Isabela of the law firm is the person who shows exceptional talent and value in one area but struggles to expand their role. They may be an excellent writer or have a specific knowledge of technical issues that nobody else understands. Because these attorneys have found and excelled in their niche, they may usually appear like things are as sweet as rows and rows of roses. Growth, however, doesn’t just mean continued productivity and solid billable hours. It can also mean learning, trying new things, and surprising oneself with new skills. Safe firm cultures and open communication are essential to help these skilled attorneys avoid becoming pigeonholed so they have someone besides a recruiter to ask “what else can I do?”

Camilo

Camilo is the foil of Isabela. This is the attorney who literally believes he or she can do any matter that comes up. These lawyers are often plucky, scrappy, and unsinkable and law firms can often use that energy to their advantage. On the other hand, figuring out the true selling points and marketing an attorney with a practice like this can be as confusing as trying to find the real Camilo in any scene in Encanto.

Julieta

The COVID-19 pandemic may have put a temporary freeze on the person who brings cookies (or arepas) into the office to feed everyone, but the odds are that your firm nevertheless has a Julieta. For attorneys, this is the person whose office everyone runs to for advice or just to be heard. This could be a support staff member or administrator who goes the extra mile to not just do the work but also bring calm and kindness to everything they do. These people are mild, steady, and gracious. They may not always advocate for themselves but, because they are essential to the sanity of the entire organization, firm leaders should acknowledge and reward their efforts.

Pepa

All law firms like to say that they are collegial. I’ve heard most firms say how kind and decent everyone is. But I have never heard a firm claim that there are no drama queens around. It happens in every organization. The Pepa of your firm can bring the sunshine at a firm happy hour or party and may be quick to share a joke or story. They may also be the first to get lost in a storm of emotion when the network goes down at 4 PM and a brief is due. If this is you, surround yourself with steady, stable people and keep reading this blog so you can learn some strategies for managing stress.

Antonio

Unless you firm allows pets in the workplace, you may think there’s no place for Antonio in this quiz, but my obsession will not be deterred by anything so paltry as literal truth. In the firm setting, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that Antonio’s skill of talking with animals can be analogized to the uncanny skill that some lawyers have in dealing with clients. Surely, clients are people just like us lawyers, but in most cases their brains were not warped by 3 years of law school so this can sometimes make communication with clients a struggle. The Antonio of your firm is the person who can speak the language of clients across industries and build deep and lasting relationships with them.

Dolores

The Dolores of the firm is the person who just seems to know what is going on even when the partners all believe incorrectly it’s a secret. They may or may not tell everyone about what they know. If you are friends with Dolores, try to listen more than you talk and you may learn some interesting things.

Bruno

Yes, at last, we are going to talk about Bruno. I truly hope that you don’t have any lawyers driven mad by their visions of the future living with rats in the walls of your firm. So, what is the Bruno of your law firm? Well, Bruno is whatever issue your firm doesn’t want to talk about. Maybe it’s compensation. Maybe it’s succession planning. Or diversity. Or low morale. All firms have a Bruno but it’s the ones that eventually learn to talk about it that will be able to stabilize their casita to continue serving the community in the future.

So, which Encanto character are you? It’s a fun question to ask, and many of us may exhibit elements of more than one character. But, for law firm leaders, the lessons in Encanto about crisis and organizational change may be more than just family fun. Just like casita, law firms are also full of stars who want to shine, but their leaders must recognize and account for the fact that constellations shift to keep the magic going.

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Knight School: What New Lawyers Can Learn from The Green Knight

Author’s Note: Spoiler alert. There is some detail in this post about what happens in the movie and how it ends. The symbolism in The Green Knight is heavy and I personally benefited from some excellent analysis about the movie that I read online. In addition, though the movie is new, the story is not. If you aren’t familiar with the poem and prefer to be surprised, watch the movie first and then come back later to read.

When I left the theater after watching The Green Knight, I wasn’t sure what to think. I was mostly confused, a little surprised that the theater wasn’t totally empty, and I wondered out loud to my husband why the critic reviews had been so good. It wasn’t really that the movie was bad, but it was slow. Though it was about knights, there was hardly anything knightly about it. There was only one sword fight, and I knew going in how that would end. Even while watching the movie, I wasn’t rapt with suspense, though curiosity glued my eyes to the screen as I tried to unpack the symbolism in each scene.

The curiosity, it turns out, didn’t stop when I waked out of the theater. Most of the time with movies, you have an experience, perhaps a catharsis. You know the message. You feel the emotion. You may reflect or talk for a few minutes about what the movie meant, but then you quickly move on. But I couldn’t with The Green Knight. I kept thinking about it for days after I watched it. What did the movie mean? What was the point? Having studied mindfulness enough to know some Buddhist philosophy and being familiar with Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, I knew the basic gist of the story: we humans aren’t in control of many things in life but it is the acceptance of our lack of control that gives us the capacity for greatness.

That part was clear with the Green Knight’s threat to take off Gawain’s head and Gawain’s obsessive clinging to the magical green girdle he thought would protect him. It was only when Gawain finally set the girdle aside, and leaned forward to accept his beheading, that the Green Knight pronounced him a “good knight.” The movie doesn’t tell us what happens next, but, if you are familiar with the poem, you may know that Gawain does not get beheaded after all.

So why was this movie stuck in my brain? Because it didn’t just give us the needed reminder that we aren’t in control of things in life, it also showed how the stories we create and try to live up to as we go about our lives are part of the illusion of control that we must escape. From the outset of Gawain’s journey to face the Green Knight, he fails to live up to the standards for knights from the epic poems. Gawain appears to agree to fight the Green Knight at first, not out of courage or conviction, but instead because Arthur primed him in the minutes before the Green Knight’s appearance to believe he ought to start becoming somebody important.

When he leaves the castle walls on his quest, Gawain is quickly bested by 3 nihilistic teens and robbed of his horse, armor, and the green girdle his mother made to protect him. He’s left hogtied in a forest, presumably to die but narrowly and awkwardly escapes death. Gawain then wanders lost through the woods and stumbles upon the ghost of St. Winifred, a woman beheaded for her chastity, who must shame him into helping her secure her disembodied head. And he utterly fails in the house of a lord he encounters before facing the Green Knight. He is totally outsmarted, outclassed, and beguiled by the lady of the house and accepts in rather humiliating circumstances the gift of his magically restored protective green girdle from her.  She brands him “no true knight” for this encounter because Gawain cannot let go of the lust for protection and control. As Gawain runs from the house, telling himself he’s heading to face the Green Knight and not merely running away from his shame, Gawain fails again. He meets the lord of the house in the woods and reneges on his promise to give everything he received at the house back to the lord before he departs. Though he offers a farewell kiss, Gawain leaves without mentioning the green girdle the lady had given him.

So why do I love this? I love this because Gawain is us. Though played masterfully by Dev Patel, the character Gawain doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. He goes out into the world, like us, with no instructional manual. He’s forced to try to make something out of himself, perhaps due to pressure from his family or the idea that he’s got big shoes to fill. At first, he falls flat on his face. He gets taken advantage of by bad people and suffers dearly. But from that he learns something really important: what it’s like to suffer. And he uses that knowledge for good when, after a little prompting from her, he helps Winfred even though she has nothing to give him. But then, just like us silly humans, Gawain fails again. He goes back to a house that looks enough like his home in Camelot and he forgets what he just learned. He falls prey again to the idea that he can find a lasting security and he clings again to his green girdle and hides it from the lord.

But even this big dope of a guy—even Gawain who keeps messing up—learns. By the end of his relatively uninspiring journey, he learns the truth he needs to understand to do anything great at all: that security and safety (at least the lasting kind) are myths. Before he faces the Green Knight, Gawain is shaking with fear and has a vision of himself running away and returning to Camelot. In this vision, Gawain’s unearned legend for bravery precedes him and leads him to rise in favor and ultimately become king. The vision though foretells the personal costs he must suffer and the harm he must do to others to take that path. More significantly, the death of his loved ones and the depicted fall of his empire tell us that none of this so-called greatness will last anyway. It is this vision, stark as it is, that knocks sense into Gawain and forces him to set the green girdle aside and lean in as the Green Knight prepares to take his head. 

In other words, Gawain is not a perfect knight or a terrible knight. He’s a deeply human knight. When he tried to look like a perfect knight, he failed to live his values and suffered for it. When he, instead, faced life as it was, unmitigated by any appeals to magical thinking, he became the true knight and even his past failings couldn’t tarnish that. I love this movie because it depicts the silliness we humans fall prey to, but also how we learn and progress. It shows how easily we fall into old stories and mental images of what we think we ought to be.

It also shows how those stories can keep us from helping each other and being ourselves and how they can even make us feel justified to cause others pain. Indeed, unlike many films depicting Arthurian legends, this one examines some of the old stories and legends even as it retells one. It contrasts the tale of St. Winifred, a woman brutalized and robbed totally of her agency, with the often violent heroism for which men of the time were praised. Likewise, Gawain’s final vision examines the merits of the knightly legends as well as the value of titles and power, which not only fade but may also lead to the perpetration of violence against others, including loved ones.

So, why on earth do I offer this review in a blog about mindfulness for lawyers? Well, for one thing, the Arthurian legends are some of the best-known examples of the hero’s journey in the West and those tales still have a lot to offer us in terms of illustrating the paths of mindfulness and compassion. More significantly, though, I’ve been a new lawyer. I know what it’s like to go out into the world, thinking you have a part to play and battles to fight to make your name. I have experienced the pain of not fitting the stories in my mind about the lawyer I thought I was supposed to be, but that was soon followed by the benefits of learning to be myself. When I stopped emulating the myth of the lawyer persona in my mind, I started practicing law my way and I served my clients better, found much more happiness, and, even in the midst of stress and fear, had some fun.

I think the creators of The Green Knight made a tactical decision to make Gawain much younger and less established than the well-sung hero of the ancient poem. They made him young because I think the filmmakers were talking to the young. They were telling the young that, like Gawain observed, our leaders are aging, our stories from the past need to be examined, but we have no choice but to go and try and fail. If we do this with open hearts, a willingness to face our own shame and accept what we cannot control, we may just become good knights and do some good in the world. It’s a hard world to be living in and a difficult time to be practicing law, but The Green Knight tells us that you don’t have to be perfect or fit the mold to be a “good knight.” Instead, you only have to accept the realities of life, including your own humanity, and be willing to face the things that scare you. This is a lesson any young knight, human, or lawyer could certainly use. Thus, just like life, The Green Knight may confound, confuse, and mystify you, but if you can sit back and let the lessons it is offering come to you, you may come to see how good it really is.

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Joy Is Remembering Heaven Is a Place on Earth

I got to my mother’s house late to pick up my daughters. I was exhausted and had just finished a too long evening meeting. I had an early meeting the next day and felt overburdened by life. As always, it took too long and too much frustration for my daughters, one 8 and one 4, to get on their shoes, gather up their belongings, and trundle out to the car. After I buckled them in and sat in the drivers’ seat, I started to pull out of the driveway in a rush to get home and into pajamas as quickly as possible.

Before I got to the end of the drive, the four-year-old chirps “Mommy, can we listen to ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’?” Sometimes, I admit, I brush her off and tell her “Not now, baby; it’s only a short ride.” But that night, I needed her to ask me this question. I needed the reminder that life is what we make it and what we see in it. So instead, I stopped, looked back to smile at her, and said “Good idea, Ellie. Yes we can!”

I don’t remember exactly how this song came to be a special one for us. Most likely the genesis is some 80’s playlist on Amazon Music, but I can see why the girls loved it even though it came out when I was Elinor’s age. It’s catchy, easy to sing, and has this uncanny sound – like a new beginning and happy ending all in one. I started playing it and as I sang “when the night falls down, I wait for you and you come around” I was already in a better mood than when I had pulled into the driveway.

As I started to drive towards home, the song blared on reminding me that I’m still “just beginning to understand the miracle of living.” The girls were singing and smiling in the backseat and I found myself smiling too. At a light, my little one yelled “mommy!” at me to get me to hold her hand and bounce it as we sang “I reach for you and you bring me home.” And suddenly I wasn’t just an overburdened, overwhelmed lawyer mom anymore. Instead, for a moment, I was a little girl sitting in the back of my mom’s minivan singing that song with my sister as it played on the radio.

There are lots of warnings for us parents to be “present” for our children. When you live as a lawyer, that can be hard to do. Our cases can fill up our calendars as well as our minds. They can leave little room for things like fun and memories and random adventures that lead to joy and connection. So that’s why we need other people to call us back to real life every now and then, even if sometimes we have to make ourselves listen. When we give them the chance, they remind us that there is no need to constantly worry and plan because the past and future are in each moment if we only choose to see it.

This memory was only a small moment, and many would argue an insignificant one. After all, I am telling you a story about a time when I played an old (and some might say silly) song in the car with my kids. But you know what? I don’t necessarily just remember the big, momentous occasions with my parents. I remember the small ones. I remember riding around to soccer practice and piano lessons in my mom’s minivan. I remember listening to the news on public radio in my dad’s Ford. I remember making up silly games with my sister in the backseat. For this reason, I know a truth that is easy to overlook: joy doesn’t require hours to emerge and it doesn’t require life-changing events. Instead, joy can be made in moments, and it is those moments that actually change our lives.

The key to living a joyful life is to be open to these moments so we can appreciate as many of them as possible. Of course, we won’t catch every one. Of course, there will be times when we will be too tired, or too distracted or too busy. But this only makes the moments we appreciate, fully take in, and share with others more precious. This memory with my daughters was one of those times. In a few moments, it transformed an exhausting and frustrating day into a good memory. It turned a silly song into a meeting place for my four-year-old self and the four-year-old now riding in the backseat of my car. That night when I went to pick up my girls, I was lost at sea, but I heard that four-year-old’s voice and it carried me. It reminded me that joy, fleeting as it may be, is powerful. It can forge a connection in moments that lasts well after the emotion that sparked it has passed. Indeed, when we let ourselves remember it, heaven is a place on earth.

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