It’s Well-Being Week in Law this week. If you are familiar with the mental health challenges in the legal profession, this may not be surprising. Even so, you may ask yourself what exactly does “well-being” mean?
There are many ways to define this. Some take the approach of creating buckets or categories which ensure that the various aspects of lawyers’ lives are addressed. This includes everything from physical, mental, emotional, to spiritual and even financial needs.
There’s nothing wrong with that approach. Looking at it from that vantage point may serve as a guide for firms or organizations which must set policy that affect employees or members. Even so, the bucket approach has limitations because it’s not as fluid as real life.
As someone who has always been skeptical about the idea of work-life balance, I prefer something a bit more flexible. Instead of filling buckets, I prefer a process based on habits and practices that flow into and support one another. A process like this can shift and change with the seasons of life. Like the bucket approach above, however, it is premised on the assumption that lawyers are humans first and their human needs must be met.
So what are our human needs? We need to take care of our bodies, minds, and hearts. But to be happy we also need to connect with others in community and grow. These five steps cycle into each other to form my process for lawyer well-being, which I share below.
Lawyers can struggle with well-being for a fundamental reason: we are often lost in our thoughts. Attunement to our bodily experiences is, thus, an important place to start for improving personal wellness. Even if you struggle with this, small changes over time can increase body awareness, which can help you identify and tend to personal needs on an ongoing basis.
This may sound basic and that’s because it is. This aspect is about reconnecting with the actual experience of life every day. Technology and the rush of our lives do not lend themselves well to staying present in our bodily experiences. Everything from alcohol to Netflix can serve as a numbing tool if we don’t reflect on how we use them.
A billable hour system means that we are validated by productivity and can easily correlate hours worked with worth. Without rest, however, performance, productivity, and creativity suffer. Rest, of course, is only effective when we truly can allow ourselves to relax and recharge.
Sleep is a huge part of the rest we need as humans. With our very active minds, however, we lawyers may also need to develop practices to learn how to deeply relax. If our nervous system stays on high alert, it can prevent us from relaxing or sleeping, and lead to other health problems. With our heavy reliance on technology, rest may not always be just “doing nothing”, but instead might include doing another activity “in real life” and without any screens.
As rational beings, lawyers can easily struggle with processing our own emotions. Our public personas as strong, capable, and professional may also make it difficult for us to tend to our own pain, fear, and vulnerability. Yet, precisely because we deal with risk, tension, and conflict, we need to learn to understand and care for our emotions.
One of the reasons that healing is hard for lawyers is that processing emotions takes time and patience. Some emotional experiences won’t make sense to us if we are not attuned to our bodies and don’t have the time to sit with them. Stigma and feeling like we always must present as being in control and competent can make this a challenge too.
Lawyers are often around other people. To do our jobs, we often have to deal with a variety of personalities. We usually must also network and build our reputations broadly across groups. Despite this, lawyers experience loneliness more than other professions.
Real connection means that we feel we are able to be ourselves. It also requires a sense of belonging in our firms, families, and communities. It means that there must be some meeting point for our inner experience and the outer world.
Because our lives are busy, we may have to plan ahead to schedule in activities even with people we love. In addition, life changes rapidly so social dynamics do too. On top of this, some of the social institutions humans have looked to for belonging are no longer as prominent as they once were. Though it can feel strange that keeping in touch with friends may take work, the effort is well worth it. Do not take feelings of disconnection to mean there is something wrong with you.
Growth for lawyers can be a double-edged sword. We all want growth, but as achievers we can easily develop unreasonable expectations for constant growth. In addition, we may experience expansion without real evolution or the development of skills to support growth long-term.
The profession and most firms are experiencing rapid change right now, which often presents opportunities for growth. One thing to remember, though, is that growth is not necessarily always pleasant. Because it can be scary, stressful and volatile, we may need to have periods of rest and relative inactivity and to rely on the other skills and supports to assist as we establish equilibrium.
I know that there are many frameworks and ideas out there for living a good life. Options are a wonderful thing, but this is the process that has served me well and the one I teach individuals and audiences in seminars. If you want to think through this process for yourself, check out my new Personal Well-Being Worksheet here.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.
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