- PCLaw | Time Matters
For Anxious Or Stressed-Out Lawyers, Mindfulness Can Help
Lawyer turned writer Jeena Cho knows a lot about stress and anxiety.
The long hours mixed with the sense of duty she felt towards both her clients and chosen profession, Cho eventually hit a breaking point.
“It was like I needed a doctor’s note to stop from working all the time,” Cho says, laughing.
A lawyer who specialized in bankruptcy and family law, Cho now realizes that she was like many legal professionals – constantly bombarded with the rigor of stress and anxiety in the workplace.
Through her journey to alleviate her stress, Cho ultimately captured her experiences and discoveries into “The Anxious Lawyer,” a self-help book for legal professionals who deal with the common industry challenge of stress and anxiety.
Many legal professionals grapple with stress on multiple levels throughout their daily lives. Through mindfulness practices, meditation, and other activities, legal professionals can better enable themselves to take challenging emotions they feel as part of their job and process them in ways that can lead to better physiological health.
An Industry Hazard
According to a 2016 study that was published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, researchers surveyed approximately 12,000 lawyers in fairly equal numbers of both men and women. Their findings were a wake-up call for the entire legal industry. Over the course of their legal career:
· 61.1% reported experiencing anxiety.
· 45.7% reported experiencing feelings of depression.
· 8% reported experiencing some type of panic disorder.
· 11.5% reported suicidal thoughts at some point during their career.
· 2.9% reported self-injurious behavior.
Additionally, 6.8% of the lawyers who participated reported past treatment for alcohol or drug use, and 0.7% reported at least one prior suicide attempt.
These findings led the American Bar Association to call for greater awareness of mental health issues within the legal industry as well as support for lawyer assistance programs, which offer counseling services and therapy to legal professionals.
For Cho, the root cause of many of these issues is tied to the nature of her profession. As part of her job she worked with clients who faced bankruptcy, domestic abuse, and even the death of loved ones. These encounters with human suffering led to trauma.
“I don’t think it’s possible to be in a practice area where you don’t come into contact with human trauma and not have it impact you, whether that be bankruptcy, or family law, or criminal defense -- you name it,” Cho says. “Somehow you’re supposed to create this bubble or buffer between yourself and some client, but this is just a myth.
“We know from so much science that witnessing another human being experiencing trauma has a direct impact on you.”
Cho recalls many instances where she was in close proximity to other people who were suffering on a profound level, and notes that these experiences can often result in secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, and even symptoms that resemble PTSD.
A major barrier for legal professionals to address these challenges is the perceived stigma of seeking help or admitting that something is wrong.
According to the same study in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, the two most common barriers for those who did not seek treatment were not wanting others to find out they needed help and concerns regarding privacy or confidentiality.
On a more benign level, another reason that many legal professionals struggle with stress and anxiety is, according to Cho, because they think they are a necessary part of their jobs, which is understandable given the combative nature of court cases and legal maneuvers. Some lawyers even wear these mental health challenges as a badge of honor.
“Some lawyers have this feeling of, ‘I have to be stressed or anxious all the time because it’s a sign that I’m doing my job well,” Cho says. “I remember when I was an associate, there was this contest about who can work more, who can bill more hours, and pull two all-nighters in a row.
“There’s some expectation that the practice of law be miserable and that you be unhappy and there’s not a lot of role models for what practicing law in a healthy and sustainable way looks like.”
Learning A New Way
When Cho knew that she needed help, she enrolled in a series of anxiety management and behavioral therapy classes at Stanford University. There, she studied the benefits of mindfulness.
“It was life changing,” Cho says. “I realized so much that the stress and anxiety I was experiencing was my own interpretation of the situation or how I was coping with it cognitively,” Mindfulness has become something of a buzzword, and its meaning varies depending on the source. However, most experts agree that it means maintaining the focus of one’s conscious mind on the present moment rather than constantly rehashing the past or stressing out about the future.
To start her mindfulness journey, Cho began by just reshaping the way she thought about her day-to-day life.
“I just learned all of these tools for managing my mind and my thoughts better,” Cho says. “Also really just understanding a lot of the root thoughts which are something along the lines of ‘I’m not good enough,’ ‘I’m not smart enough,’ or ‘I don’t belong here.’
“Those type of thoughts just exacerbated the situation and increased the stress and anxiety.”
Cho also added a meditation routine to her mindfulness practice.
The Myths Of Meditation
When discussing meditation, for some, the very word conjures imagery of a relentless truth-seeker on a vision quest in the mountains of Tibet, braving intense cold and steep mountains in a search for a sacred monastery or temple.
According to Cho, legal professionals – many of whom are type-A personalities – approach mindfulness with what could be described as an ‘Alpha Meditation’ fallacy. This is where novice practitioners might think they need optimal space or total solitude, the best meditation chair or pillow, or the perfect meditation app on their smart phone in order to begin their mindfulness journey.
“Life is going to continue to happen and there’s no perfect setting,” Cho says.
And while there are several meditation apps that Cho would recommend as well as a series of guided meditations that she offers with her book, she believes the only thing legal professionals need to get started is time.
“I have a two-year-old in my household, and she’s always running around,” Cho says. “And really, meditation is all about sitting in the midst of the tornado of your life and finding that sense of inner calm.”
Another notion that Cho counters in her book is the idea that meditation is tied to a specific religion or spiritual practice.
“Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness,” Cho says.
Mindfulness In The Moment
Few people in modern history have earned the right to be stressed out more than Winston Churchill. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the World War II, Churchill managed the demands of an entire nation during incredibly challenging times.
After his political career had ended, Churchill spent his ‘retirement’ as a famous author and a highly demanded public speaker.
Yet Churchill managed to carve out time for his hobby as a bricklayer. Claiming to lay “200 bricks and 2,000 words a day,” Churchill plied his craft as an accomplished bricklayer to build walls around his home, a cottage for his daughters, and even a swimming pool.
Churchill laid bricks not because he needed to, but because this physical labor helped the world leader process the mental labor that was part of his life.
It is unlikely that Churchill was familiar with the concept of mindfulness, but that’s exactly how one might consider his lifelong bricklaying hobby.
“I love that story,” Cho says.
Cho adds that mindfulness practices can take on a myriad of forms and activities.
“You can practice mindful showering, mindful eating, mindful speaking,” Cho says. “Really noticing when your mind has become distracted and very gently returning it to the present moment.”
During the pandemic, there were fewer opportunities to separate Cho’s work life from her home life, or more importantly, to take a break from her family. Because of this she took a meditative approach to a simple, daily activity: Washing her hands before making dinner.
Focusing on the tactile experience of the water and the soap on her hands, Cho would just take a moment to explore where her mind was focusing its energies. “Typically, my mind is going 150 miles per hour thinking about work,” Cho says. “But in this moment when I’m washing my hands, I just pay attention to the sensation of the soap and the water and the smell of the soap and just allowed myself to wash the day away.”
Assistance When You Need It
Meditation and mindfulness can be part of any legal professional’s routine for helping to maintain positive mental health.
However, there are situations where one’s need could be more dire than one that is successfully managed with routine maintenance – where a legal professional should consider getting help.
Stress and other mental health concerns are common among legal professionals. It is because of this that there are confidential resources available across virtually all states and territories in North America.
In the United States, the bar associations in every state offer Legal Assistance Programs (or LAP). LAPs help by providing confidential services and support to judges, lawyers, and law students who are facing substance abuse disorders and mental health issues. To view a directory of LAPs that are available, visit https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/resources/lap_programs_by_state/.
In Canada, the Canadian Bar Association provides a similar service called Well-Being Programs. These programs offer counseling, professional development, and other useful information on mental health issues as well as lawyer wellbeing.
A directory of Well-Being Programs in all regions of Canada can be found by visiting https://www.cba.org/Sections/Wellness-Subcommittee/Wellness-Programs.
To learn more about Jeena Cho and her work, visit her website at https://jeenacho.com/.