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Five rules to maintain your calm within the storm of lawyering

BY COLLEEN BYERS

As lawyers, we often meet people at their worst. It’s frequently a crisis that brings them to our door, seeking our guidance and counsel. They entrust their livelihood, their savings account, and their family to our capable legal minds. Throughout law school and regularly during practice, lawyers are trained, encouraged, and rewarded for their rational problem-solving skills and keen analytical minds.

Yet, more often than not, our clients need more. In addition to legal problem-solving, our clients have a myriad of emotional concerns that are intricately related to their legal issues. As counselors at law, we cannot ignore these important aspects of their case. 

So how do we help our clients navigate incredibly difficult emotions and life challenges without sacrificing our own personal well-being? Just as the lifeguard is trained in ways to rescue a troubled swimmer without himself being dragged underwater by a panicked and flailing human, lawyers also must guard against being pulled underwater by the storm of their client’s emotions. Here are the top five rules I follow to maintain my buoyancy among rough waters while serving my clients.

  1. Put your own oxygen mask on first

We all know the words that every flight attendant is required to say prior to departure. “Please put your own oxygen mask on before helping others.” Shortly after having our first child, I recall thinking to myself, “Yeah, right, I would give my life for this little being. There’s no way I’m going to put my own mask on first. I need to protect her first.” 

Isn’t that what lawyers are prone to do? To sacrifice themselves, and work to the brink of burnout for the benefit of their clients or their firm, even to the point it becomes detrimental to their own health and well-being? How is that actually working out for the vast majority of us?

According to a 2017 Lawyer Wellbeing Report from the American Bar Association National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, 28 percent of lawyers surveyed struggled with depression, 19 percent with anxiety and 23 percent with stress. The report indicated that the “parade of difficulties also include suicide, social alienation, work addiction, sleep deprivation, job dissatisfaction, a diversity crisis, complaints about work-life conflict, incivility, a narrowing of values so that profit predominates, and negative public perception.”

We must put own oxygen mask on first, even if we are not inclined to do so, even if we have no practice doing so. In order to best serve our clients, we must first take care of ourselves, and we can each start in some small way right now.

Taking care of ourselves looks different for each person, but here are a few suggestions: walking outside, reading a book just for fun, running, enjoying coffee or tea with a friend, biking, swimming, yoga, and meditation. You do not have to spend a lot of time taking care of yourself, but if you start treating yourself as your most important client, then your other clients, your colleagues, your family, and your friends will all benefit as well. 

  1. Give the benefit of the doubt

How often do we rush to judgment and assume bad intent? Law school and lawyering tends to hone our cynicism, skepticism, and distrust. What would happen if, instead, we assume good until proven otherwise? When we reserve judgment and assume good, a natural curiosity emerges. Then we can learn more about our client, about the other side’s client, and ultimately better serve our client’s interests. That usually results in a more favorable outcome for our client and a more satisfying attorney-client relationship.

  1. Don’t take things personally

It may be hard to imagine, but it is usually not about you. A harsh email, a curt voice message, or a sharp remark in court can all be difficult to deal with and can sting. Our natural instinct is to put up our dukes and fight back. Usually, though, we are just a convenient whipping post because our client is hurting or our opposing counsel is struggling (and has neglected to put his own oxygen mask on first).

Think of an animal caught in a trap. It is in pain, feeling scared and stressed. When you approach to help free it, do not be alarmed if it snaps and snarls at you in self-defense. It has nothing to do with you. When I feel myself getting worked up, notice my voice rising, see my hands gesturing more vehemently, I know to take a deep breath. I know I need to stop and remember that it is not about me.

  1. Use fewer words

Obviously, our clients come to us for our wise counsel, but if we jump in with suggestions and recommendations before our clients have felt fully heard and understood, then we may not be meeting all of our clients’ needs and interests. We have the ability to give our clients the gift of deep listening and genuine acknowledgment of their experiences. This necessarily means we need to use fewer words ourselves. This also means that when we do give advice, it should be clear and concise.

  1. Smile (better yet, laugh)

We all know the old adage that laughter is the best medicine. Now studies support this proposition. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article written by Betty-Ann Heggie, laughter decreases stress, increases engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.

A kind smile or a contagious laugh can instantly put people at ease and reduce tension in a room. Scientifically, laughter enhances the intake of oxygen-rich air, which increases the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are the “feel good” hormone. Laughing with someone literally makes you like being around that person more. 

We are only human. Inevitably, we will feel battered by the storms of our clients’ lives, but by remembering these five rules, we can be the anchor in the storm, solid and steady.

Colleen Byers is a partner at Bell Davis & Pitt in Winston-Salem. She handles trust, estate and fiduciary disputes as well as employment and trade secrets litigation, and is also a certified mediator.

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