By Andy Wolfe and Barbara Monty

It would be hard to find a lawyer who does not think law is a stressful profession—perhaps not surprising in a profession centered on conflict. And while stress can be useful, it can easily lead to serious problems, including substance abuse and poor mental health. Indeed, the ABA has documented an alarming degree of “lawyer impairment” in the profession. In 2015, the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), in conjunction with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, facilitated national research on lawyer impairment. The results of this study reveal the disturbing incidence of substance abuse and mental health issues among U.S. lawyers, judges, and law students:

  • 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers
  • 28 percent struggle with some level of depression
  • 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety
  • 11.5 percent admitted to having suicidal thoughts at some time during their career
  • Younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of these problems.

All of these numbers are far higher than for the general population. For those who attended MCBA’s annual gala, you heard a compelling first-hand story of mental health struggles from one of our very own scholarship recipients. No wonder thirty percent of lawyers would choose a different profession if they could start over and law has the highest rate of dissatisfaction of any profession.

Of course, many lawyers, mediators, and judges have found ways not only to cope with stress in the profession but to thrive. Below we share a few of the ways that we and several colleagues here in Marin not only cope with stress but seek to improve the practice of law for ourselves, our clients and our colleagues.

JOY IN THE LAW

Marin County employment and privacy law attorney Diana Maier and several other Marin County women attorneys (who were already meeting monthly to network) put together a conference in 2016 on Joy in the Law that was so successful that they are putting it on again on September 28, 2018. Since the original conference, the attorneys group has changed its name to the Joy in the Law group, and one of its members, Brittny Bottorff, started a San Francisco Joy in the Law group.

Both groups’ mission is to increase personal satisfaction and fulfillment in the legal profession. They do this, in part, through sharing work and life practices that generate happiness and discussing how to ethically and professionally address challenging situations that arise in the workplace. The women provide support and friendship to one another and also serve as a networking group. They generally meet on the first Thursday of the month from 7:30 to 9:00 AM at II Fornaio restaurant in Corte Madera. They occasionally have special events, dinners, and presentations. For more information, visit their site or contact Diana. For information on the SF group, contact Brittny.

MINDFUL LAWYERING: A MEDITATION RETREAT FOR LAWYERS

This five-day retreat takes place at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre. It provides lawyers with an opportunity to meditate, to build community with fellow lawyer-meditators, and to explore the particular importance of mindfulness to lawyers in a time of social change. This retreat includes evening talks and other presentations on the principles of mindfulness and on applying mindfulness to strengthening lawyering skills, enhancing well-being, and building resilience. It offers MCLE credits for Recognition and Elimination of Bias, Competence Issues, and Legal Ethics. Held every other year, this retreat most recently took place in the fall of 2017 and is planned for the fall of 2019. You can sign up for Spirit Rock’s email announcements, including retreat information, here.

MARIN MEDITATION GROUP

This group was started several years ago by Marin lawyers who wanted to create a supportive environment for lawyers to get together at lunchtime to meditate. Both of your authors attend the twice-a-month noontime sessions as often as they can, which take place in the second-floor conference room (No. 285) at 1000 Fourth Street in San Rafael. We begin by meditating for 25 minutes and then we take turns talking about how we’re doing, sharing anything from professional concerns to personal issues to questions about meditation practice itself. To get on our email list or for a copy of the current schedule, contact Andy Wolfe.

IREST MEDITATION

The Editor-in-Chief of this very publication both practices and teaches (to lawyers especially) an easy and effective type of meditation called iRest®. When Rob first came across it, he was impressed that the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are two of the biggest consumers of the practice. “They use it to help treat PTSD very effectively. For me, the fact that you can get a bunch of soldiers to sit around and meditate and then talk about how helpful it is was a great testimonial.” He notes that there are a number of short films and videos of soldiers talking about how helpful it is, such as this inspiring video on YouTube.

iRest is a research-based, westernized version of yoga nidra, an ancient type of meditation. Its accessibility and flexibility appealed to him: “Unlike many other types of meditation, iRest takes the mind through a number of different activities and you don’t have to do each one every time. You can take five minutes at lunch to recharge with one or two steps and you can take twenty or thirty minutes before bed to go into deep relaxation. I liked how instead of years of practice to feel like you were getting somewhere, my very first practice was deeply relaxing.” Rob is now a certified iRest teacher and in addition to corporate teaching, he leads a weekly meditation at San Francisco’s Integral Yoga Institute. “I love how even when I am leading a class, I can feel the benefits of iRest myself, not to mention the reward of helping others experience them.” [Editor’s Note: You can read more about iRest in Rob’s Marin Lawyer article about it here.]

TIPS FROM AN ABA INSIDER

Francine Ward serves on the ABA’s Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs, which helped develop the grim statistics at the beginning of this article. We asked her for advice on coping with stress in the profession. The first thing she said struck us as a critical observation: “As much as I want to blame external forces, much of my stress is self-imposed. It’s about the choices I make. Once I accepted that harsh truth, I was able to make some necessary changes.” She says that the steps she has taken fall into three general categories: health, work, relationships. In her own words, here are the top ten very practical steps she has taken to reduce stress:

1. I recognize that my life is about MY choices. I am no longer a victim of circumstances.
2. Thirty-eight years ago, I got help for my substance abuse problem. Addiction is itself a stressor.
3. Two years ago, I stopped eating sweets. I had a deadly sweet tooth, which kept me hyped up all the time.
4. I exercise most days. Running helps me reduce tension and manage my weight.
5. I drink three to four quarts of water every day. Staying hydrated keeps me regular.
6. My stress dropped exponentially when I stopped working for a New York law firm.
7. I charge a flat rate for most of my legal work and I get paid up front, reducing the need to worry about getting paid.
8. I learned that “NO” is a complete sentence all by itself. I am responsible for protecting my boundaries.
9. I make time for my girlfriends. Every week I have a meal or a walk with a gal pal.
10. Finally, I have interests other than law.

FORGIVENESS IN THE LAW

Managing stress can also very much be about how you approach your cases and your clients. One of your authors—Barbara Monty—found that many of her litigation and mediation clients became blocked by holding on to resentments and pain from past harm. Several years ago, she began studying the psychological benefits of forgiving: “I was astonished to learn how forgiving lowers blood pressure, aids clear thinking and reduces stress.” Gradually she has incorporated principles of forgiveness into her litigation and mediation practice and has become certified as one of the few lawyers who is also a forgiveness coach.

This ongoing practice of letting go helps her to relieve her own stress, understand others and is helping clients make more informed decisions about their own lawsuits and their lives. Along with Judge Roy Chernus, Stanford Forgiveness Project founder Fred Luskin, and forgiveness coach Eileen Barker, Barbara provides training for lawyers and mediators wishing to learn more about the process of forgiveness and incorporate it into their lives and practices. For more information see this site or contact Barbara Monty.

THE CENTER FOR UNDERSTANDING IN CONFLICT

Based in Mill Valley, the Center is led by renowned mediators Gary Friedman and Catherine Connor and offers another approach to conflict that reduces stress in parties and lawyers. Simply put, their programs teach how to resolve conflicts by coming to a better understanding of the interests and emotions that have resulted in the conflict. Put even more simply, their programs cultivate compassion for the parties to the conflict. As stated on the Center’s website, “It’s never just about the money, or the issues on the agenda. Conflict is filled with difficult—even volatile—emotion, which often goes unacknowledged in the legal system and other professional or work settings. We teach lawyers, mediators, psychotherapists and other professionals who work with conflict to see, acknowledge and use the emotions in themselves and their clients to achieve a deeper understanding of the issues, and to find solutions that will genuinely satisfy the parties.” This is a profoundly humane approach to conflict resolution and, as both of your authors can attest, really does reduce stress.

The Center’s programs are usually not presented exclusively for lawyers but are attended by a large number of lawyers. The basic 40-hour training program provides MCLE credits for the full 40 hours. It will be offered at Green Gulch Farm, set in a lovely canyon above Muir Beach, beginning on March 21 and again on November 7. Find more information here.

No doubt other programs and groups right here in Marin help lawyers, mediators and our clients reduce stress, become better lawyers and enjoy work and life more. If you know of such resources, we encourage you to contact either Andy Wolfe or Barbara Monty and we will share an updated list of opportunities. We are committed to helping our profession, our clients and all of us lead healthy lives.