Know Yourself and Help Others: Wellness and Professionalism Go Hand-in-Hand

I closed my practice at the end of January, took down my shingle, and went inactive with the state bar. Soon after, Anina Dalsin asked me to share how, despite challenges I faced along the way, she, at least, thought I had practiced with confidence, grace, and wellbeing. So, either I put on one helluva show over my 35 years of practice, or I managed pretty well. It made me think, what did I learn about these topics in my years of being an active lawyer? And if I did learn something, would my education be useful if I shared it with others? And crucially, how do I share it without relying on the war stories that attorneys are so fond of telling?

We all experience challenges in law and in life: long hours, successes, defeats, promotions, partnerships, dissolutions, marriages, children, illnesses, deaths, etc. Some of my challenges were typical and some not so. Early in my career, I was empaneled on a Federal Grand Jury for 18 months which delayed my path to partnership. My second child was autistic, necessitating a lot of attention and effort to get an appropriate education for him. In the ‘90s, a 10-year regulatory battle with the Army Corp of Engineers in regard to a family farm ended well, but on one occasion I thought I might leave the land in handcuffs. My wife suffered Stage 4 Lymphoma: a year of terror and treatment, fortunately with a happy ending.

I am not diminishing the challenges others have and will face; it is part of life. The background noise (sometimes deafening) affects all careers. It is just that with the law, the intensity of what we do makes the challenges very impactful and also makes us vulnerable to certain fictions:

Fallacy #1: “Everyone else is more skilled than I am.”

There is a psychological danger in comparing yourself to other attorneys. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. There are the attorneys who can cite code sections and relevant cases at just the right moment. That’s not you? Don’t worry; no-one is the “complete package.” They are just putting their best foot forward in full view. (Perhaps that is all that they can do.) If you can’t do a particular thing or have a go-to strength don’t assume that you are a second-class lawyer. Someone is always going to have a strength that you don’t have. And the real danger (especially for young lawyers) is to compare yourself to all of the lawyers you meet who have strengths you don’t have. Then, once you have put each of them into one template for comparison purposes, you make the jump to thinking that every other lawyer has all of the strengths you don’t. Stop. They don’t. Be confident with what you are good at.

Fallacy #2: “I have to know EVERYTHING to be good.”

There is danger in thinking you don’t know enough. Take a breath. It is law; you can always look it up. Moreover, you simply *can’t* know everything, any more than you can practice effectively in every area of law. As lawyers we are (or should be) learning constantly. Not a day went by in my 35 years of practice that I did not learn something new. Be honest with yourself and others. Saying “Wow, I didn’t know that” is not an admission of failure, but a sign of honesty and willingness to understand. Sometimes saying “can you explain that to me” can create a bridge that would not exist if you tried to bluff your way through. It can often defuse a situation. (And sometimes while working through the learning process you discover that what is being explained is not applicable or on point. It might even be someone else’s bluff!) Be graceful and open to those who open up to you as to their lack of knowledge. Learning to build bridges can be beneficial to finding resolution.

Fallacy #3: “Personal needs are a sign of weakness.”

In the current world, people have become more accepting of differences and limitations, but there are still gaps. If you were a diabetic at a deposition, you would not hesitate to let the others know that breaks are necessary. What if you are an old guy with bladder issues? I never hesitated to say I will need a break every so often in my later years of practice. (A lot less embarrassing than soiling myself.) Other personal issues are less apparent: maybe you have claustrophobia and can’t function in a small room, or you have social anxiety disorder and can’t go into a courtroom, or you are suffering from depression and can only manage four hours’ work a day. If you open up to people (partners, opposing counsel, judges) you would be surprised at what accommodations and concessions can be made. OK, one war story: After my son was born with Autism, I was so stressed and depressed that I could not imagine adding the stress of trying a case. I could do motion work, depositions, hearings, etc., but could not face a trial. When assigned a file that was assured of going to trial, I decided to tell the insurance adjusters who were my main source of revenue that I simply couldn’t do it. We arranged to transfer it to another attorney in the firm. Did it sink my practice? No. Both of the adjusters were not only accepting, but actually thanked me for being honest. And it did not hurt my business, which increasingly thrived on the negotiated settlements that were my strength. Open up about your human imperfections.

The Flip Side

Being personally healthy and seeking balance requires courage, but it also bestows an obligation to others. Being graceful and compassionate when someone opens up to you about their issues creates a healthier practice for you and all of us.

Yes, we are in the business of managing conflict. But that does not require us to embrace incivility. Beyond impacting the reputation of our entire profession, there is real danger to your own practice in being perpetually unpleasant. Providing a zealous representation is one thing, but fighting at every turn, constantly being argumentative, being sneaky and underhanded can garner you a reputation you should avoid. You will quickly be marked with that invisible “scarlet A” on your chest in the legal community. (And that “A” is not for adulterer.) In turn, that “A” can make you unwell. Not being liked, not being respected as a pillar of the community, but rather an obstacle can take its toll on you emotionally. You might like to think of yourself as a successful and aggressive outsider, but it will eventually cause you (and your clients) harm. (And if you aspire to an AV rating, you will never get one if you start out with that “scarlet A.”)

Your wellness as an attorney is tied to knowing yourself and your limitations, remembering that everyone around you is also human, knowing that being civil is how you become and stay part of the community, and knowing that being open will find you support for your needs. Happily, this self-knowledge and compassionate practice will improve not only your own life but the lives of your fellow practitioners and the ethical reputation of our demanding profession.