As attorneys, we are often looking for ways to have a competitive edge over our competition or the opposing side. I recently spoke with Danny Dreyer, a nationally renowned running coach and author and the founder of ChiRunning. Danny coaches clients, including numerous lawyers, to perform better in races. He said that lawyers are easy athletes to coach because we are willing to get help, spend money, and make time to improve our game to get an edge over the competition. This coach’s comment makes sense to me—as a whole, our profession values excellence and is willing to put the necessary resources into striving toward and achieving our very best. And yet, it also gave me pause. In my experience and research as a resilience coach and well-being trainer for lawyers, judges, and law school students, I have found that our profession is less likely to value and seek help for well-being than most other professions. Danny agreed, saying, “It’s odd. I’ve noticed that lawyers are more willing to spend money on physical help than well-being help.” I started wondering, “What’s behind the dichotomy—why don’t lawyers value and get the kind of help that would give us a competitive mental edge as we would if we wanted to gain a competitive physical edge?”
My first thought in response to this question is that our profession as a whole has not yet connected the dots between stress, cognitive functioning, and performance. In my experience talking with thousands of lawyers and judges nationally about well-being, I have gleaned that it is not yet widely understood that stress impacts our ability to think and communicate clearly, and that actively reducing stress gives us a professional advantage. While this makes sense to me now after spending years researching the neuroscience of stress, the connection never crossed my mind during the 11 years I practiced law.
In a nutshell, here’s how it works: stress compromises our cognitive functioning, making it difficult to think, focus, problem solve, perceive, articulate, and remember effectively—all the things we need to do our best work as a lawyer, judge, or law school student. In fact, there is an inverse relationship between stress and cognitive functioning: the higher the stress, the lower or cognitive functioning, and vice versa. In his book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson explains that our brains have two different operating modes: reactive and responsive. When our brains are in reactive mode, our nervous system is dysregulated and we think less clearly because our cognitive functioning is diminished. Conversely, when our brains are in responsive mode, our nervous system is regulated and we feel “in the flow,” resulting in effective cognitive functioning, greater productivity, and increased satisfaction in our lives. Evolution has thus far wired our brains to orient toward the world in reactive mode; we are constantly on the lookout for things that adversely impact our survival, specifically things that negatively impact our safety, satisfaction, and connection. While working in our chronically stressful legal profession exacerbates our reactive state, we have the ability to rewire our brains and experience life “in flow.” However, our brains won’t rewire themselves without conscious attention, focus, and time—which is where help-seeking for our well-being and optimized cognitive performance comes into play.
If you value your cognitive functioning, you may consider shifting your perspective and values about getting help for your well-being. Below are a few of the basic tenets of help-seeking that may inform your process.
What is “help-seeking?”
The American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology defines “help-seeking” as “searching for or requesting help from others via formal or informal mechanisms, such as through mental health services,” while in the Oxford Dictionary, it is defined as an “attempt to find (seek) assistance to improve a situation or problem (help).”
Who to go to for improved well-being and stress reduction.
There are many kinds of professionals who can help. Therapists specialize in numerous areas that, if successfully addressed, can help reduce chronic stress, including issues related to addiction, depression, anxiety, ADHD, Aspergers Syndrome, and intrapersonal conflict.
Additionally, well-being and resilience coaches can help with areas that improve well-being and performance including problem solving, resilience building, focus, self-care, work-life balance, overwhelm (the feeling of being swamped or buried with no clear pathway out), procrastination, and business planning. For example, I have developed a mindfulness and neuroscience-based toolkit that I tailor for individual coaching clients to help them to address stress in the moment it arises. Reducing present moment stress helps my clients get their cognitive functioning back online fast and get back to work thinking more clearly, making better decisions, and problem solving more creatively while making better connections with clients.
In our discussion, Danny also commented on the value of mindfulness in getting ahead. “What I teach in my workshops and coaching,” he said, “is to pay close attention to what's happening in the moment and respond to that, instead of keeping your eyes on the goal of winning the case or the race. Being able to be truly present in whatever situation you find yourself will always give you the edge over your competition (or adversary) because you'll be much more adaptable to any changes and circumstances along the way.”
Finally, spiritual leaders and teachers may help with well-being issues that impact stress levels such as disillusionment, trust, hope, and grief.
NOTE: Seeking medical help to address the physical impacts of stress—such as insomnia, weight loss or gain, high or low blood pressure, exhaustion, and addictions—and to improve well-being should be considered in addition to seeking help from other well-being professionals.
How might professional well-being and stress reduction support be beneficial?
Working individually with a trained professional gives us time to process the emotional stress inherent in most kinds of legal practice and law school studies. Even though we consider ourselves to be a “thinking” profession, the work we do can be very emotionally taxing. Dealing with the issues that bring our clients stress—from divorce to personal injury to problems with the criminal justice system—and interfacing with clients when they are emotional can be challenging, especially when we are dealing with our own stress from the pressures inherent in lawyering. Working with a professional to process our emotions and problem-solve solutions can help to reduce overwhelm. Reducing overwhelm curtails stress and frees our minds to think clearly about solutions, next best steps, and creating an action plan. In addition, a professional’s perspective can help us see our blind spots, assist us in approaching our challenges and growing our success in new ways, as well as supporting us in developing healthier coping skills.
What stands in the way of getting help?
In the past four years of providing well-being coaching and CLE training for lawyers, judges, and law school students, I’ve ascertained key concerns that often prevent individuals in our profession from seeking help. None of the items on this list are true for all of us all of the time, but they may be true for some of us some of the time:
1. Fear of being judged.
2. Concerns about confidentiality and/or disciplinary action.
3. More comfortable providing help to others than seeking help for ourselves.
4. Denial of the severity of our problems.
5. Fear of being misunderstood by those outside of our profession and a lack of support tailored for those in the legal profession.
6. Not knowing where to go for support or what kind of help would be useful.
7. Skeptical about the effectiveness of mental health/well-being services.
8. Out of pocket costs for professional support.
9. No time to get help.
10. Uncomfortable talking about our feelings.
An example of an area where our profession has been shown to avoid help-seeking: problem drinking.
An important finding from the first national study on attorney substance use and mental health concerns conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs in 2016 (bit.ly/LAPReport2016) relates to help-seeking behaviors of attorneys. In the study, 20.6% of participating lawyers scored on questions related to drinking “at a level consistent with problematic drinking.” However, only 6.8% of the participants reported past treatment for alcohol or drug use. In the study, “participants who reported prior treatment for substance use were questioned regarding barriers that impacted their ability to obtain treatment services. Those reporting no prior treatment were questioned regarding hypothetical barriers in the event they were to need future treatment or services. The two most common barriers were the same for both groups: not wanting others to find out they needed help (50.6% and 25.7% for the treatment and nontreatment groups, respectively), and concerns regarding privacy or confidentiality (44.2% and 23.4% for the groups, respectively).”
How to address the barriers to help-seeking.
Take a moment now to consider: What would it feel like to get ahead in my work or personal life? Then make a list of 5-8 kinds of professional help that you imagine would support you to reduce your stress, improve your cognitive functioning, get a competitive edge, and improve your well-being. Next, make a list of all of the professionals you could call, or people who may be able to provide a good referral. Now, make a list of anything that stands in your way (use the above list to generate ideas). Lastly, problem solve: What would it take for me to address any of these concerns, and overcome my barriers, one step at a time?
Make a commitment to taking one step; put it on your to-do list or in your calendar. Tell someone who cares about you about your vision for your improved well-being. Enjoy the process, your progress, and savor the results of experiencing life “in flow” while getting help cultivating your professional edge.
Laura Mahr is a NC lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness based well-being coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Her work is informed by 11 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, a love of neuroscience, and a passion for resilience. Find out more about Laura’s work at consciouslegalminds.com.
If you would like to bring Laura to your firm or event to conduct a well-being CLE or learn more about professionals who can help you cultivate your well-being and your professional edge, contact Laura at consciouslegalminds.com. You may also wish to seek assistance from the NC Lawyer Assistance Program at 919-719-9269.
If you’d like to learn more about stress reduction and improved cognitive functioning using mindfulness, check out: “Mindfulness for Lawyers: Building Resilience to Stress Using Mindfulness, Meditation, and Neuroscience” (online, on demand mental health CLE), consciouslegalminds.com/register.