chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
Vol. 37, No. 1

Are you fit to be bar president? Expert tips on health and wellness for leaders

by Marilyn Cavicchia

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. How many times have you heard that expression about a lengthy, all-encompassing endeavor such as bar presidency?

For the sake of the incoming bar president’s health, said Kathryn Grant Madigan, past president of the New York State Bar Association, a correction is needed. “Think of the presidential year as a series of sprints,” she advised, “not a marathon.”

The goal is not to endure the year, as in a marathon, she explained, but to allow “rest and renewal periods” between intense bursts of activity to help maintain your energy throughout the year.

Another way to think of it, she added, is to compare bar presidency to a long hike. If you don’t take breaks, she said, the hike becomes a “determined but unrewarding slog.” Fatigue and drudgery set in, and you start looking down at the ground rather than at the scenery around you or the path ahead of you. Doesn’t sound like the best way to move the bar forward, does it?

In an Annual Meeting session that was a bit of a departure for the National Conference of Bar Presidents, Dr. Mary Anderson, medical director for clinical information services at Rush University Medical Center, presented sobering health data, and three past presidents offered tips they’d learned along the way.

Joining Madigan and Anderson on the panel were Scott F. Cooper, past chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, and Marc R. Staenberg, current executive director and past president of the Beverly Hills Bar Association.

Eat, drink, but be wary?

Every section, committee, or affiliated organization in your area wants you to attend its function—and what’s more, to sit down and eat with its members and enjoy a cocktail or two.

But those plated dinners and flowing spirits add up. Between travel, stress, lack of exercise, and the additional food and drink, it’s not uncommon to gain 20 pounds while bar president, Madigan said.

So, what do you do about all those can’t-skip events? “You don’t have to stay for dinner,” Cooper said. “No one will tell you it’s OK to leave—but it is.” Work the cocktail hour, he suggested, and then say what a good time you’ve had and that now you must be going. Or if you do stay for dinner, skip the dessert. Whatever you do, Cooper added, don’t eat every course of every plated meal during your presidential year.

As for what kind of “cocktail” to have, Cooper recommended something he called “the drinking game.” For many people, he said, the sign that you’re having a good time at their event is that you have  a drink in your hand—but no one but you and the bartender needs to know what’s in the glass. If you have a glass of club soda with a lime slice on the rim, no one will be able to tell that there’s no vodka in it, Cooper said; likewise, ginger ale looks just like a scotch and soda.

And as for food, it’s not just about the plated meals, Cooper noted. Typically, at meetings or other non-meal events, there’s a snack tray in the room, he said. What’s on that tray? Cooper urged executive staff and other leaders to be mindful of the fact that, because of the president’s hectic schedule, the “snack” could be filling in for a regular meal—and it’s all too easy to grab a cookie or a bag of chips without even thinking about it.

The old food pyramid has given way to a graphic of a plate, Anderson noted, and half of the plate at any meal or snack is supposed to be filled with fruits and vegetables. The daily servings of fruits and vegetables called for might seem daunting, she said, but there are ways you can easily incorporate them into meals and snacks.

Cooper mentioned that before the workshop, one NCBP member protested that packaged snacks are cheaper than perishable items such as fruits and vegetables, and they don’t spoil as quickly. “You’re leaders,” Cooper stressed, urging attendees to break out of old mindsets that suggest that healthier options just aren’t in the budget.

If personal taste is another factor, Staenberg added, you can keep some of the junk food on the table but add in fruits and vegetables and let people choose. Serving burgers at a lunch? Consider offering a salad as the side, he suggested.

How’s your sleep?

“Americans have horrible, horrible, horrible sleep habits,” Anderson said, noting that the first thing to do about it is to take TVs out of all bedrooms. The bedroom should be used for sleep and sex—and that’s it, she advised.

Caffeine is, of course, known to disrupt sleep. As for alcohol, Anderson said many people think it helps put them to sleep—which it does, but there’s a catch. You might nod off quickly at first, she explained, but you will stay more wakeful throughout the night, and you won’t get enough of the deeper sleep stages, such as REM (the stage in which you dream).

Alcohol and caffeine are more problematic the closer to bedtime they’re consumed, Anderson said, noting that an evening event might be an especially good time to order decaf or one of Cooper’s suggested cocktail decoys.

Inadequate sleep, including lack of deep sleep, can exacerbate many health concerns, Anderson said, adding that in fact, lack of sleep is just as bad for you as lack of exercise. The good news is, physical activity (except in the few hours immediately prior to bedtime) can help you sleep better.

Speaking of exercise . . .

“It’s critically important to take time to exercise,” Anderson said, noting that while the old recommendation called for 30 minutes, three times a week, the current guideline is at least 150 minutes a week.

The No. 1 killer of adults in the United States is heart disease, Anderson said, and factors such a as diabetes, obesity, and inactivity are all linked and all contribute to heart disease.

But how do you find time for those 150 minutes? Taking even 10 or 15 minutes to get out of your hotel and go for a walk can help toward that total and also refresh your spirits, Madigan said. It takes self-discipline to care for yourself properly, Cooper noted, and no one can give you that self-discipline but you.

It helps, though, if you can make fitness a focus for the whole bar, and not just for yourself, he said. It doesn’t have to be a theme for the year, he added, but if you express interest in health and wellness for lawyers, that interest will spread. Look for a range of fitness activities members can do together throughout the year, he suggested. Not all of them should be 5Ks or other events for the “super fit,” he advised—one size does not fit all. For those who are more serious, maybe some members would like to get together more regularly to train or participate in a certain sport.  

Staenberg agreed that physical fitness and other health and wellness topics are appropriate matters for the whole bar to focus on. He has been “inspired,” he said, to move the bar from “one-off” activities like annual softball games and golf outings to regularly incorporating health and wellness topics and physical activity into bar events throughout the year.

Anderson noted that medical association meetings often include a physical activity, which is a way of “modeling for membership” that fitness is important, even for busy professionals.

Cooper suggested borrowing ideas, such as the Indiana State Bar Association’s CLE that was conducted while participants rode stationary bikes, and also checking with your bar’s insurance company. A lot of health insurance companies will help their clients establish wellness programs and will send a nurse or other health expert to come talk to the organization, he said.

Besides helping the president maintain his or her health and encouraging members and staff to follow suit, there’s another benefit to holding events focused on physical fitness, Cooper said: “These events make for great photos in your publication or on your website.” Add the foundation into the equation, he suggested, to make the event and the photos even more powerful.

Managing stress during a stressful year

No matter how hard-charging and ambitious you are, there’s no shame in needing to take a moment or two to keep your stress level down. If you need inspiration, Madigan said, consider that U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer is a fan of mindfulness, a form of meditation aimed at clearing the mind and becoming aware of sensations in the body. Studies show that 10 to 15 minutes of this type of meditation, twice a day, can help decrease blood pressure and increase focus, Madigan said.

If you don’t have time for that, or it’s not your style, then Madigan offered another suggestion: “Don’t underestimate the power of breath.” That is, she explained, you can recharge with a couple or few minutes of “deep belly breathing”—as opposed to breathing shallowly from your chest. Madigan even keeps a sign in her car and another on her computer, both simply telling her to breathe.

The first six months of the president-elect year set the stage for how you will approach the coming year, Madigan believes; she took a retreat in Costa Rica to get away from the “busy-ness” of her life and also help her envision the year ahead. As president, she made it a point to take a spa day for every four days she spent on the road for bar business. “Healing touch” can be a great stress reliever, she noted.

Consider keeping a journal, Madigan added—not as a way to record your presidency for future generations, she explained, but as a way to work through any problems you might be having. Anderson noted that a journal can also help with your nutrition—a food journal, that is. Often, she said, people have no idea how much they’re actually eating.

Disruptions to everyday life and schedules are a huge source of stress, Staenberg and Cooper said. Cooper noted that before you become president, you can’t fully anticipate the kind of disruption that you and your family will face. “Most of what we do as attorneys is confidential,” he said. “But as bar president, you’re a quasi-public figure.”

Perhaps, he went on, your spouse has not been terribly involved in your work up this point. Suddenly, he or she is expected to sit with strangers at important dinners—and the bar’s publication staff calls to arrange a time to come out to the house to take the traditional family photo for the cover. You should be sensitive to your spouse’s discomfort, he said; after all, “you’re going to go home to that person when it’s over.”

Madigan and Staenberg noted that some bars aim to decrease leaders’ and members’ time apart from family by inviting spouses and children to bar events and organizing activities and child care.

Staenberg said that often, the best stress relievers for the bar president are the executive director and other bar staff. The staff, and especially the E.D., “put out the map” of what’s ahead and when and where the key events and deadlines are, he said, adding that the E.D. can also help the president understand two key points: “You can’t do everything, and you’ll get through it.”

The more the E.D. and staff can help the president-elect prepare, the better, Staenberg said: “There’s nothing more stressful than not knowing what you’re getting yourself into.”