- We could suggest a psychological equivalent of protective gear for law students and lawyers to enhance their resilience.
A major study published in 2017 by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being indicates that lawyers have higher incidence of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse than the population in general, and that these problems begin in law school:. A recent study indicates these difficulties occur disproportionately among female and younger attorneys. A comprehensive response is needed, especially for the work-family conflict that the study indicates some female lawyers are experiencing. But is there an equivalent of mental first aid that might be helpful in the meantime?
Military training has for years relied on the principle of three simple things to remember so that they can then be done under pressure, e.g. for battlefield wounds: “stop the bleeding, protect the wound, and treat or prevent for shock.” Is there something equally simple that would help respond to the wounds of law practice? Moreover, as the risks are foreseeable, can we do something that not only responds to injury but also can help prevent it?
The authors are a legal educator, a psychologist educating aspiring army officers, and a psychologist who as a lawyer extensively studied and advised attorneys. We were struck that the armed forces have long used protective gear for those in combat. Perhaps we could suggest a psychological equivalent of protective gear for law students and lawyers to enhance their resilience, specifically a virtual helmet, vest and boots. If so, why would they be helpful and what would they do?
While law study and practice do not involve armed combat, they have their own perils, as noted above. Unlike battle injuries, the wounds that law students and lawyers can receive are often invisible, and sometimes self-inflicted. One reason is that law students and lawyers are educated in important skills and practices that help them perform well, but which can also get in their own way in other contexts, such as their personal life or the many other roles that law students and lawyers are increasingly asked to play in organizations and the wider community.
First is watchful skepticism and critical thinking, skills that attorneys use to help their clients avoid or respond to trouble. After working with thousands of lawyers over his career, co-author Larry Richard has found those skills can also lead many lawyers to be unusually thin-skinned, even to the point of dismissing a compliment because it can be seen as criticizing them in some way. (“You would look good in that….” is heard as, “What, you think I look like a mess now?”)
Second is reticence about work so as to protect privileged client confidences from disclosure, but which can also lead lawyers to be reluctant to open up about themselves to other people, leaving them often alone if they experience distress. (Indeed, lawyers are in the loneliest profession: https://hbr.org/2018/03/americas-loneliest-workers-according-to-research.)
Third is diligence in tasks, initially fueled by a competition for law school grades and job placements, and then the need to bill for time and respond promptly to clients. This aspect may not just be overwork, as many lawyers are also proud of their achievements and the effort that goes into them. Whatever the cause, the result is that many lawyers get stuck behind their desks, and some even regard sleep as expendable.
The combination of sensitivity to apparent criticism, isolation and over-work can mean that such lawyers then become much less able to respond to adversity when it arrives.
What can be done to aid attorney resilience in the face of these invisible but still real challenges? We suggest that lawyers wear psychological protective gear consisting of a helmet, a vest and boots.
If an army travels on its stomach, lawyers rely on their brains; hence the helmet. (Michael Matthews has even written a book about it: Headstrong.) When we think of lawyer mental acuity, we think of judgment, expertise, problem-solving and competence.
But for lawyer resilience, it is important to think ahead - to prepare for adversity just as you would prepare for trial. When he was a young lawyer, a senior partner in his firm once told R. Lisle Baker that while abilities varied, the most important professional skill for success as a lawyer was preparation.
We suggest that preparation is equally important for resilience. While all of us hope to avoid trouble, it is better to be prepared than not. You do not wait for a fire to start to buy an extinguisher or insurance. It is not whether adversity will occur, but when, so be ready. Here are three ways to prepare:
Soldiers in combat wear a protective vest to protect their heart and other vital organs, just as they wear a helmet to protect their head. What might be the lawyer’s virtual equivalent?
Boots bring to mind their help in traversing difficult terrain, and the determination to keep moving. Lawyers can relate to this idea as we often try to “power through” a challenging assignment. As noted earlier, however, law is among the most sedentary of professions. Wearing your virtual “boots” is an invitation to take care of your body and get some physical activity into each day. Anyone can do some exercise to improve strength, flexibility and endurance, as well as posture. We suggest, however, that the first step is to get more steps into your day. Unless disabled, in which case an alternative form of activity will be needed, walking is simple and easy to do – and do more of, with benefits to the mind as well as the body.
It may involve taking the stairs at your office, or walking down an internal office corridor to talk with, rather than just email or text, a colleague. Even better is to get outside where you can walk in some green space.
We also suggest that you think of your “boots” as not only made for walking, but also an invitation to stand down for yourself as well as stand up for your client. Soldiers can be at attention in formation for a while, but good commanders know that the soldiers will be more effective if they can also stand at ease. Even wild animals know the importance of recovery time after being chased by a predator and surviving. They pause to rest. We should, too. But because lawyers are so client-centered and achievement-oriented, their boots are always on, so it may take some conscious effort to take them off. Here are three ways.
In short, rest, vacations, time outside away from gadgets and screens, as well as conversations with friends and family (that are not arguments or depositions) all help your body recover from arousal for action or work. In summary, you have less risk of dying with your boots on if you take time both to walk vigorously with them on - and then take them off.
We believe our psychological protective gear can be helpful, though it should be tried on to see if it fits. But we also believe that, like combat protective gear, the three parts will work best when each is worn in combination. Plan ahead (helmet) for exercise (boots on), and do it with friends (vest). Or do the same with breaks: interrupt a coffee break (boots off) by listening attentively to a colleague about their life outside the law to build a higher-quality connection (vest), rather than just pass by lost in thought. “Wearing” parts together can help make you more resilient than relying on one part alone, helpful as it may be.
While we may not experience armed combat, all of us can put on our own psychological protective gear. Wear it well and it can help you be more resilient when adversity arrives, as it is not a matter of whether a challenge to your resilience will arise, but when..