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August 14, 2020 Article

COVID and Beyond: Using Your Inner Compass to Navigate Uncertainty and Change

A few practical strategies to help you during these changing times.

By Michelle Niemeyer

We are monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation as it relates to law and litigation. Find more resources and articles on our COVID-19 portal. For the duration of the crisis, all coronavirus-related articles are outside the Section of Litigation paywall and available to all readers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has flipped our lives upside down. Schools closed and parents became at-home virtual teaching monitors. Most lawyers started working remotely, and many still haven’t returned to their offices. Courts stopped hearing cases unless civil liberties were involved. Remote depositions and hearings became the norm. If you didn’t already know what Zoom was, now you know it and use it for office conferences, webinars, family gatherings, and virtual happy hours. Pay cuts and layoffs are news in every legal publication. The pandemic and related regulations have gutted the economy in most communities, and so many clients can’t pay their bills and aren’t investing in new legal work. Colleagues, staff, and family members may be sick or even may have died.

No one knows when it will end. You are probably wondering, “Will my job be here next month? Next year?” “When will my kids go back to school?” “What happens if my best clients go bankrupt?” “How do I take care of my staff?” “What should I do now?” To say that our future, as individual lawyers and as an industry, is uncertain is an understatement. The only certainties are that nothing is certain and change is everywhere. It is likely that there will never be a return to “normal,” at least not exactly as we knew it.

Couple that uncertainty with other challenges that the lawyer population faces as a statistical matter. As a group, we lawyers have almost twice the likelihood of becoming alcoholic as similarly educated professionals. We have high levels of anxiety and depression as compared with the general population. We are also more likely as a group to have a fixed mind-set, which could make it harder for us to cope with change.

Stress, anyone? So what do we do?

When thinking through how to navigate uncertainty, my mind immediately goes to sailing. To navigate a boat from point A to point B, you need to know where you are now, and you need to know the direction to get to your destination. You need to be aware of any conditions that could affect your path, such as wind speed and direction, current, and obstructions like reefs or sandbars. Today most use a GPS, which incorporates the compass and charts and makes the job a lot easier. But the need for these functions doesn’t go away. It’s the same in your law practice and in your life as you navigate the uncertainty of COVID-19 and its aftermath.

Know Your Destination

On a deep level, what do you value most? What do you love to do? How do these things make you feel? We all went to law school for a reason, and we all have goals and things we like about our jobs as lawyers. No one loves everything about what they do, but everyone can find the good stuff about practicing law when they think about it. In navigating change, we need to understand that our precise goals may have to change.

We may not know what the world will look like in the next few years, but if we know what lights us up and makes us feel fulfilled and happy, we can find ways to have those things in our lives no matter the details of our specific situations. When thinking about your destination, be sure to include those intangibles and never forget the things you value most. As you experience change and weather storms, you can expect to be faced with surprises, setbacks, and opportunities. When you apply the filter of your core values and desires to the facts as they come, knowing what direction to take will become much easier for you.

Pay Attention to Conditions That Actually Matter

If a chart showed every rock or sandbar on the sea bottom with no reference to the depth, you would always be afraid of going aground. Likewise, there is information right now warning us of danger at every turn. We need to be aware of our actual circumstances, consider the dangers relevant to us, do what we can to protect ourselves, and continue on our journey. In the end, we need to keep our eyes on the prize. As an example, law firms are laying off and cutting salaries. That is a real concern for the people in those firms. But if your firm is solid, then spending time worrying about what might happen down the road will not help you reach your goals; instead, it will detract from your productivity at a time when you need it most. Foresight and planning are important, but we are most effective when we address the things that matter and that we can actually influence. If your worries are based in real dangers that affect you, adjust your course while keeping your destination in mind.

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Maintain Your Compass

Just as a compass won’t be any help if it can’t find north, you need your inner compass to be true. When we are under stress, our reactions aren’t always measured or true to our real values, and it may affect our productivity or our ability to focus. What can we do to manage stress and keep our compass pointing north?

  1. Actively cultivate connection. It is especially crucial that you make sure to have quality social connection. For those of us who are spending way more time with our families than normal, this change has likely come with its own stresses. Making a point of finding the joy in that opportunity for time together and making time for fun will help. Hiding away for a “girls’ night” on Zoom could be just as necessary. For those who live (and likely now remotely work) alone, it may mean being sure to have human connection, at a minimum by phone and videoconferencing, or outdoors while socially distancing. Connect with your coworkers and staff on more than a transactional level. Contact with other people is essential to our well-being, and a sad byproduct of this pandemic will likely be lingering mental health issues as vulnerable people feel the full impact of isolation. If you are struggling with the isolation the pandemic has caused, this is not the time to be too proud to seek help. Many bar associations have lawyer assistance programs, and some, like Florida’s, are even offering free counseling services.
  2. Get physical. We all know exercise is good for us, and some of us were already in the habit of getting out for a run, to the gym, or to a workout class most days. For a lot of us, though, that habit was tied to our work schedule. Now our schedule has changed, our gym may be closed or no longer convenient, and we may be finding ourselves a lot less active than before. If you have not reestablished your routine or started a new one, it’s time to do it now! Use the outdoors or stream workouts online if your new normal makes it hard to get to the gym. There are so many options for free or at a low cost that there really isn’t any excuse! Sweating and getting your heart pumping every day isn’t just for losing weight and having a healthy heart; there is more and more evidence it can reduce stress as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression, help your body to eliminate toxins, and improve your focus, memory, and productivity.
  3. Watch what goes in your mouth. The food we eat can affect our mood, our energy, and our health. There is growing evidence it can also affect our mental acuity, attention span, and memory. As our brains are the tools of our trade, we need to take care of them. Especially in this time of high stress, it is essential that you fuel your body and your mind with healthy foods. If all you did was drink a lot of water (at least half of your body weight in ounces per day), avoid sugar and processed foods, and eat twice as many vegetables as you do right now along with some fruit every day, you would notice a difference within two weeks. Don’t get lost in the maze of options while you continue to order takeout from the local pizza restaurant. Analysis paralysis is real! Just keep it simple and do something you are comfortable with. Start with drinking more water and eating more vegetables.
  4. Watch what goes in your head. Lawyers are already predisposed to a negativity bias. Who knows what came first, the negative person or the lawyer, the chicken or the egg? Our negativity bias makes us good at our jobs, seeing all the bad possibilities so we can help our clients avert risk. But when the bias creeps into our perceptions of our lives and our interactions with the people we love, that skill can be problematic. Seeing problems in every new situation is stressful and draining. Chronic stress will make us sick and tired, and it can affect both our mental performance and our mental health. It can also be really annoying to our non-lawyer friends and family members! This will sound silly, but try to actively look for the positive. Make a game of it. Optimism is a trait we can develop, which can make us more resilient.

    Now that we have our optimistic filter, how about closing some doors and windows? We are surrounded by technology that bombards us with news, information, and mostly exaggerated opinions at every turn. Most parents are comfortable protecting their children from the impact of too much screen time, but very few of us protect ourselves. Consider a digital detox. It could just be over the weekend, or perhaps on a weekday when you are working on something that needs your undivided attention. Turn off your phone or put it in a drawer. Close your email. Stay away from social media. The dopamine rush we get from notifications is addictive. Break that addiction and you will greatly reduce a chronic source of stress. Technology is great and essential, but in the end, our phones and computers are tools that we can choose to use how we want and when we want. Don’t let your tools control you.

    Finally, we are barraged with inflammatory and highly contradictory news and disputes over which most of us have no real control. When we allow ourselves to be sucked into the never-ending news cycle or the eternal bickering of our friends and families on social media, it contributes to our sense of unease. Just as you would with food, choose wisely what you allow into your head. Make sure it serves your goals and helps you get to your destination. Our profession already subjects us to higher levels of stress than most. There is no need to take on more than necessary.
  5. Get calm. The ability to be calm in a raging storm is a superpower. Mindfulness is all the rage. Why? What is the benefit of sitting quietly while repeating a mantra or humming “Ommmmm”? Meditation trains the mind to stay centered while the world rages around it. It teaches you to dance past distractions. It keeps your compass pointing north. For the next five days, give this simple meditation a try: While you are sitting comfortably, close your eyes and breathe deeply in through your nose. As you breathe out, quietly hum. Focus on your breath. As a thought comes, and it will, acknowledge it and then bat it away with your mind like a tennis ball. Keep bringing your focus back to your breath. Set a timer. Start with 5 minutes and work your way up to 10 or 15. For many, over time, this practice will translate into enhanced focus and lower levels of anxiety and stress. You will become better able to focus through the kids fighting, the dog barking, or the TV noise in the background.
  6. Watch your mind-set. As we move forward, there will be change. Whatever the situation is, our perception of it will define our reality. Let’s consider an example. A lot of us are not happy about working at home, it having been forced upon us, but in this experiment it has brought a great opportunity. We as women lawyers have for years suffered from an attitude in law firms that working remotely wasn’t possible, limiting the ability of many lawyers with children to continue on their chosen career path or relegating them to non-partner-track positions if they wanted to work all or part of the time from home. Now that most of the legal profession has successfully worked remotely, the possibility is a proven reality, creating the opportunity for real systemic change!

    In every cloud, there is generally a silver lining. Practice looking for that silver lining and the rainbow on the horizon, and not just seeing the raindrops.
  7. Keep on growing. Without growth, things become stagnant and die. This is true of our plants, our relationships, our personal lives, and our careers. Consider your goals and think about what you want to improve. Connect with your mentor, or if you don’t have one, find one who can help light the path in the direction you are heading. Actively make a point of learning and growing. If there is something you don’t know, find a way to learn. As the world changes, it will be the people who are stuck in the old model who won’t have the tools they need.

Most of All, Enjoy the Journey

If you followed your inner compass, focused on your destination, kept your eyes open to the opportunities in the chaos, and have been open to the learning you have found necessary along the way, you can thrive through change and come out the other side closer to your destination. Just remember to feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair, and slow down to smell the whale’s breath and watch the dolphins play as you sail by!

Michelle Niemeyer is the president of Michelle M. Niemeyer, P.A., and Michelle Niemeyer Wellness, Inc., in Miami, Florida.

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