On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, an iconic and special day in Boston, the city closed down. Bars and restaurants closed to customers; the annual parade through “Southie” was cancelled; the iconic “Garden” closed to fans of the Celtics and shortly thereafter the Bruins; museums were shuttered. All of the activities we planned to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday weekend in the city she loves were suddenly out of the question. So we walked in the park, dined in a half empty restaurant for which I had made a reservation a month before, and enjoyed quiet time together as a family in the lobby bar of a really nice hotel. Little did we know that it would be the last time we would spend together as a family, at least for now. Just two days later, the city closed; my law firm’s Massachusetts and New Hampshire offices closed to all but the fewest of “essential” employees; and over 100 lawyers and an almost equal number of other employees started “working from home.” Four weeks later, we continue on, our movements more restricted, no gym workouts, no yoga classes, no networking breakfasts, no court, no meetings.
Our inboxes, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages teem with information about resources to help us deal with our isolation, our new reality, and the periods of stress and depression we will undoubtedly battle while the medical professionals on the front lines battle the coronavirus. To be sure, the legal profession has for the past few years rightfully turned its gaze inward, exploring how it as an institution has produced a generation of lawyers that outpaces the general population in numbers struggling with substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and workaholism. It is no wonder that employee assistance plans, lawyer’s assistance committees, and community service organizations are reaching out to let us know they are there to help us cope.
I was diagnosed with depression some twenty years ago. With hindsight I can probably say that anxiety and depression were with me as far back as high school. I just didn’t know it. Very few people other than my closest family members know it now. It shouldn’t then come as a surprise that my family (my husband especially) might worry that my suddenly being told I couldn’t go to work, to group runs with friends followed by breakfasts of avocado toast and mimosas, or to the nearby Marshalls to shop for things I don’t need would put me over the proverbial edge. The fact is . . . it didn’t. And in the past four weeks, I have learned a lot about myself, and about resilience. In exploring the issue of mental health and well-being of attorneys, a topic of significant interest to me, I always start conversations with the acceptance that the legal profession is a tough one. The job is difficult, the clients can be challenging, and we are very hard on ourselves and on each other. So, the skill I have tried to emphasize and teach to others is resilience, while at the same time wondering if I had any myself.
So here I offer a few thoughts about how I have built my own resilience in the past four weeks and what I have learned about myself. What works for me won’t work for everyone, but I offer these thoughts as a challenge to others to alter their way of thinking about work and life and to explore what permanent changes they might make to give themselves more personal satisfaction and more peace.
Routine Is Important
The first couple of days of working from home were spent on the couch with my laptop on, well, my lap. I was on the phone for most of it so it wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t productive or all that comfortable either. Day blended into night while work blended into home. By day three I unearthed an old desk, cleaned it with disinfectant wipes, and had my husband help me haul it to the third-floor loft we were in the process of renovating into an office for me. Every morning I showered, dressed for work (sort of), and went upstairs with my coffee “to work.” At the end of my work day, my computer stayed upstairs, and I stopped working. Work was upstairs, and home was downstairs. For someone who spends most of her days flying from one spot to another, working wherever and whenever, this was huge. By the end of the first week, I had a new desk, monitor, keyboard, and docking station on the way. Today the decorative little faux succulents arrived via UPS. I’m nesting in my office and the routine has set in. Who knew I would love routine?
Exercise, Nutrition, and Mindfulness Matter
In addition to running from mediations to board meetings to client meetings to networking dinners, I run on the roads, four or five days a week. The one thing I promised myself was that I would take this quarantine opportunity to run more, not less. I get outside at least once a day, except during torrential downpours like today, and four or five of those days include a run. On the other days I do yoga—virtual yoga beamed in via Zoom from my favorite studio.
After countless failed attempts at meditation (not mediation), I finally found an app that worked for me last November, and I have made it a point to include a mindfulness practice in my day. Sometimes as part of a yoga class, on Thursday mornings with a Zoom group set up by the local chamber of commerce, and sometimes with my favorite app, Ten Percent Happier. It has an entire section on Mediation for Skeptics, perfect for me.
Since the quarantine began, I have slept better, eaten better, and, funny thing, my husband says I have been a lot nicer, even to him.
Speaking of Zoom
Connectedness is critical. It is critical at work as a means of keeping workgroups engaged and critical to keeping friends and family close, no matter how distant. Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype help to build normalcy in a time and place where there is none. Virtual happy hours, poker games, and book clubs abound, but I found what worked for me. I never participated in Friday afternoon end of day beer and wine at the office; I preferred to head north to ski in winter, meet my husband for dinner, or go to a yoga class. The office was not where I wanted to be at the end of a tough workweek. Now I can’t wait for Friday afternoon virtual happy hour. I want to see how everyone is doing, who has a baby or a cat on their lap, who has a silly supermarket story to tell. Funny, there are a lot more people participating in our virtual happy hours than have ever participated in the live ones. People crave camaraderie and want to know that their feelings and dilemmas are not that different from those of their colleagues, with whom they previously thought they had nothing in common.
Saturday afternoon cocktail hours with friends and Sunday evening chats with family are regularly scheduled events, and no guilt if you aren’t there.
Helping Others Helps Me
More than once I have heard people say it’s a great time to be a lawyer. So many need help, and we are well-positioned to give it. That is especially true in my area of practice, employment law. Our clients are working with new laws, new regulations, and new challenges every day. An employee tests positive for COVID-19. Employees of an essential business are afraid to come to work. Companies are trying to figure out an army of new acronyms: FFCRA, PPP, EPSL. One of the most important things to come from this period of COVID-19 quarantine is a sense of purpose. I have a job to do, a team of colleagues with whom to do it, and clients who need my help. I have always believed that lawyers struggle with depression and anxiety and resort to self-medication and, sadly, even suicide because of a perfect storm of factors ranging from the extreme pressure of the billable hour, the expectation of 24/7 availability, the endless search for perfection, and societal disdain for what we do and how we do it.
In the past month I have learned that I am happiest when I have a routine, practice healthy habits, stay connected with others in my various communities, and most importantly, maintain a sense of purpose. I am most resilient when I have a job to do and when I can control how I do it. The best medicine for me has been to seize control of my life and my practice and to give up that feeling of endless rushing from one task or commitment to another with the sense that I am not doing anything well enough to satisfy anyone, least of all myself.
My goal is to maintain this same level of control when life (and the law) return to “normal,” whatever that turns out to be. I hope the same for you.
Charla Bizios Stevens is the director of the litigation department at McLane Middleton in Manchester, New Hampshire. She also serves as a member of the Section's Mental Health & Wellness Task Force and as a Division III director for the Section during the 2020–2021 bar year.
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