As lawyers, we are problem solvers. We are driven. We are overachievers. We find answers where others see ambiguity. That does not make us immune from the sort of physical and emotional ravages that have accompanied the worldwide spread of COVID-19. A presentation at the ABA Litigation Section’s first ever Virtual Section Annual Conference, however, offered some guidance for these turbulent times.
The presentation, which fits squarely into my “beat” as this publication’s “lawyer mental health” writer, was “Coping as a Lawyer and Helping Colleagues Through the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The session was led by Diana Uchiyama, JD, PsyD, CAADC, and executive director of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program, and moderated by Ruth A. Bahe-Jachna, Chicago, IL, managing director of the Section of Litigation.
Uchiyama spoke frankly about the changes her office has seen since COVID-19 began to sweep across the country in mid-March. She then offered advice about how lawyers might practice enhanced self-care, suggestions for how to be more attuned to signs of distress from colleagues, and how to help a struggling colleague.
The New Routine Is No Routine
Lawyers are creatures of habit. “Routines are actually good for people. They’re good for the brain. That you take a shower. You exercise, however you can—some people are morning exercisers, some people are nighttime. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re engaging in a routine,” Uchiyama stresses.
“I think part of [the genesis of increased stress] is that we all had routines of some sort pre-COVID that have been very much disrupted,” Uchiyama observes. “We like to do things in a certain way,” she continues. “So we need to kind of restructure, reframe, and create new routines, and how important is that, and how do we as a practical matter do that?”
No doubt. My work-from-home full time day started at the same time. Gone, however, was the need to dress in a suit or business casual (depending on the day). Saved was the door-to-door commute time. The first two to three hours (I’m a morning person) were pretty solid. It was the hours that followed when things began to wobble.
Add to Your Routine
After a few days, I added an afternoon walk, timed for a break in the clouds that seem to dominate our Minnesota spring. A two-mile round trip wound up either at the post office, where I tried to mail a daily greeting to a friend or relative, or the grocery store, where I’d buy one bag of groceries. I’d typically listen to a book while on the walk.
I was not the only one. “The interesting thing is that [by the beginning of May] almost every dog shelter [was] empty. In fact, animal shelters in general are seeing the highest rate of fostering/adopting of animals,” notes Uchiyama.
A survey reported on July 8 in the Chicago Tribune revealed that 60 percent were first time adopters. According to the story, “the top three reasons [for adoption] were: They were already planning to get a dog; they needed a companion during hard times; and they had extra time to train a new dog.” For most, adding a pet adds to one’s daily routine. This has been true for my oldest’s cat, who I have been “sitting” for going on 18 months.
Caution: Self-Medication on the Rise
Uchiyama also reveals that COVID-19 has resulted in an uptick of “people who aren’t predisposed to mental health issues” reporting more depression, more anxiety, and even suicidal thinking. She has also observed a significant uptick in substance use problems, including relapse for those who have been sober for long periods of time.
“Unfortunately, I have to say that that number [of female lawyers with substance abuse problems] is now statistically the same as the amount of women practicing,” expounds Uchiyama. “I think in Illinois it’s just under a 60/40 split men versus women [for the entire attorney population],” she states, and the gender breakdown of lawyers with substance issues is about the same.
Some of us feel we’ve lost a sense of purpose and that we’re not sure of who we are anymore. That is normal. So is the inclination to use the “new normal” to reevaluate the “old normal."
Caution: Depression, Anxiety, and Suicide Loom
Uchiyama drew a parallel between the economic downturn of 2007–08 and the economic uncertainty that has accompanied the pandemic-related shutdowns. She pointed out that there is a correlation between financial instability, unemployment, and suicide.
“After the great recession of 2007–2008, we saw an increase in suicidal behaviors,” Uchiyama recollects. “Now we’re seeing unemployment rates at levels we’ve never seen, similar to , and so the result [is that going forward] we can expect … higher levels of suicidal thinking and behaviors.” The key to avoid those thoughts progressing to action is to “get the word out so that if you are [or someone you know is] struggling,” your local Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) can get that person the help he or she needs, she encourages.
Billable hours make the world go around for a vast percentage of our profession. Billable hours are “a financially successful business model for law firms, but they’re not a successful human model,” laments Uchiyama.
Bottom Line: Keep Things in Perspective
COVID-19 has caused the vast majority of us to spend some of our “extra time” standing (metaphorically) “naked before the mirror.” This is not a bad thing, provided you keep the analysis in perspective.
According to Uchiyama, some of us feel we’ve lost a sense of purpose and that we’re not sure of who we are anymore. We are not certain we want to go back to the lives we had. That is normal. So is the inclination to use the “new normal” to reevaluate the “old normal,” counsels Uchiyama. These questions can range from “Do I want to live where I live?” to “Do I like what I do?” to “Do I want to be with this person?”
“I tell people all the time,” she adds, “let’s not make big decisions right now, because [when we are combating] feelings of anxiety, depression . . . we’re not all at our best.” We would probably give our clients that same advice when they are in the midst of a trauma-inducing period. “I always ask people, ‘Who does their best thinking between three and five in the morning,’ right? That’s when most of us ruminate. We lose sleep, we’re exhausted, and we can’t function normally,” posits Uchiyama. Those types of physical issues may actually be anxiety talking.
Keep it in perspective. You are not “stupid.” You are not “ineffective.” You are not “incompetent.” Try to recognize when your anxiety is overwhelming, and you may just find that your inherent potential has more room to breathe.
If you do not feel able to do so on your own, reach out to your local LAP or other mental health professionals. COVID-19 will pass, and you will be a better person for persevering through it.
- Virtual Section Annual Conference, Coping as a Lawyer and Helping Colleagues Through the COVID-19 Pandemic, Section of Litigation (May 5, 2020).
Copyright © 2021, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Litigation Section, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).