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Rest Is Radical: Self-Care for Lawyers

Catherine E Krebs


  • Lawyers are conditioned to believe that they must work exceptionally hard and prioritize their careers over rest.
  • The benefits of rest, including increased productivity and creativity, have been emphasized by experts, highlighting the importance of incorporating rest into a lawyer's life.
  • The article encourages lawyers to consider the importance of rest for themselves and their clients and to embrace rest as a fundamental human right.
Rest Is Radical: Self-Care for Lawyers
AzmanL via Getty Images

Lawyers and rest. These two ideas just do not seem to fit together. In fact, when I mentioned to a colleague that I was planning to write an article on this topic, she laughed and commented, “What a short article that will be.”

Before we even enter law school, we lawyers are conditioned to believe that we need to work exceptionally hard. We must do well in college and make every summer count. If we take any breaks that are not outlined on our résumés before entering law school, we will be asked what we did with that time. What did we do and learn that prepared us for law school? Then, once in law school, we are strapped into a roller coaster that rarely stops. The grind of first year spills directly into summer, when we hope and pray we will find work that might turn into a future job. Three years go by in a flash and then we are knee-deep in round-the-clock work so that we can pay back our staggeringly high student loans. We work and we work, and the reward is . . . more work. We believe, or are told, that we will rest when we retire. Or, as some people joke, when we are dead.

The first time I learned about the benefits of rest was from Dr. Alex Pang through his master class on rest offered through the Calm meditation app. I was immediately intrigued. Dr. Pang discussed how we are actually more productive when we rest and how our work is more sustainable. He argued that people like Leonardo Da Vinci took naps and breaks throughout the day and that rest resulted in incredible creativity. That resonated with me as someone who has long worked part-time. I am a full-time caretaker, so my off time is not necessarily restful. However, I do have time every day when I step away from my work. I realized after listening to Dr. Pang that some of my most interesting ideas come while I am driving to an appointment or walking the dog—notably, spaces during my day in which I am not fully focused on work. Maybe Dr. Pang was on to something.

In the years that followed, I continued hearing about rest and, in particular, its impact on mental health. Most recently, there has been an increasing focus on addressing stress and burnout in lawyers, and rest is often one of the solutions offered.

While I thought and read about rest, I really did not incorporate rest into my life. Probably as for many of you reading this, the very idea made me both laugh and panic. There was no space in my life for rest. I always have something to do and feel constantly behind. I continued to grind as I had my entire life. Honestly, it was all I knew how to do—until my body had finally had enough and it began to protest, starting with a frozen shoulder on my right side and then eventually surgery on my spine. Once I had healed from surgery and resolved my frozen shoulder, I had learned my lesson. Or so I thought. But, honestly, I merely slowed down just a little. In fact, instead of taking the recommended six weeks off post-operation, I scheduled an important call just a few days after surgery. I continued to work off and on without taking any real chunk of time off. Even when, in a sheer freak accident, my surgeon nicked one of my vocal cords, thus leaving me only able to whisper for six weeks, I did not stop taking work calls. The immediate effect was noticeable. I would sometimes get off calls and be lightheaded from the effort of talking. And somehow, I believed that all seemed fine. To be honest, I could simply not see another way to live. Within a year, I had a frozen shoulder again, this time on my left side, and it was not lost on me that I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders and it was literally paralyzing me.

As I worked on recovering from my second frozen shoulder, I stumbled on the work of The Nap Ministry, founded and run by Trisha Hersey, whom I followed on social media. Her message was radically different from that of Dr. Pang. Hersey argues that we should rest not because it makes us more productive or because it addresses our mental health needs but because it is a divine and human right, and she centers and builds her work around Black liberation, womanism, somatics, and Afrofuturism. Hersey recently wrote a book, Rest as Resistance, that really challenged my thinking and assumptions. Hersey says, “Rest is a form of resistance because it disrupts and pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy” and “our worth is not connected to how much we produce” (Hersey, Rest as Resistance, pages 12–13). For lawyers, it is easy to find our worth through our work, particularly for public interest lawyers, given that our work feels (and is!) so important. But what if we didn’t have to prove our worth or earn our rest? What if we can simply rest because it is our human right to do so?

I wish I could conclude this article with a grand breakthrough in my thinking, but the truth is that I am still figuring out the role of rest in my life and how to balance what needs to be done with my own need for rest. I am also thinking a lot about—and we should all strongly consider—the role of rest in our clients’ lives. Our systems often push parents, children, and youth to grind, just as we as lawyers are pushed. School, work, appointments, and other responsibilities are piled on our clients without regard to whether they have transportation or time in their lives to balance it all. Can you imagine a judge looking at a list of probation requirements for a young person and pausing to ask whether the list allowed time for rest and for joy? Or a social worker looking at a parenting plan and pausing to ensure that it included self-care for the parent, as well as time to rest? It’s hard to imagine, but it is perhaps a possibility worth dreaming about and advocating for.

If all you take away from this article is that rest is something worth thinking about, both for ourselves and for our clients, then that is a good step forward. Even better is if you are able to rest without guilt at some point in the next week. I challenge you to close your eyes for five minutes or read just for fun or stroll around your neighborhood—whatever you find restful. Rest not because you earned it through hard work or because you need it for the week ahead, but as “The Nap Bishop” Trisha Hersey says, because it is your human right to do so.

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.