June 01, 2017

Practice Wellness to Practice Law Well: One of the best ways to extend the life of your career is to prioritize taking care of yourself.

By Kathy M. Morris

We all know about the link between law and stress and the nexus between stress and illness. We also know that illness can lead to pain medication, which can lead to serious substance issues. Local, state, federal, and global bar associations offer lawyer assistance programs to address impairment problems.

But to prevent this cycle at its origin and to extend the life of your career, practice wellness.

Don’t forget to breathe

Sometimes called mindfulness, a wellness regimen not only includes good nutrition and exercise but also a mental component. Whether it incorporates meditation (which, too, has its many forms), yoga (ditto), or another mind-body practice like tai chi or qigong, the discipline of slowing down and concentrating on your breathing does wonders for the conscious creativity and quiet confidence required over the years to maintain a centered, successful legal career.

In law schools across the country, law students are learning to combat the profession’s toll from the start. The George Washington University has hired a staff member called the law school program administrator for wellness. The University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall offers a two-credit course called Mindfulness for Lawyers: Understanding the Legal Mind for Greater Effectiveness and Wellbeing in the Study and Practice of Law.

I myself perceived this need during my first encounter with the challenge of stress during a law school clerkship; starting transcendental meditation decades ago and doing it literally every day since has given me a teetotaling life and a near stress-free career.

In a 2015 ABA Journal article, Terry Harrell, the chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, noted other practical benefits.

“Meditation and mindfulness are not just good for us the way things like fish oil are. They actually affect the quality of legal work,” he said. “A mindfulness practice makes us better decision-makers, better ethical decision-makers. And that translates into better lawyering.”

Consider the alternative

Over the years, I’ve counseled many lawyers, some of whom have asked about the value of meditation, yoga, and the variations of mindfulness. I always encourage it and even tell them to slow down their steps and notice their breathing on their way to and from the coffee pot at work.

Small moments matter; recharging is mental and physiological and doesn’t have to take hours or be expensive. However, it is costly to avoid wellness and, ultimately, there’s an unavoidable emotional and physical price to be paid.

Two lawyers come to mind. One, a partner, never made time to put himself in the equation and ended up taking a good deal of unpaid time off to regroup and refocus. Another, an associate, came to me while already on a work hiatus, and I assigned the job of concentrating on getting back to balance while delegating the worrying to me. After several months, she also redirected her career and has never looked back.

Before you encounter the need to stop working, contract an illness, or over-rely on medication, it’s time for you, too, to enrich your legal and coping skills to take even greater control over your career.

Learn and employ a regular mindfulness practice to enhance your wellness, extend your work life, and sustain you personally as well as professionally. It works.

Kathy M. Morris

Kathy M. Morris founded Under Advisement Ltd., underadvisement.com, to help lawyers and law students with their careers and job searches. She’s the advisor to the ABA Legal Career Central, abalcc.org and a regular contributor to Experience Magazine.