April 25, 2017

Thriving During Transition

Linda Albert

Reprinted with permission from the March 2011 Voice of Experience, published by the State Bar of Wisconsin Senior Lawyers Division. This article was first published as part of a series addressing transitional issues challenging senior lawyers.

The National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC) and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers formed a Joint Commission on Aging Lawyers. The purpose was to study the challenges faced by "aging lawyers" and present solutions. Its report issued in 2005 outlines many issues faced by lawyers as they go through what Lawrence-Lightfoot refers to as the "third chapter" of their lives, ages 50s through 70s. Issues included in the NOBC report include such areas as: advanced planning for the transfer or closing of a practice, identification of and responding to lawyers with age related impairments and support for senior lawyers continuing to practice.


How about that word … "aging"? Does it bring up happy thoughts and a positive forecast? For most of us, the word "aging" is only positive if we are referring to wine or cheese. In our culture it is more likely to generate thoughts of a decline in mental and physical functioning, loss of status, friends, jobs, integrity and, ultimately, the end of life. In contrast, in the country of Samoa, the elderly are expected to be sedentary yet respected, looked upon with dignity and considered the head of the family and in charge. In a word, seniors are "revered".

Possibly the problem isn't in the process of growing older, which is a usual and expected event, but in our perception of it; particularly in how we approach and respond to this change.

Change is a universal and recurrent event in every person's life. Growing older is yet another variable requiring adaptation and adjustment.

Many people are not taught positive cognitive and behavioral skills that prepare them to effectively address unwanted change in their personal and professional lives. Such skills, if healthy, can promote resilience; and in turn, resilience promotes hardiness in the face of difficult change. Wikipedia defines resilience as the positive capacity of people to cope with stress and adversity. Miriam Webster defines it as an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. Key words include: cope, recover, adjust, change.

To be resilient in the "third chapter" (or any chapter) of life, there are certain attitudes and behaviors which, if adhered to, produce the best outcome.

Maddi and Khoshaba outline these attributes in their book titled "Resilience at Work." They refer to "The Three C's": Commitment, Control and Challenge. Utilization of these attributes breeds resilience and hardiness which help us thrive even through the most stressful of times. They further propose that resilience can be learned, stating 40% of your hardiness quotient is inherited, 10% is attributed to situational factors and 50% is based upon choice regarding attitudes and behaviors. This is good news because some amount of choice continues throughout our lives; therefore, regardless of age, we can build hardiness.

For Example: If a senior lawyer tires easily, has pain due to arthritis and their concentration wanes in the afternoons, this can become a problem in their practice. Who is likely to notice this problem: the lawyer, someone working with the lawyer or the client? If someone brings this to the lawyer's attention, how are they likely to perceive this? The lawyer has been able to manage their practice for many years facing other adversities. Typically the lawyer will be very committed to their practice; however, their commitment may lead them to work for their clients even when in pain, tired and unable to concentrate. It may also lead them to attempt to hide or avoid addressing their struggle because their role has been to solve the problems of others. For an attorney, acknowledging a need and asking for help is often a foreign concept and an implication of weakness. It is feasible that in the first and second chapter of their life the ability to work long hours and remain productive was relatively intact. In the third chapter it may become more challenging, unrealistic or ill advised. The end result is the senior lawyer may struggle in silence and possibly head towards further impairment.

Let's look at the attitudes and behaviors which could assist this senior lawyer with change and adversity in the third chapter. According to Maddi and Khosahara:

Commitment: Commitment is comprised of the following: acknowledging the problem and looking for solutions; thinking about how it could work, versus why it won't; and staying engaged with people and events around you during tough times, asking for help and consultation regarding problem solving and making a change.

Control: Control implies engaging in intentional actions to positively influence the outcome instead of giving up or avoiding/denying the challenge and the need for change; taking control over what you can and working towards acceptance of what cannot be changed.

Challenge: The attitude of challenge is displayed by exploring how you can grow through experiencing this adversity or change rather than feeling defeated or incompetent because of it. It also involves looking at ways to be optimistic about the change versus fearful about it.

Resilience at Work: If the above senior lawyer was applying the Three C's, it might look like this: The senior lawyer acknowledges that working full days no longer leaves them at their optimal functioning. They move towards acceptance of the need for change and see this as a problem to be solved. First they see their medical doctor for an evaluation to rule out any other medical conditions, besides their arthritis, which could be contributing to the problems. Next they consult with colleagues, family and friends about what accommodations might be helpful in order to continue to practice, albeit differently. They then put these changes in place, altering their schedule, selection of cases, intensity of the work, etc. The senior lawyer talks to trusted people revealing their thoughts and feelings about what this change is like for them, the importance of addressing it in a proactive manner and what it means to them to be making this change. This entails discussing their emotions such as apprehension or fear about making changes within or closing their practice, and the struggle to accept the uncertainty of the outcome. The attorney is faced with the question "who am I now?" which, at the core, is the challenge to positively re- define their identity as they age.

Commitment to addressing the problem head on, engagement in actions towards solutions and acceptance of change as inevitable versus something to be denied or avoided: this is the proposed formula lending itself to resilience and hardiness when facing adversity or change in life.

Resources to turn to. Every state bar association has a Lawyer Attorney Program that offers resources for lawyers who need help. In Wisconsin, this is the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP). The program is a member service of the State Bar of Wisconsin and provides free, confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, law students and their families in coping with problems and stressors which negatively impact the quality of life and the practice of law.

WisLAP also offers free, confidential consultation to members and their families. To contact the program via the 24 hour hotline, call 800-543-2625. 

Visit the ABA's Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs for more resources. The commission also maintains a directory of state LAP contacts.

Linda Albert

Linda Albert is a psychotherapist and professional trainer at The Psychology Center. She is the former program manager for the Wisconsin Lawyer Assistance Program (WisLAP), which provides confidential assistance to help lawyers, judges, law students, and their families cope with problems related to the stress of practicing law.