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Book offers practical solutions to the legal profession’s crisis of well-being

“Law is a demanding profession and it is not unreasonable to expect that it should be a fulfilling one as well – but it is up to you to do the work to ensure it,” writes Stewart Levine in a new ABA-published book “The Best Lawyer You Can Be: A Guide to Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Wellness.”

With a goal to teach lawyers “how to harness the transformative power of being more relational and less transactional,” the book’s three sections on self-awareness, self-management and engagement cover everything from smart collaboration, autonomy, competence, emotional intelligence, resilience and more.

Levine, an attorney, mediator, management consultant and coach, is also the author of “Getting to Resolution: Turning Conflict into Collaboration.”

YourABA contacted Levine to learn more:

You write that authenticity (i.e., integrity) is “the most personal factor in your life and also the most important for your happiness and satisfaction.” How can lawyers ensure authenticity, in both their work and personal lives?

When you conduct your life from a sense of integrity a great deal of tension is eliminated because you never have to worry about the stories you told because you are always telling the truth.

In the world of managing others, no one is going to respect or follow someone who does not have integrity. A lack of trust for anyone in a leadership position is a death knell. I think that also rings true for lawyers. 

The bookend chapters of “The Best Lawyer You Can Be” are about the importance of being relational as opposed to transactional. Larry Krieger’s chapter, “Being the Happiest, Most Effective Lawyer You Can Be,” is backed by extensive empirical research that reveals that the happiest lawyers are relational – human connection is what drives their lives: connection with clients, adversaries, judges, court personnel, colleagues, friends and families makes for happy, integrated lawyers. 

Your book maintains that both lawyers and the legal profession need to be more resilient.  What are some strategies for accomplishing that?

The adversarial nature of the legal profession is steeped in winning and losing, being right or wrong and a fault and blame perspective. There is also a perfectionist context. All lawyers can remember being called out by a law professor in the name of learning to get beyond one’s soft edges to master thinking like a lawyer. That was meant to serve you well in tough days in the rough-and-tumble joust that is the practice of law. Resilience was required early on.

My wife was a placement expert working with highly pedigreed lawyers. When placing people in senior positions in major corporations, law firms, government and academic institutions, she would always look for the circumstantial evidence of failure. The premise was that a person would have setbacks in senior positions and without an experience of the cycle of failure and bounce back a candidate would be challenged to have long-term success.   

Lawyers do fail and are not perfect, so awareness of and capacity to bounce back is essential.

Paula Davis-Laack shared her expertise in the chapter “Resilient and Ready.” Some of the critical actions that contribute to resilience include reality-based thinking in terms of the real negative impact or consequences of some failure; the attention to the importance of relational thinking; not assessing one’s life based on one transaction but seeing the bigger picture; engaging in positive acts of self-care like yoga, exercise or meditation to restore perspective; and intervening to talk yourself off a ledge rather than engaging in the kind of self-talk that will put you over the edge.      

How can lawyers recognize and overcome self-sabotage?

At some point almost all of us self-sabotage. We get in the way of our own self-proclaimed goals. We say we want these goals but don’t take steps that would move the needle in the right direction. Other times, we act in ways that propel us in the exact opposite direction of where we want to be.  Getting in the way of our own goals can compromise our well-being.  When we resist these goals, we are keeping ourselves from living healthier, happier, more fulfilling lives. 

In her chapter on “Increasing Well-Being,” Diane Costigan offers five steps that can help you “A-D-O-P-T” a new approach to conquering self-sabotage:

  1. Awareness: You need to be aware of the self-sabotage itself – what it is and how it manifests. Second, you must be aware and alert, moment to moment, of self-sabotage.
  2. Diagnose: Gain an understanding of what is causing you to self-sabotage.
  3. Objective: Counterbalance awareness and diagnosis with your goal to help connect your efforts to something you value.
  4. Plan: Bridge awareness and meeting your objective with a strategic plan that closes the gap.
  5. Take action: Execute your plan. It’s important to act, even if it is only small steps, to keep the needle moving forward.

How can lawyers use stress to their advantage, and what is your exercise for alleviating stress immediately?

Dr. Eva Selhub, an alumnus of Harvard Medical School faculty, shares a great deal about the techniques she uses for managing stress in the chapter “Using Stress to Your Advantage.”

You can be successful at your work, have meaningful relationships and take better care of yourself all while using stress to motivate you and warn you when you need to go and when you need to stop.  You have the power to make choices that will support you to function at your best at all times, enabling you to be truly resilient. Resilient leaders have the ability to think clearly and find solutions to complex situations even under duress. You can be this resilient leader by knowing the difference between adaptive coping and maladaptive coping. 

The stress response is a physiological response that enables individuals to get out of bed in the morning, fight infections, maintain blood pressure, survive traumas and meet nutritional needs and allow energy to be expended in response to a wide range of signals to heal wounds so that we can adapt to an ever-changing environment and survive.  These include:

  1. Pause, breathe, listen:  Use emotional intelligence to be aware of what’s going on inside you.
  2. Redirect the focus to positive expectation: Leverage the energy of the tension between where you are and where you want to be.
  3. Move your body: Exercise of any kind dissipates stress. 
  4. Food is your fuel: Healthy eating provides access to the capacity your body has.
  5. Make time for rest and recovery: Rest helps you let go and reboots the system.
  6. Play has a pay-off: See # 5.

A key for quickly alleviating stress is visualization, commonly known as “going to a happy place.” It’s important to have a well-practiced strategy to deal in the moment with behaviors that trigger our systems and generate high stress levels, because sometimes we can’t get out into nature, go to the gym, meditate or take in a classical concert.

What is PsyCap, and how can lawyers build it?

Former lawyer and expert in applied positive psychology Martha Knudson lays out the principles in her chapter, “Psychological Capital and Lawyer Success.” PsyCap, a well-researched positive mental capacity that may be thought of as mental strength and flexibility, is made up of four critical resources: 

Self-efficacy: Having the confidence to successfully take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks.

Optimism: Having a positive expectation about one’s ability to meet challenges and succeed now and in the future.

Hope: Having the ability to persevere toward goals and, when necessary, to redirect goal pathways in order to succeed.

Resilience: Having the capacity to cope, sustain and bounce back when problems and adversity strike.

When combined and used together, these four PsyCap resources have a synergistic quality.

Scientific evidence from the fields of positive psychology and positive organizational behavior shows that PsyCap shapes the underlying attitudes and behaviors associated with increased performance. They may even buffer lawyers against the occupational hazards of the profession – including stress, mental health issues and substance abuse. Lawyer training programs ought to be enhanced to include the development of PsyCap. Policies that promote lawyer strengths and well-being are good for the lawyer, law firm and business.

A large and growing body of research shows PsyCap as strongly linked with increased job performance – even over that which is related to skill and intelligence alone. Those high in PsyCap have stronger beliefs in their ability to handle obstacles on the job, which in turn drives their motivation to perform well.

PsyCap is also associated with higher commitment, job satisfaction and lower absenteeism and attrition rates. It can also be preventative, shielding valuable employees from burnout, stress, anxiety and depression. These positive outcomes are very real factors that can have a direct impact on a legal organization’s bottom-line profitability.

What are some strategies law firms can take to build an environment in which lawyers can thrive?

Some things a firm can do include:

  1. Articulate the business benefit of everyone becoming “The Best Lawyer You Can Be!”
  2. Build a culture of wellness that embodies a consciousness of well-being that permeates the firm.
  3. Assign or hire a well-being coordinator and make sure senior leadership champions and models it.
  4. Mandate that management take notice of unhealthy systemic activities or individual behavior. 
  5. Develop in-house programs and give people the perk of wellness activities.
  6. Have fun practicing law!
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