Tips to help stressed-out lawyers during COVID-19 pandemic

The global COVID-19 pandemic puts into stark relief the extraordinary stressors that many people can face during these uncertain times. To help recognize the signs and symptoms of behavioral health disorders that can be adversely affected by such events, a panel of experts in the ABA webinar “Staying Mentally Safe, Sound and Sober During COVID-19,” offered strategies to address potential issues — and reinforced that how lawyers manage this crisis is part of their ethical responsibility to their clients.

Panelists included:

  • Moderator Bree Buchanan, chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs
  • Tish Vincent, director of Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program of Michigan
  • Laurie J. Besden, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania
  • Chris Ritter, director of Texas Lawyers Assistance Program

In an emergency like COVID-19, many behavioral health disorders may be exacerbated, including depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.  “We are looking at promoting our own resilience so that we preserve our competence and fitness to practice and looking at that through the lens of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1, which is our duty to maintain competence,” Buchanan said, urging attorneys to use the free and confidential Lawyer Assistance Programs.

Vincent said that during an emergency like a pandemic, when a state of heightened anxiety persists for long periods of time, the symptoms of anxiety and depression can cause people to feel scared, unsure and paralyzed. The emotions are triggered by stress and plays out differently for anxiety versus depression. Anxiety causes overwhelming feelings of fear and distress. Depression can lead to changes in patterns of sleep, appetite and movement.

“This pandemic is causing everyone to experience extreme stress,” Vincent said. The panelists offered the strategies to calm anxiety:

  • Practice tolerating uncertainty. Intolerance of uncertainty makes people vulnerable to anxiety. The solution: Take baby steps to gradually face uncertainty in daily life by easing back on certainty-seeking behaviors. For example, don’t text your friend immediately the next time you need an answer to a question. Or go on a hike without checking the weather beforehand. “For the time being, realize your best strategy for dealing with the uncertainty is to accept it. For a period each day, allow yourself to feel your feelings,” Vincent said.
  • Tackle the anxiety paradox. The more you try to not feel anxious, the more anxious you get. Picture yourself sitting on a mountaintop, watching your anxious thoughts drift past like clouds. Once you accept that anxiety is an integral part of human experience, it’s easier to develop resistance.  Facing anxiety in the moment will lead to less anxiety over time.
  • Don’t try to escape anxiety. Instead, Vincent said, schedule something every day that you enjoy and do it. Examples: commit to 15 minutes of exercise, housework or talking with a friend. “It will give you a sense of control and a feeling that you can cope,” she said. Finally, if extreme emotions persist, contact a mental health professional for help. Mental health professionals are trained to intervene and teach skills for coping.
  • Practice gratitude daily. “Gratitude turns ‘why me’ into ‘try me,’” Bresden said. Practicing gratitude is important for gaining a healthy perspective. It also helps to develop a positive state of mind, build resiliency, boost productivity, reduce depression and improve sleep.
  • Debrief and connect with others. Ritter said lawyers are pre-disposed to feeling anxiety. “Our whole profession is about handling the biggest problem that some business or some person has,” he said. Because of this anxiety, lawyers often turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Instead, tell someone about what has happened to achieve some sort of order or meaning. Connecting with others is vital right now, and he suggests calling someone daily. Bresden also urged lawyers to reach out to those who might be struggling. “It’s worth risking being wrong rather than letting somebody struggle in silence,” she said.

Lawyers also must set boundaries to avoid constant stress, Ritter said. He offered the following advice:

  • Limit how often you check your email to two or three times per day. Let your clients and colleagues know and expect it.
  • Limit social media to 10 minutes per platform per day and set a timer.
  • Monitor your screen time with monitoring apps.
  • Use “do not disturb” settings on your PC and phone.
  • Do not charge your phone beside your bed and leave your phone behind when you eat or exercise.
  • Get away from your PC by taking healthy breaks.

“Four percent of your life is about one hour per day,” Ritter said. “I know very few attorneys who are giving themselves an hour of self-care a day. It’s not going to happen unless you put it on your calendar.”

This webinar was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, ABA Commission on Disability Rights, ABA Center for Professional Responsibility, ABA Health Law Section and ABA CLE.

Staying Mentally Safe, Sound and Sober During COVID-19” is available on demand for free for ABA members. Enjoy unlimited no-cost access to more than 575 widely accredited online programs and webinars. Additional COVID-19 programs are available for free.