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Attorney Wellness and Mindfulness Part 1: Why is Mindfulness a Benefit to Attorneys and others in the Legal Industry?
Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Attorney wellness and a focus on all aspects of employee well-being, including mental health, has become an important issue in today’s workplace environment.  Law firms, and the legal industry in general, with its competitive reputation, expectation of heavy workloads and high stakes environment is beginning to embrace wellness practices as an anecdote to the chronic stress often faced by attorneys and other individuals who work in law firms.

The problem is so widespread that in 2017, the ABA House of Delegates approved Resolution 106  amended the ABA Model Rule for Minimum Continuing Legal Education (CLE) to include a requirement for lawyers to receive at least one hour of mental health, substance abuse credit every three years.  And mental and physical health issues as well as substance abuse CLE courses are mandatory in several states, such as Illinois and Florida or count towards professional responsibility credits in numerous other states.

Elena Rand JD, MSW and Chief Marketing Officer of Wiggin and Dana has been working on this issue for years, putting her experience as a litigator and a legal executive coach along with her Master’s degree in Clinical Social Work to help those in the legal industry understand chronic stress, how it impacts the body, and how mindfulness, even at a basic level, can help improve performance and well-being. 

Elena Rand and Eilene Spear of the National Law Review will be hosting a panel at the Momentum Events Employee Wellness Event for Legal and Professional Services Providers at the Riverside Hotel in Fort Lauderdale on February 27- 28, and in preparation for that presentation they sat down and discussed some aspects of mindfulness, identified some barriers to its practice and outlined the need in the legal industry.

I know you have formal training in Clinical Social Work and have dedicated much of your professional life to workplace health and wellness issues, can you take a minute or two and address your background and why wellness at the workplace, specifically in the legal industry is an issue that you care about?

Attorney wellness and wellness and the legal community in general is something that has been sort of a mission and a passion of mine probably for the last 15, maybe even 20 years. It really came to the forefront of my attention when I was working as a legal executive coach.  I was doing coaching for a large law firm, really focused on working with attorneys to improve their leadership and business development and networking skills and taking high-performers to the next level. What I invariably discovered is that there is an underbelly of crisis and struggling for many of these enormously successful, high achieving, high performing go-getting attorneys. I found that attorneys were struggling both in terms of managing their baseline day to day life to extreme mental health issues and addiction. That kind of came to full bloom and grabbed my attention.

As a legal executive coach working with high-performing attorneys, I was sort of a first responder in many ways for a lot of the wellness and mental health crises that were being buried for many, many years. Before we could even get to how to focus on getting you to the partnership level, and how do we focus on doubling your book of business, attorneys were coming to me on their own saying, “I don't think I can take another moment of this,” or “if I add one more thing to my day, you know, I'm going to, I'm going to really lose it.”

I started to see that this was an issue that kept popping up and presenting itself, so I went back to grad school and earned a master's in clinical social work. I wanted to have a real behavioral toolbox so that I could understand human behavior, understand the spectrum of wellness and the lack of wellness, and really be able to service the legal community in that way. 

Additionally, wellness has been a lifelong personal struggle and mission, in my life.  I was one of those crazy, high-performing litigators who hit a wall at 90 miles an hour when I had my first child at the age of 27 and suffered from crippling postpartum depression. Suddenly, after years of just pushing and pushing, I one day woke up to realize that I was now severely impaired. It was very scary and humbling and you know, it became sort of my own passion and mission to really bring a level of attention and awareness to wellness in the legal community.

It’s pretty obvious that the legal industry is very competitive and that it can be full of very high-stress situations. What are some symptoms of constant stress that you might come across in the day to day operations of a typical law firm?

That question's really important. You know, stress is basically a physiological reaction to a perceived threat to you and to your environment, right? So that's where you get the whole fight or flight physical response. That's what stress is. From a biological perspective, what ends up happening is your blood pressure goes up, your veins constrict, and you have basic physiological symptoms kicking you into fight or flight mode.  From purely a biological perspective, these automatic stress responses can have serious ramifications that can end up impairing an individual’s daily functioning.

Biology impacts our behavior; so chronic, ongoing stress in the body manifest and present some clearly identifiable behavioral dysfunctions. For starters, chronic stress induces a level of constant baseline agitation. Everything and anything can be irritating to the point of explosion.  Everyone is a little bit of a powder keg about to explode. Chronic stress will cause sleep deprivation. It has been linked to eating disorders. It can cause imbalances in your metabolism. It'll cause imbalances in your serotonin level, and the other thing it does is it causes isolation. You have increased isolation with stress because you're protecting yourself.  You're not talking to anybody, you're going through all of these things and everything in your body and mind is telling you to isolate.

From an executive functioning point of view, there is so much research to show that people functioning under high levels of stress for a long period of time can demonstrate impaired judgment,  impaired ability for conflict resolution, and impaired compassion. These impairments impact interpersonal relationships at work including client relationships. High stress has a whole host of impairments associated with high-level executive functioning that really is being called into play moment to moment. As an attorney, chronic stress can compromise your ability to focus and use good judgment. Your ability to analyze situations correctly and be able to step away and say, “is this a moment for confrontation?” or “is this a moment for cool off?” is now off.  Your ability to assess how best to present information appropriately to the client, to the associate, or to the partner is also off. Bottom line is that chronic high stress really impairs many of the operational skills needed to interface and practice effectively as a lawyer.  Finally, it also impairs the softer skills that are really needed as you become more of a senior partner and involved in business development.

From a business perspective, both individuals and the institutional law firms are negatively impacted by untreated chronic high stress as an individual’s capacity to handle situations and use good judgment and analysis have basically gone out the window.

How does mindfulness practices help counteract that stress in a typical law office environment?

Basically, mindfulness is bringing your attention to the present moment in an intentional, deliberate and systematic kind of way with an attitude of acceptance of whatever might show up or for whatever you're experiencing. What mindfulness does, is it forces you to pause, which is, you know, a novel concept for many attorneys. One of the key things that happen when you are in a stress-induced situation is you stop breathing. We hold our breath. When you do that, you essentially jack up all of those sympathetic stress indicators in your body I mentioned before. I really want to make mindfulness super clear and basic, because I want to make mindfulness practice really accessible and strip away any preconceived ideas of what mindfulness is. 

So, what is the power of the present moment?  If we strip it down, the present moment for any human being at any given moment is made up of  a cocktail of  their emotions, their sensations, and/or their thoughts. When you're bringing your attention to that bundle of things that are happening, what you're feeling, what you're thinking and what you're sensing in the world, suddenly you start to breathe and you start to invoke and sort of trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the self-calming, self-soothing embodiment that we all automatically have in our body. What you're inviting yourself to do is to intentionally focus on the present moment so that you can breathe, so that your body can be able to kick itself into a place of calmness.

We’re not talking about achieving nirvana, you know, we're talking about creating a tool that is user-friendly so that in the moment you can pause, breathe and be able to ground in the present moment so that your body and your mind can kick into a better and perhaps, more optimal way of functioning.

That’s a simplified way of thinking about it because other levels can be a little off-putting or intimidating.  If you read a lot of philosophy on mindfulness and meditation, anyone who claims they're an “expert” in mindfulness doesn't get it, in my opinion. We're all beginners. And the idea that we are all beginning all the time in this process with the “beginner's mind” is what can make the difference of whether you try mindfulness or not. There is no perfection or achievement award in mindfulness; starting at the beginning and paying attention to the present moment over and over again is the practice.

Many thanks to Ms. Rand for her insights.  Tomorrow we will have Part 2, which will address the basics of what mindfulness practice can be, as well as some barriers to practicing mindfulness and how to overcome them.

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