Jan 30

If the main rules of real estate are “location, location, location,” then the main rules of thriving emotionally in the field of law are “boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.” You can preserve your emotional and mental health by establishing firm boundaries early in the legal career. These boundaries will help you successfully navigate all of the ego-damaging obstacles along the way.

Some boundaries, like drawing the line about how late you are going to check that flashing BlackBerry on a Friday night, are obvious. Other boundaries are equally as crucial, but it’s slightly more difficult to recognize their importance when you are just starting out your legal career and are eager to advance. The determination to excel and the mental stamina required to climb the metaphorical legal ladder are very admirable. It takes a special kind of personality and strength of character to be willing to compete in the field replete with aggressiveness and power games. The legal discipline embodies survival of the fittest at its best.

To survive, developing the instinct of self-preservation is a must. In this case, we are talking about the preservation of a stable self-image, which leads to the preservation of the emotional and mental well-being.

The self-image of a young lawyer can get attacked from a myriad of directions: formal and informal reviews by senior colleagues, client comments, snide remarks from the aggressive opposing counsel, and even the exasperated unhappiness of the significant others over what they view as a case of workaholism. With so much harsh anxiety-producing criticism coming from every angle, it is natural to feel inadequate, as if you could never be good enough. The sense of self-worth and internal value starts shrinking in no time.

This is where setting firm boundaries comes in, as scary and non-doable as it may sound. Establishing boundaries is about setting your own limits; it is not about setting limits on another person. Only you can decide how you will be affected by the cut-throat culture around you.

I used to feel small when I got yelled at or made a mistake at work. My self-image was getting gradually decimated, and I was feeling good or bad about myself in tandem with what senior associates or partners thought of my work. Some days I felt like I was someone else’s punching bag. Then I realized I was letting other people be responsible for my worth.

It was only when I claimed back the power over my own self-esteem that my self-image became stable. When I made a mistake, I no longer shuddered at the thought that I was an inadequate or unworthy person. I saw it for what it was: a mistake. My boundaries protected me from taking every failure personally, so I could review a mistake, embrace it, apologize for it (instead of rationalizing it to save face) and learn from it. Besides, lots of times when we get mistreated or berated, it is not about us: the other person is simply having a bad day (month, year or career) and takes it out on whoever is around.

Knowing that your self-worth does not depend on your work performance is essential. Sometimes standing up for yourself to a chastising partner or an irate client is not an option. But not feeling small because you didn’t do a perfect job is. Besides, it is easier to excel at work when you have created an intact boundary. There is no need to spend time and energy on soothing a wounded ego. The boundary is in place to protect what is unconditionally and intrinsically valuable about you.

These protective boundaries will help you deal with the barrage of criticism from stressed-out senior colleagues, impatient clients or cut-throat opposing counsel that is bound to chip away at your self-esteem. You can stop feeling like someone’s punching bag. Figuring this out early in the career can protect your emotional health for decades to come.

Guest blogger Dasha Tcherniakovskaia is getting her master’s degree in mental health counseling at Lesley University. She is changing careers after devoting 10+ years to corporate law. She has worked as a paralegal at a major financial institution and an associate at a large Boston law firm.

Jan 11

A report published last month by Wisconsin’s state bar, based on a survey of new lawyers, found that newly admitted attorneys faced “huge law school debt, unemployment, underemployment, or inadequate pay,” along with fewer opportunities for training.  The result, of course, is not only economic depression but emotional depression.  (Click here to read the Wisconsin Bar article.)

None of this comes as a surprise to me as a clinician at LCL, where financial and career issues have risen in prominence over the years (along with depression) as the factors that often motivate lawyers and law students to come and talk to us.  Unfortunately, we don’t have solutions to the basic factors contributing to the current situation, such as the state of the economy or the vigorous marketing and proliferation of law schools generating ever more graduates even as the number of jobs for lawyers has been declining.  But it may help to know that, if this description fits your current plight, you are far from alone.

Wisconsin’s report suggests finding ways to reduce costs such as dues for new lawyers and an improved, institutionalized mentoring program (something that has long been needed regardless of economic factors).  These measures will not, obviously, do much to correct for the larger problem.  What we can offer at LCL is help with the emotional fallout, and support for your process of finding a way to navigate these choppy waters, as well as referrals to resources such as career coaches.

Jeff Fortgang, PhD

Jan 01

In the past 35 years or so, all professions have been caught up in a tidal wave.  The ideals that drew people to their fields – education, healing, rescue, and in the case of lawyers, justice – have been overwhelmed by the Darwinian quest for profit (or, in the case of the small firm attorney, financial survival).

It is as futile to fight or deny this trend as it would be to deny climate change (though, as with the latter, there will always be debate as to the causes).  Today’s professional has no choice but to deal with the forces of commercialism, supply and demand, etc.  Thus, we see increasing numbers of lawyers learning to become adept at marketing, social media, search engine optimization, virtual offices – all necessary (and thank goodness for resources such as our own Law Office Management Assistance Program).

But we also see so much depression among lawyers.  Yes, many are dejected because they cannot earn enough money to make ends meet.  But perhaps an even more difficult task, given the current economic climate (and surplus of lawyers, like others such as mental health professionals, churned out by schools focused on their own need to stay afloat and create profit), is finding a way to maintain some connection with their professional ideals – that which gives one’s work a sense of meaning.  As emphasized in the writings of the late psychiatrist/philosopher Viktor Frankl, people can endure even extreme hardship if they find meaning and experience a sense of impact.  Psychologist Martin Seligman originated the notion of “learned helplessness” as a source of depression – the sense (which may represent a skewed perspective) that “whatever I do or don’t do, it doesn’t change anything.”  We need to believe that what we do has a purpose and an effect.

The world recently mourned the loss of Nelson Mandela who, among his other accomplishments, was a lawyer.  Justin Hansford’s recent column in Critical Legal Thinking holds him up as an iconic real-world model for today’s socially responsible and impactful legal practitioner.

So, as we face a new year, all of us professionals can seek a way to survive on both dimensions – make enough money (or cut enough costs) to support ourselves and our families and have some kind of balance, but also continually reconnect with our vocational ideals, the ways we are having at least a small positive inlfuence on our world, the quest not only to compete or “win” but to contribute.


Dec 06

Emotional health and self-esteem are inextricably linked.  So let me ask you a simple question: Do you value yourself? Right now, right this moment. Is it different from how you felt about yourself yesterday or a month ago? Do you know who you are at your core? Does anyone or anything else define that for you (i.e., a senior colleague or your work performance)?

Our emotional well-being hinges on self-esteem – that sense of unmitigated self-worth and the ability to hold yourself in esteem regardless of how well you are fulfilling your roles of employee, law firm partner, spouse, parent, etc.  Holding yourself in warm regard no matter how well you perform at work staves off depression and anxiety.

Is your self-esteem rooted in true “self” esteem? Or is it a yo-yo esteem based on how much better or worse than others you are doing at a particular moment?

Working in the legal field, giving all of yourself to the job and often spending long hours at the office pave the way for the professional identity to take over. It becomes all too easy to ignore true self-esteem. To make matters worse, a lawyer’s success is viewed through a double-whammy prism of cultural expectations and surviving the pressures of the law firm environment.  Culturally, you “have made it” if you achieve financial success, as reflected by the material possessions, and hit all of the life milestones expected of you, including an accomplished career. Professionally, being a sharp, detail-oriented attorney, jousting for clients, prestigious assignments, partnership or status and one-upping in constant power plays with opposing counsel – those are the things that often make a successful lawyer.

Figuring out who you are outside of your professional identity while trying to do the “right thing” expected by the culture and the profession is no easy feat.  Self-esteem based on one’s self-image as a hot-shot lawyer is often the only kind of esteem that stands out prominently.

How do you actually know whether your self-esteem is the real kind? Imagine that all of your roles, professional identity, job title, wealth, material possessions and work accomplishments have been stripped away. What’s left? Who are you?

The things that we hold on to for dear life can trick us into believing that we should be valued for how well we do. They become the foundation of our self-esteem. How we fare professionally, what law school we graduated from, what firms we have worked at, how much wealth we have accumulated over the years – all that gives us a false sense of power, leading to a self-esteem based on our outward achievements valued by the outward-focused society.

Socrates has famously said that an unexamined life is not worth living. An unexamined life, devoid of knowing who you are and of the ability to hold yourself in warm esteem regardless of the fleeting professional accomplishments or failures, leaves happiness vulnerable to the tribulations of life. Losing a job, a promotion, coveted partnership or life savings to an imprudent investment or a free-falling economy can always be stressful, but that doesn’t have to mean you are an unworthy person.

You matter because of who you are, not what you do. Maintaining self-worth and self-esteem in the face of losses and failures, big or small, is one of the key factors in warding off depression and anxiety. Life inevitably has its ups and downs. The more aware and emotionally healthy of us tend not to experience failure as a personal affront to their sense of self-worth. Neither do they think a triumph at work makes them a worthier person. You can too.

Guest blogger Dasha Tcherniakovskaia is getting her master’s degree in mental health counseling at Lesley University. She is changing careers after devoting 10+ years to corporate law.  She has worked as a paralegal at a major financial institution and an associate at a large Boston law firm.

Nov 04

At Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers we think a lot about how attorneys can effectively deal with stress which, unfortunately, is almost an inevitable part of our working life.  I was pleased to see a post written by the professionals at the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program, Addicted to Stress? Join the club.”  The article suggests that many of us in the legal profession are addicted to stress, and that the negative health consequences of long-term stress are significant.  Becoming aware of the stress, and how some of us actually seek stress, is a significant first step.  I would encourage you to read the full article, linked above.


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Sep 27


LCL attends Harvard Wellness Fair

I was pleased during my recent visit to Harvard Law School Wellness Fair to be able to speak with so many students about how Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (“LCL”) exists to help lawyers, judges and law students.  Although many students were not aware of LCL and its mission, they were certainly attentive when I explained the services provided by LCL.  As can be found at the students’ tab, LCL is here to help students learn to cope with common issues like stress and procrastination, and successfully overcome more difficult issues such as mental health issues, substance abuse or alcoholism.  LCL’s clinicians are experienced and helpful, and our recovery meetings are welcoming to law students.  Moreover, Harvard Law students need not travel far for a recovery meeting, because there is a LCL recovery meeting at the law school.  In addition to LCL resources, Harvard Law School also provides helpful information at its HLS Wellness blog

I not only enjoyed meeting with the law students, but I also had the pleasure of meeting a fascinating individual traveling through life.  Samuel Jay Keyser, Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus), took the time, as he strolled towards his office at MIT, took time to stop and chat.  He was also kind enough to introduce me to his blog, The Reluctant Traveler.  Included in his wide ranging discussions about travel, are two posts pertinent to Harvard Law School, justice and judgment, My Favorite Spot.  Thank you, John Safer and the related Releasing the Sword in the Stone, September 15, 2013 Not surprisingly, given Professor Keyser’s profession, the posts were educational and thoughtful in discussing issues of justice and judgment.  For me, however, the power of the posts was that his discussion would not have been possible but for the author’s willingness to slow down, to contemplate that which was about him, to allow curiosity room to explore, and to give himself time to understand.  As a result, blobs became objects from which lessons could be learned.  Go ahead, slow down and read Professor Keyser’s posts.     

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Apr 01

It can be difficult to keep track of all the various forms of psychological help that are out there.  Each year seems to bring a new wrinkle, and reliable scientific validation is often hard to come by (and approaches backed by tightly designed studies often seem less amazing in real-life practice).  One approach that is pretty well accepted among mental health professionals and that also gets good reviews from patients/clients is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).  At this point, it’s been around for over 30 years and is certainly no longer a fad – but it’s harder work (for both therapist and patient) than many therapies and not so widely available.  Drawing upon elements of behavioral treatment as well as Buddhist-tinged concepts such as “radical acceptance,”  DBT can be conceptualized as a collection of learnable coping skills that are particularly useful for individuals who have a tumultuous emotional life.  People whose lives seem to be full of such “drama” are typically not choosing to make life difficult; their outer expression reflects their inner reality.  DBT accepts that and sets about building compensatory skills.  For an example of a case that might be applicable, see our column on page 3  of the March issue of MBA Lawyers Journal.

Jeff Fortgang, PhD

Feb 01

Many years ago when I was first trained as a clinical psychologist, patients’ interest in self-help books was often viewed as a cheap substitute for psychotherapy, and their requests for book recommendations was sometimes deemed a form of resistance to therapy.  In my own memory it was the world of alcoholism treatment, and then the 1980s explosion of interest in adult children of alcoholics, that opened the door to what is sometimes called “biblio-therapy”.

Things have certainly changed, and now, according to a study by psychologists at the University of Scranton, 85% of psychologists polled found that their patients/clients reported benefitting from self-help books, and 57% said the same of autobiographies.  Reviewing these results recently in The Register Report, a periodical for psychologists, the researchers had provided a list of the top 50 self-help books and top 50 autobiographies for issues including grief, depression, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, and more.  [Unfortunately they have taken down these pages since this blog was originally composed, but if you need ideas feel free to call Dr. Fortgang at LCL.]

Jeff Fortgang, PhD

Jan 14

As a clinician at LCL, I recurrently have the opportunity to meet lawyers who present with exceptional academic backgrounds, who have excelled in their careers, and who have shown impressive vision and determination in their professional lives.  Even so, the matters bringing them to me are reminders that depression, addiction, attention deficit, anxiety, and the like are equal-opportunity problems, and that these individuals are no more immune from them than those whose backgrounds are less extraordinary.

One reason for that is the fact that different parts of our brains are, in some respects, at war with one another.  Rationality, decision-making, goal-directedness, etc. are functions that seem to go on mainly in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the cerebrum that is uniquely evolved in humans, and we’d like to think that we employ our cognitive capacities to control our lives.  But the fact is that much of our behavior is affected strongly by the limbic system, where we find the influence of emotion and reward.

Lawyers seek to live professionally in the prefrontal cortex, which is essential in the practice of law.  But they are human beings as well, and subject to the powerful behavioral impact of feelings (whether or not these are acknowledged) and reward states (such as those that can be unnaturally elevated by alcohol and other drugs of abuse).   Thus, we find highly intelligent, accomplished individuals, who have tried to apply their reasoning skills to problems of emotion or addictive behavior only to see these difficulties worsen.

We all have to recognize that there is much of life over which we have little or no control, and that when it comes to those parts of our experience we will probably benefit most from (a) acceptance of our human limitations and (b) willingness to make honest connections to others as sources of help.

Jeff Fortgang, PhD

Dec 10

Here we are at the time of year when we are occasionally reminded to be grateful (perhaps superseded, these days, by reminders that true fulfillment requires cars, jewelry, or smartphones).  And of course the recommendation for an “attitude of gratitude” has long been a prominent recommendation for a sane way of life in 12-step groups.  All very nice, but what does it offer the hard-headed professional, such as a lawyer well trained in finding the holes in any argument?

Now there is a growing body of systematic psychological inquiry into “the grateful disposition,” notably in the lab of UC Davis professor Robert Emmons, author of books such as The Psychology of Gratitude (Oxford University Press).  He has found, for example, that people who kept gratitude journals reported fewer physical complaints, made more progress toward personal goals, and were more attentive, optimistic, generous, and energized.

Dr. Emmons’ colleagues/collaborators in the field of gratitude include Michael McCullough, PhD of University of Miami and Jo-Ann Tsang, PhD of Baylor University.  If you’d like to self-administer the Gratitude Questionnaire (GQ-6) that they developed, you can link to it here and then find scoring instructions here.

Jeff Fortgang, PhD

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