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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Oct 07

A great number of accomplished professionals walk through life thinking the world revolves around them. And why wouldn’t they? It takes a lot to become a lawyer. Given all of the achievements and prestige bestowed on lawyers, it feels natural to take everything that happens personally.  The world does revolve around us.

So we fume when someone honks at us or cuts us off in traffic. It rubs us the wrong way when an unreasonable client, an irritated spouse or a disrespectful senior attorney snaps at us in frustration and leaves us wondering what we did to deserve that.  We automatically conclude that we were the cause of their outburst. “It has to do with me” seems like the only likely explanation.

It doesn’t feel particularly good to be treated that way, especially when we are convinced it was uncalled for.  Our mood is ruined. The blood pressure skyrockets. The negative internal conversation that gets us all worked up and angry finishes the job. So we lean on the horn at the overly careful driver in front of us, snap at a junior associate at the slightest hint of incompetence or get impatient when a barista is taking too long with our change. Everyone in our path had better watch out!

Without thinking, we have just extended the chain of frustration and anger – paying it forward, so to speak, with bad deeds instead of the kind ones.

I used to be caught up in that cycle of negativity myself. Then it dawned on me that none of other people’s angry behavior is actually about me. When someone cuts me off in traffic, bumps into and swears at me, or loses their temper because of a mistake made at work, I remind myself: “This is not about me.” “She is having a bad day; she is just taking it out on me.” Or, if all else fails and I am about to stoop to that person’s level, I will to myself: “His ‘stuff’ will not become my ‘stuff’.”

Miraculously, it works. I no longer need to go from 0 to 60 on the irritation scale and let it ruin my mood. Someone else’s bad behavior, even if directed at me, is not about me.  What a liberating concept! It doesn’t hurt the ego or undermine any professional importance. For me, it just takes a second to take a breath and remind myself that this is not about me.  I can then calmly move on with my day without taking anything out on the next person who will jump on the bandwagon of angry outbursts along with me.

There are lots of things I can’t control, but not perpetuating the vicious cycle of negativity – that I can.

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.

Aug 14

This survey was developed by Shaneka Davis, a Boston law student who arranged to intern with LCL this summer as an alternative to the usual, choosing to address the pervasive problem of stress-related human problems among both law students and lawyers.  The brief survey, which was taken by a number of both law students and pracxticing attorneys, is now closed, and Ms. Davis is pulling together the results.

Aug 01

Three experiences in the past week have highlighted my awareness that the world that lawyers inhabit is a rough one.  (1) I had to participate in what turned out to be a 6-hour deposition at a large law firm (though not a party to the litigation in question); (2) My next LCL client after that experience was a bright, capable young man who had become depressed and felt he was no longer able to endure his (well paid) work in what often seemed unnecessary (and unnecessarily confrontational) litigation; (3) in a discussion group of legal practitioners that I facilitated, a participant wrestled with the dilemma of much preferring to practice collaborative family law but being told that it would be very hard to make a living without engaging in divorce combat.

I can’t count the number of lawyers, of all ages, who have met with me over my 15+ years at LCL complaining of feeling beaten down by the adversarial nature of their work which, it turns out, is often in marked contrast to their personality styles.  With what was left of my brain after that deposition, I did wonder whether either of the lawyers had trouble coping with the stance that, I suppose, they had to take; whether they might someday find themselves sharing their distress about it with a therapist.  But my guess is that the more aggressive of the two, like a surgeon facing the need to slice his patients, had already firmly adopted a posture of hardened distance from the objects of his efforts.

Renowned psychologist Martin Seligman devoted a full chapter of his book Authentic Happiness to the sky-high rate of depression among lawyers.  Referring to the concept of “zero-sum game” that characterizes our legal system (where the more that I win, the more that you lose), he states:

The zero-sum nature of law has no easy antidote. For better or for worse, the adversarial process, confrontation, maximizing billable hours, and the “ethic” of getting as much as you possibly can for your clients are much too deeply entrenched. More pro bono activity, more mediation, more out-of-court settlements, and “therapeutic jurisprudence” are all in the spirit of countering the zero-sum mentality, but I expect these recommendations are not cures, but Band-Aids.

Berkeley Law Professor Robert A. Kagan has written about the forces in the American justice system, in contrast to most of Western Europe, that promote “adversarial legalism,” to a markedly increased extent in the past 40+ years, “an ethic of zealous advocacy that in the hands of some practitioners – but not merely a few – legitimates superaggressive legal contestation.”

Collaborative law, referenced above, sheds the “zero-sum game” approach and attempts to come as close as possible to “win-win.”  It seems to have gained a small foothold in the realm of domestic law, but is clearly at odds with the prevailing trends.

What business is this of mine, one might well ask, since the lawyers who read this know much more about the territory than I.  The answer is that I have met with so many lawyers who come to LCL feeling the need to change careers because they are so uncomfortable and disappointed with daily exposure to conflict and confrontation, much of it seeming to be a counterproductive exercise in exertion of power.

My experience at LCL has shown me that, when relating on a human level, most lawyers are fine individuals and just as vulnerable as the rest of us (though perhaps acculturated not to show it).  How unfortunate that so many of them feel caught in a role that perpetuates the public’s stereotype.  Nevertheless, though the system may be bigger than all of us, individuals can change their behavior and attitudes.  LCL can certainly help those who want to make such changes.  Even for those who are in no position to make major career changes, we can assist with the quest to find ways to work and cope effectively within the zero-sum game.

Jeff Fortgang, PhD

May 03

Most of us seem to getting back to life more or less as usual, while watching the further developments of the investigation into the Marathon terrorist incident and noting the remarkable spirits of those recovering from injury.  Yet, all it takes is a walk through Copley Square, or a news item such as the one indicating that the attack might otherwise have occurred at the July 4 concert, to bring back memories of how that day unfolded and transformed an occasion of joy to one of horror.

Some of us will react in a stronger and more prolonged way than others.  Post-Traumatic Stress is a term coined in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, when some veterans, years afterward, continued to react as if they were in the midst of combat.  (Such syndromes were previously called “battle fatigue,” “shell shock,” etc.)  Clinicians later realized that they saw a similar constellation of symptoms among people who had endured or witnessed traumatic or abusive experiences in childhood.  Post-traumatic features include:

  • Hyper-vigilance and exaggerated startle response;
  • Intrusive images of the events (in nightmares or while awake);
  • Intense distress when exposed to cues representing the event;
  • Feelings of detachment or unexpected anger or tears;
  • Avoidance of thoughts, feelings, people or places associated with the trauma;
  • Problems with concentration and memory

For some or possibly most people, these phenomena begin to fade within a month or so.  For others, they may persist, or even surface years later.  As you might expect, the condition is generally more severe when the traumatizing circumstances continue over time, e.g., a child whose sexual abuse went on for years, or a solder in continuous combat for months or years.  Although we are currently dealing with the events of one day (or a week, depending on how you look at it), we are also dealing with echoes of other attacks dating back at least to 9/11, and with our sense of not knowing what to expect next, and when.

We are also grieving for those whose lives were lost.  Most of us did not know them, but it feels now as if they are part of our extended family.  You have probably heard of the so-called “stages of grief” (which in reality vary greatly among people): denial, anger/guilt, sadness/despair, acceptance and hope.  Acceptance are hope are hard to find, yet ultimately there is no other healthy choice.

Both post-traumatic and grief reactions are normal in the short run.  They become clinical concerns when they persist over a period of months or years, or if they severely interfere with daily functioning.  Even normal reactions, however, frequently cannot be handled solely through avoidance or “stiff upper lip.”  Most of us need to talk to each other repeatedly about what we’ve experienced and how we feel about it.  But different people make their way through this process at different rates of speed; they should be invited but not forced to talk, and their feelings should be heard and accepted, not judged or “fixed.”  And not everyone is ready to listen, either.

We have seen on many occasions that trauma and loss can actually bring about some positive results, and, as the President and others have noted, that was evident in Boston right away.  Our confidence to face any challenge has been bolstered.  Our values may turn away from the superficial and toward what is truly important.  We may better appreciate our friends and family and realize that we are “all in this together.”  Perhaps we more fully experience and appreciate each day.  Finally, the aftermath of a catastrophe may actually help us finding meaning in what we choose to do, personally and in our profession.  May we all find new perspective and inspiration.

Apr 25

The events set in motion on Patriots’ Day not only dropped a catastrophe into our lives but suddenly shook up our view of our city, our Marathon, and ourselves in relation to them.  We find ourselves returning to some of the understandings that we underlined in September 2001.  Assimilating such a radical change in our understanding of ourselves and the world can be personally and collectively disorienting.  Although the process of adjusting to an altered reality is not entirely subject to deliberate and conscious management, there are some recommended ways to deal with it.

Beyond returning to a sense of normalcy, the ultimate goal is also to empower ourselves as individuals and as communities to be a force for healing.  While depressive symptoms are normal following any significant loss, positive action is one of the most effective antidotes.  As we have already seen, it enables many people to live heroically amid extremely adverse and dangerous circumstances, deepening rather than dulling their sense of humanity and compassion.  Here are some additional strategies to help us move beyond feelings of sadness and powerlessness:

  • Respect your own feelings and your own process of adjustment.  As intrinsically social beings, most find it helpful to share their reactions and feelings with others.  Talk with friends and family.  Journal, talk to a counselor or clergy person, write a letter.  Stoic avoidance or denial of feelings can result in physical, psychological or behavioral symptoms later on.  Everyone experiences tragedy differently, so don’t expect yourself or anyone else to recover in the same way or at the same rate.
  • Remember that no feeling is either good or bad; it is simply data about how something is affecting you.  How you express the feeling, however, can be helpful or harmful.  For example, most of us are likely to experience some level of anger in reaction to these events; anger is infused with energy that can be directed constructively, while of course thoughtless, destructive venting of anger makes one a participant in the same negative energy from which terrorism itself derives.  (Unexpressed anger is thought by many to fuel depression.)
  • Take extra good care of yourself and those nearest and dearest to you.  Stressful events, especially catastrophic events, impose strains on the mind and body that can be mitigated by adequate sleep, healthy diet, appropriate exercise, social interaction, quiet time, prayer or meditation, and laughter.
  • Take time to re-evaluate what’s important to you.   Re-order priorities and modify your life accordingly.  Reach out.  Enjoy time with family members.  Mend or strengthen relationships.  Seek professional or clerical help if necessary.
  • Balance your need for news and information with activity that permits a complete change of focus and mood: listen to music, play with the kids, ride your bike, walk in the woods.
  • Find ways to make a difference in your daily routine.  Show kindness and patience in how you drive, treat strangers, interact with family or co-workers.  Volunteer to help in local services, i.e., Red Cross, shelters, literacy programs, Big Brother or Sister.
  • Educate yourself; be involved in democratic processes, support sound national policies that serve American values and promote peace, truth, justice and understanding rather than violence.
  • Utilize spiritual resources.  In a broad sense, this can include a faith community, 12-step program, meditative practice, etc.  Devoting time to such activities, states of mind, and connectedness to community has been shown to be beneficial to physical and mental health.  The familiar 12-step slogan “One Day at a Time” can be particularly helpful in getting through periods of high stress and change.

The process of adjustment to a major life disruption, though it varies in form among individuals, is a universal human experience.  It permits a psychological restructuring, eventual acceptance, and ability to move forward creatively and constructively, often with greater compassion, a broader vision of self, and a stronger commitment to one’s role in the world.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Mar 04

Here is an article from the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program to inspire you to notice and avoid an overabundance of professional stress.  At LCL, of course, stress of various kinds, and its impact on lawyers’ functioning, is our focus, so part of taking care of yourself may be remembering that we’re here.

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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