Oct 11

Building on the success of our recent information/discussion groups on business and productivity aspects of solo (and small firm) practice, the latest version of the group will focus on optimizing Internet Presence and related technological and branding aspects of Your Practice as a Business.  The new group will meet for 4 Fridays in a row (12:30 to 2:00) starting November 1 (and ending on the week before Thanksgiving).  There are still some spaces available for those able to commit to attending all these dates.   There is no fee for this group.  Because of some construction going on in the LCL/LOMAP suite, the group is slated to meet at the nearby Social Law Library (thanks to their generosity in providing space).  If interested, please email Jeff Fortgang, Ph.D.  or Heidi Alexander, Esq.  (To see a more complete description on the LOMAP web site, click here.)

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.

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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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

Jul 25

More than once, lawyers and family members have come to LCL when struggling to find a way to deal with colleagues whose cognitive capacities are deteriorating.  (One highlight of the wonderful if not entirely realistic TV series “The Practice” [1997-2004] that has always stuck in my own memory is the episode [click here to view it] featuring the late, unforgettable actor James Whitmore as a renowned attorney whose memory is failing.)

Of course, there are no easy answers, but thankfully there are legal and clinical professionals who bring experience and information to bear on this painful kind of situation, and some of them were presented at an ABA-sponsored  live webinar and teleconference on the subject in August 2013, when this blog post originally appeared.

May 31

On the heels of our recently well-received collaborative groups with LOMAP (Gettings Things Done and Your Practice is Your Business), and in anticipation of the next such group starting late fall, LCL is offering a 6-session discussion group to provide peer-to-peer input and encouragement in putting new knowledge into action.  We will revisit topics previously covered in a more didactic way, including goal setting, marketing, getting paid, overcoming procrastination, maintaining a sane schedule to balance professional and personal life, and managing relationships with clients.  Specific content will derive from whatever topics are brought in by participants.  Handouts from past groups will be available.

LCL psychologist Dr. Jeff Fortgang will facilitate this group, which will meet on the following Fridays at 12:30 pm:  June 28, July 26, August 9, August 23, September 6, and September 20.  You must be pre-registered for this group.  Contact Dr. Fortgang at DrJeff@LCLMA.org or at (617) 482-9600.

May 23

On May 16, LCL and its members/volunteers and guests enjoyed the Ninth Annual James A. Brink Fellowship Dinner  at the Back Bay Harvard Club.  Among such annual banquets, this dinner is a unique one, in that it is partly an occasion for recognition and celebration (of the program’s accomplishments and of individuals who have given of themselves in special ways) and at the same time an opportunity for recovery-oriented inspiration, not only by way of peer camaraderie among lawyers but also courtesy of a guest speaker who shares his or her own story of recovery.

After LCL President Jeanne Demers opened the proceedings (as we all enjoyed a rather well prepared meal), Board Chairman Mike Fredrickson, in his inimitable style, bestowed this year’s Volunteer Aware on Richard Soden, who has devoted so much energy not only to LCL but to lawyer assistance programs on a national level.  Executive Director Rodney Dowell provided a rousing summary of LCL’s work over the past year (including the addition of several new LCL Support Groups around the Commonwealth) and its current projects.  Introduced by LCL Clinician Barbara Bowe, guest speaker Michael H shared his fascinating and moving recovery story, leaving those of us in attendance with a sense of gratitude as we capped this fine evening and took our first steps into LCL’s year to come.

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.

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