As 2020 brings more challenges to existing as a human than we might have expected, don’t hesitate to seek social support as a lawyer — but be mindful of your ethical duties.
RECOGNIZING THE NEED
When a lawyer feels the pressure of work-related stress, talking to others can be among the most helpful avenues of relief. When we talk to others who understand our experiences, we suddenly feel less alone in the struggles that we face. The weight that was on our shoulders alone feels lighter when we can share it (even if only in words) with someone who cares about us, who understands what we are going through, and who affirms that our struggles are real. In a perfect world, everyone would have a caring, compassionate friend at the ready who could offer such support and validation.
Unfortunately, lawyers report to be the loneliest of all professionals as we discussed this previous blog post, which also includes tips for seeking support as a lawyer.
The reality is that often we do not recognize the need for such support until the pressure reaches a tipping point. If we are not paying attention, it can feel as though the pressure that was manageable for so long has suddenly catapulted to an unsustainable level, and the need for social support is urgent.
Healthy social supports provide much-needed validation and help people relinquish and manage stress and access coping tools and strategies. Often, healthy sources of social support are people you know and trust (colleagues, family, friends, etc.) and those who are trained in providing validation and maintaining confidentiality (mentors, licensed mental health practitioners, etc.).
In a digital world, social support may come from both in-person relationships and online connections. Think of the many listservs typically maintained by bar associations that provide an opportunity for lawyers to seek the support of their colleagues in a similar area or type of practice. For example, Starting Out Solo, an organization of newly licensed lawyers who started their own firms immediately upon graduation, maintains a listserv for its member attorneys that provides a kindred community and social support. And at LCL MA, we run a number of Free & Confidential groups exclusively for lawyers, law students, and judges.
Many lawyers take part in closed Facebook groups, similar to listservs, that require an administrator’s approval for access. There are Facebook groups for immigration lawyers, lawyer moms, hiking lawyers, legal aid lawyers, personal injury lawyers, and many more. Such groups can be indispensable for the support, advice and information on resources they provide.
RISKS TO CONFIDENTIALITY
While such groups can be positive sources of support, they can pose risks related to a lawyer’s duty of confidentiality to clients. Recently, a Massachusetts attorney received a public reprimand for revealing “confidential information relating to the representation of a client” in violation of Rule 1.6(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct (Matter of Smith, No. 2019-16). The attorney posted information to Facebook about his client’s case. The Board of Bar Overseers found that, although the client was not identified, the post disclosed information that would make it “reasonably likely that a third party could” determine the client’s identity.
Noting that Comment 4 to Rule 1.6(a) explicitly permits lawyers to discuss matters via a hypothetical “so long as there is no reasonable likelihood that the listener will be able to ascertain the identity of the client or the situation involved,” the board made clear that the disclosure in question was not an attempt to seek advice from other attorneys. Rather, the situation involved an attorney venting about a matter on a public Facebook page that was not set to lock down privacy.
TIPS TO FIND APPROPRIATE SUPPORT
We suggest lawyers keep in mind the following guidance since inhibiting lawyers’ ability to seek out and obtain social support can lead to isolation:
- Cultivate social supports who can provide caring, compassion and validation while maintaining confidentiality. You might consider getting social support from colleagues, supervisors and mentors, or make an appointment with one of LCL MA’s licensed therapists.
- Avoid reacting impulsively to a stressful situation. Practice deep breathing, take a walk outside, use visualization to imagine yourself in a soothing place, or engage in another activity that will help calm your mind.
- Seek opportunities to learn more about technology and ways of using it appropriately — even beneficially — in your practice. If Facebook is a source of social support for you, learn how to use its privacy settings. Always be thoughtful regarding client confidentiality when you post. LCL MA also operates Mass LOMAP, which provides numerous resources for learning how to use technology effectively while avoiding disclosing confidential information.
Finally, be mindful of your emotional well-being. When we pay attention to how we feel, we can recognize when we need additional support. Being mindful allows us to identify when fear is motivating our decisions (e.g., when fear tells you to protect your career by simply never talking about the stress of your work) and allows us the opportunity to evaluate our options for support (e.g., by finding confidential sources of support and by learning how best to use technology). The two extremes — talking about everything with everyone and discussing nothing with anyone — lead to poor outcomes.
Prioritize your need for healthy social supports. Your future self and career will thank you for it.
Free & Confidential Consultations:
Lawyers, law students, and judges in Massachusetts can discuss concerns with a licensed therapist, law practice advisor, or both. Find more on scheduling here.
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This article was written by Shawn Healy, PhD and Heidi Alexander, Esq., and originally published in the February 20, 2020 issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly as “Social supports in a digital world.”