Its Time For Lawyers To Smell The Roses – Above the Law

Posted: August 15, 2020 at 4:50 pm


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One of the tougher challenges of legal practice is to achieve the momentary ability to step back and assess the toll it takes can take on our daily lives and adjust accordingly when damage is being done. I cant think of any better way to state it than Dan Canon has, finding the self-awareness to stop and smell the roses.

At age 42, and beginning a new career, Im pleased to report Ive hit a milestone: Im starting to be able to enjoy things. I can toss a ball around with my kids. I can watch a movie. I can read a book without checking my email after every paragraph. I can do all this without the venial sin of sloth chewing on the leaves of my recovering lawyers brain. I dont mean to brag, but it took a lot of work to get here.

A few years ago, at the apex of my hyperemployment, I realized I was miserable. I didnt socialize with my best friends. I never saw my kids. I drank a lot and slept wherever I landed. I took it for granted that Id be dead before 50. So, with some considerable difficulty, I retreated into the strange world of academia. The work is still demanding, but not lethally so.

Its funny that a law school should be a place of refuge. After all, its where I learned a lot of my worst work habits. Fifteen years ago, universities were still squealing with delight at students who would forsake all else for the law. Replace Octavia Butler and Stephen King with Learned Hand and Erwin Chemerinsky, eschew Mario Kart for civil procedure flash cards, trade that old marriage in for a laptop and some monogram cufflinks thats how you kept the academy happy. So starting in my first year of law school, I dutifully siphoned the extraneous, enjoyable stuff off the top of my head, leaving only room for a list of case names and pentasyllabic argle-bargle.

As a result, I did pretty well in school, but the fundamentals of my humanity were in a catatonic state. I turned into a machine obsessed with work, incapable of sparing a moment for recreational reading, binge watching, or even modest self-reflection. Fires were stoked in my head every time I tried to do something that wasnt working on cases. A decade later, my smoldering brain was stuck in achievement mode, with no neurons left to smell the roses I spent years cultivating.

I asked Dr. Stephanie Hall, a psychiatrist and expert witness on mental health issues, if what I was experiencing was out of the ordinary. Not at all, she said. Americans have placed their identity in what they produce. I blame capitalism. If youre not making or doing something to feed the machine, you feel empty and nervous, because thats what you have internalized as what youre supposed to do to be a worthwhile human.

Sounds about right, but my efforts to abolish capitalism from inside the courthouse have been unsuccessful (so far). How do we fix ourselves? Theres a whole body of ideas and practice in mental health right now around mindfulness, which has a central idea that just being is worthwhile, said Hall. So meditation is the answer, right? I tell her my persistent attempts and failures at starting a meditation practice over the years havent gone so well. She sets me straight.

Mindfulness practice can take the form of meditation, but many people who have difficulty setting aside time to meditate can also practice being mindful while they do other activities. Like writing, for example. A place to start can be allowing yourself to pay attention to your thoughts without judging their worthiness.Or just paying attention to the sensory details of an activity like washing dishes, so you dont let your random, anxious thoughts run away with you.

I asked Professor Laura Rothstein, who teaches disability law and writes extensively on the topic of mental health in the profession, how we can best encourage students and new lawyers to develop healthy work habits. I tell them to channel Louis Brandeis. He made sure to stop work at 5:00 p.m., take time to relax and refresh, and he took vacations. His famous quote is I soon learned that I could do twelve months work in eleven months but not in twelve.

Rothstein prescribes a variety of mindfulness practices to her students, too. Ive had many students tell me that my weekly reminders to take time (even 15 minutes a day or a couple of hours on a weekend) has been helpful to refreshing their mind and body.This is even more important in COVID-19 times.Although we have a lot of time on our hands now, making sure to take time to be mindful and self-aware is essential.

A sympathetic ear on campus can make a difference, Rothstein said. I always tell students to reach out and ask for help from a faculty member, an administrator, someone, if they are concerned about something. Its awful to feel trapped. Knowing that someone might be able to help, to listen, or to steer you to help can go a long way to keeping one from feeling like there is no way out.

I got lucky. I was able to take a step back and give myself the advice I now pass along to students: Youre getting a law license to make your life better, and you havent done that if you end up a labor droid, an alcoholic, or a corpse. To their credit, law schools and bar associations are doing better than ever at promoting mental health much better than they were when I was a student. But we still have a long way to go. Dumb luck, pithy advice, and websites full of substance-abuse resources arent going to be enough to help lawyers who get it in their heads that work should eclipse all other priorities. Most litigators who wander into the thick forest of their careers dont even recognize theyre lost. Its on all of us teachers, practitioners, and colleagues to show them the way.

Brian Cuban(@bcuban)isThe Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption (affiliate link). A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his rsum as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached atbrian@addictedlawyer.com.

Dan Canon

Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and a Professor of Law at the University of Louisville, Louis D. Brandeis School of Law. Most notably, he served as lead counsel for the Kentucky plaintiffs in the case ofObergefell v. Hodges, which established marriage equality in all 50 states.He writes on civil and criminal justice issues for a variety of regional and national publications. PLEADING OUT, his book on plea bargaining reform, is scheduled to be published in early 2021. His short documentary series on activists in the Midwest can be viewed at http://www.midwesticism.org. He lives a noisy-but-great life in Indiana with his wife and three daughters.

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Its Time For Lawyers To Smell The Roses - Above the Law

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August 15th, 2020 at 4:50 pm

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