The Legal Burnout Solution: How Engaging with Animals Can Bolster Attorney Well-Being
By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” — Anatole France
This article series is dedicated in memoriam to the many animals that have touched our hearts and crossed the Rainbow Bridge, including Kirby, Gus, and Curtis. Although they may have left this earthly plane, they will always be with us in spirit and memory. We remember them with gratitude for the precious time we shared together.
Like music or art, animals speak a universal language that has the ability to transcend our perceived differences and help us connect with others and ourselves. When we talk about our pets, it gives others a real sense of who we are without having to reveal specifics. Especially for those who don’t have children, animals may be our “fur babies”; they hold our hearts and represent some of our closest, most cherished relationships.
In both our personal and professional lives, we have experienced firsthand how animals can reduce stress and anxiety, instantly boost our mood, and bring people together. While presenting at the annual Indiana State Bar Association (ISBA) Solo and Small Firm Conference, we had the great fortune to connect with fellow kindred spirits promoting attorney well-being, both humans and dogs alike!
For example, we met Ranger, Thought Kitchen’s “Chief Snuggling Officer,” and his human, mindful life and work coach Loretta Oleksy. Ranger is a six-year-old rescued German shorthair pointer. Ranger has undergone formal training to fine-tune his manners for his critical role as Chief Snuggling Officer; indeed, his next goal is to pass his American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Test.
As if by magnetism, lawyers were drawn to Ranger, naturally facilitating connections among the humans, who might otherwise not have interacted. “Can I pet your dog?,” a tall, barrel-chested lawyer inquired. Easily 6’2,” his stature was imposing. He leaned low to gently rub Ranger’s ears and speak to him in a soft, gentle voice. “Hi, buddy. How are you today? Beautiful dog.” He and Becky instantly struck up a conversation about growing up with bird dogs. As the humans connected, Ranger looked on contentedly, as if to say, my work here is done.
We were so inspired by this experience that we decided to dedicate a column to the role that animals can play in promoting lawyer wellness. As we have much to share on the topic, including attorneys’ stories of how animals have impacted their lives, we will split this article into two parts. This part will examine the known health benefits of interacting with animals. The next part will highlight creative ways to incorporate animal interactions into the legal workplace setting.
The Health Benefits of Interacting with Animals
When Cindy first got to Washington, D.C., from her small hometown of Anderson, Indiana, she knew no one. She started experiencing some stress-related health complications, which her physician attributed to loneliness. Her doctor’s advice? Get a pet for companionship. Cindy ultimately got two! Ever since, she has shared her home with a kitty cat, and 11 years ago, she added Rocky the dog to the family.
Scientific Evidence for Human-Animal Interactions
Although this article is not intended as a scientific examination of the effects of pets on our well-being, we do want to acknowledge the growing body of research on this subject. Indeed, a survey of 69 peer-reviewed studies of human-animal interaction (HAI) determined that people of all ages, including those with or without physical or mental health concerns, showed positive effects from interacting with animals. Overall, the study found well-documented evidence of the positive benefits of HAI on our mental and physical health, including:
Lowered cortisol and blood pressure levels and heart rate;
Improved mood and reduced fear and anxiety; and
Improved interpersonal relationships and social interactions.
According to one 2009 study, cat owners have a significantly lower risk of death due to cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke. As any cat “owner” (cough—servant—cough) can attest, they are magical creatures. No, really. Did you know that cats have the ability to heal their own injuries, which may also support healing in humans? Cats purr at a frequency range of 25 to 140 Hz, which has known healing benefits, such as pain relief, reduced swelling and infection, and expedited wound healing, including mending broken bones!
Not a cat person? Not to worry. Dr. Layla Esposito, director of the National Institutes of Health’s Human-Animal Interaction Research Program, emphasizes that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. “If your goal is reducing stress, sometimes watching fish swim can result in a feeling of calmness.” (More on that in part two!)
Companionship and Support
While we humans often struggle to “be here now”—either worrying about the future or ruminating about the past—animals are adept at helping us connect with the present moment. For example, our pets can provide a healthy form of entertainment as they interact with each other and you, bringing joy, laughter, and spontaneity into our everyday routines.
When Pennsylvania attorney Jennifer Ellis found herself living alone and in need of companionship, she got a dog. Curtis, a yellow Labrador retriever, was her faithful companion of 13 years. Curtis brought joy not only into Jennifer’s life but also those of her co-workers, who were “ecstatic” when he visited the Pennsylvania Bar Institute’s office.
For those with diagnosed mental and physical health conditions, animals can offer particularized support for their human companions. Indeed, many people have emotional support animals, as well as service animals trained to do specific tasks for people with disabilities. For example, Jennifer has a physical disability, and her service dog, Millie, is trained to alert if she is about to have a seizure. This enables Jennifer to get into a safe place and position and reduce her risk of injury.
Although it is beyond the scope of this article, understand there is a difference between emotional support animals and trained service animals, the latter being legally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and allowed in public spaces. Take time to familiarize yourself with the ADA’s guidance on service animals. Service dogs come in all shapes, sizes, and breeds. For example, Jennifer’s service dog, Millie, is a rescued pit bull mix with a disability of her own—she is blind in one eye.
If you encounter a service animal and their human, be courteous and respectful. Always ask permission before engaging or petting the dog and be accepting if the answer is “no.” Realize that not all disabilities are readily apparent. Avoid casting aspersions or making assumptions about a person’s disabilities or their service animal’s training. Be respectful of others’ privacy and don’t ask for probing details or specifics. Above all, be compassionate and kind.
Fostering Healthy Connections
Animals provide a unique opportunity to make connections, some of which may be life-saving. At the 2023 ISBA Conference, we also connected with Terry Harrell, executive director of the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Programs (JLAP). Terry has incorporated certified therapy dogs into JLAP programming for years. (Fun fact: Her rescue golden retriever dog, Gus, may have been the first canine to serve on a CLE panel when he contributed to a CLE on managing stress at the 2016 ISBA conference!)
JLAP’s beloved therapy dogs, Gus and Kirby, who have now crossed over the Rainbow Bridge, served for years, helping lawyers and law students dealing with depression, anxiety, stress, grief, and substance use. When Gus passed away in July 2020, The Indiana Lawyer published a poignant article in memoriam: “Without Gus and Kirby, many of those who have been helped by JLAP would not have found their way to make a needed connection. Gus and Kirby saved careers and lives.”
Canines such as Ranger and JLAP’s current therapy dog, Sam, have taken up the lofty legacy left behind by Gus and Kirby in helping Indiana lawyers and law students destress and get connected with stress resilience resources. For example, Loretta and Ranger recently visited law students preparing for final exams at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. By the looks of those smiles, we think it’s safe to say that Ranger is passionate about his job!
As demonstrated by personal stories and scientific studies, animals can offer tremendous benefits to our overall health and well-being. Caring for an animal can be one of the most rewarding aspects of life. If you are considering adding a furry friend to your home, recognize that it is a life-altering, lifetime commitment not to be taken lightly. Be sure to thoroughly research in advance to ensure it’s a good fit before making the leap.
Animals give us perhaps the greatest gift of all—unconditional love—and we owe it to them to keep them safe, happy, and healthy, even if we can’t personally take care of them any longer. As part of your estate plan, consider establishing a pet trust to set aside funds to care for your pets after your passing. If you get a pet and find it’s not working out, it’s your duty to rehome them in a secure, loving environment. If you find yourself in this situation, contact a local animal rescue organization that can provide help and support, including help finding a foster and “furever” home.
In Part 2 of this series, we explore further ways to incorporate the positive benefits of animal interaction into legal environments, including the workplace. Do you have a furry, feathered, or scaled office assistant? We’d love to hear your tales (or is it tails?) of how animals have helped you thrive in your law practice and life! Email us your stories and pictures at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Howlett, Esq. and Cynthia Sharp, Esq. are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution (legalburnout.com), a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers. Check out The Legal Mindset Corner, a podcast dedicated to tackling the unique challenges of the legal profession.
Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, Aug. 2023 Issue (Vol. 12, No. 13) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.