Healthy Lifestyle Tips For Lawyers to Maintain Wellness and Well-Being
Perhaps it comes as no surprise that lawyers are stressed out—like, really stressed out. A 2016 study by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns among American Attorneys, confirmed that lawyers experience far higher rates of mental health concerns and substance abuse compared to the general population. Results of this landmark study on lawyer impairment show a profession in crisis, with 45 percent of attorneys reporting depression, 61 percent anxiety, and 11.5 percent suicidal thoughts at some point during their career. Yet, despite these alarming figures, 63 percent of the surveyed attorneys did not receive any mental health support.
The pandemic has only exacerbated this mental health crisis in the profession. According to a May 2021 survey of 3,200 attorneys, 70 percent reported that the pandemic has adversely affected their mental health. Critically, although lawyers’ mental health is worsening overall, it appears that attorneys may actually be less likely now to seek treatment and support. For example, Minnesota Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers reported that calls to attorney help lines actually fell by 25 percent in 2020.
Indeed, the pandemic forced lawyers of all disciplines to reexamine the meaning of “business as usual,” including widespread shifts to remote work. For example, many practitioners who were accustomed to going into a physical office (and interacting with other staff in person) were suddenly working from home. This left some attorneys to simultaneously navigate work-from-home alongside remote learning for their children.
I would say that I am “lucky” to be in the minority of lawyers whose mental health remained stable (or even improved!) during pandemic times, but that was no happy accident. Instead, my well-being has been hard fought and is something I must consistently work to protect and maintain.
Through Burnout and Beyond
As a young, inexperienced attorney, my job came first—I put my career before my mental and physical health, my personal relationships, and the things that once brought me joy. As the always-striving overachiever, I went above and beyond, taking on firm and bar association leadership roles and devoting all my energy to my professional life. But this constant output soon left me feeling completely drained and exhausted, and I burned out after only two years in private practice.
I entered solo practice and greatly reduced my workload, which afforded me the opportunity to prioritize physical activity, work-life balance, reconnecting with nature, and rest—all of which I had neglected after joining the profession. During this period, I also found relief and strength in practicing mindfulness and meditation. Ultimately, this experience inspired me to become a certified contemplative practices teacher and share these tools with others who may be struggling.
As fate would have it, I met veteran attorney Cynthia Sharp in a virtual CLE in early 2020, just as lockdowns and social distancing swept the nation. Despite our age difference, Cindy and I shared similar stories of struggle in our legal careers and personal lives. Yet, despite these hardships, we each had utilized mindfulness and healthy lifestyle habits to overcome our respective challenges. Within a few months of meeting, we began offering mindfulness-based presentations on behalf of state and local bar associations and were blown away when 234 attorneys registered for our very first program.
Since then, Cindy and I have created programs designed to teach attorneys how to effectively manage their stress, improve their work environments, and protect their overall health and well-being. Since founding The Legal Burnout Solution, we have led mindfulness-based trainings for more than 3,000 attorneys in the United States and Canada. We are committed to generating open and honest conversations about the all-too-common issues plaguing our profession, including secondary trauma, substance abuse, and lawyer suicide.
We believe there is no better time than the present to consciously examine whether our day-to-day habits are helping or hurting us, and make necessary, meaningful changes to support our health and happiness. As a practicing attorney, you will always have something else you could be working on. But you can’t pour from an empty cup. Recognize that you are your most important relationship and prioritize yourself as you would your most important client. Together let’s explore some foundational steps that you can take to support your well-being in the law and in life.
Maintaining Healthy Boundaries
Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.—Anna Taylor
In preparation for this article, I asked other solo and small firm attorneys for their most useful tips for juggling professional and personal responsibilities while maintaining their well-being. Specifically, I asked: What helps you approach your legal work with a healthy mindset? Several practitioners emphasized the importance of boundaries, as well as how they choose to allocate their time:
Minnesota veterans attorney (and 2020–2022 Super Lawyer!) Michael Millios uses boundaries with clients, opposing counsel, and the court to help him run his firm with a healthy mindset. He also stresses the importance of giving himself permission to take time off and not check email.
Family law attorney Jennifer Thuy-Tien McCall similarly relies on boundaries with herself and clients, including managing client expectations about her availability: “I don’t check emails outside of work hours. I don’t give clients my cell. I tell them up front that I’m not available 24/7, but I’m a better attorney for it. That’s my personal philosophy, and if they don’t like that, there are other attorneys who would better align with their expectations, and it won’t hurt my feelings if they go elsewhere.”
The art of juggling work-life balance as a modern-day attorney is easier said than done. As the lines between work and home life have become increasingly blurred in recent years, it’s more important than ever to enforce boundaries to protect our health and well-being. Below are a few targeted suggestions to manage your personal and professional responsibilities while maintaining your well-being.
Taking time off. Especially in the digital era, we may be tempted to squeeze in work all day, every day. Given our near-constant connectivity, intentionally setting aside time to replenish ourselves is essential. Indeed, when we are constantly giving to others without taking time to rest and recharge, this makes us more susceptible to occupational burnout and secondary trauma. Research shows that practicing law can be hazardous to your health, as attorneys are at increased risk of developing myriad physical and mental health concerns.
Put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others! Set expectations with clients and colleagues about “off hours” and days/times you will be unavailable. When possible, delegate client matters to a colleague or staff member when you are out of the office for vacation. Speaking of vacations—take them! Schedule time off well in advance (e.g., a year in advance) and get it on the calendar. In your day-to-day life, take time off to relax and recharge every day, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
Digital boundaries. Research indicates that digital addiction has markedly increased since the pandemic, with more than half of Americans either at risk of or severely addicted to the Internet. Screen time is 3.5 times higher than before the pandemic, with the average American spending approximately three hours per day on the phone. (That’s 45 days out of a year!) Critically, those suffering from severe Internet addiction are eight times more likely to develop depression, nine times more likely to have anxiety, and 14 times more likely to have both depression and anxiety.
Given attorneys’ heavy reliance on digital devices to complete our work, it’s imperative to be aware of the inherent risks and take active steps to protect our mental health and well-being. Again, set expectations in advance with your clients and colleagues about your “off hours” and be consistent. On the whole, we often hear from attorneys that they feel compelled to respond to emails immediately, which not only interferes with the task at hand but also undermines our ability to actually rest. Consider checking and responding to emails only during set times of the day; this can increase productivity during the workday and improve the quality of our downtime.
Overall, short breaks from our digital devices can help relieve stress, strengthen focus and concentration, and improve our relationships. For example, don’t check email during your evening meal or quality time with loved ones. Be aware of how much time you are spending on your smartphone and implement time limits to help you meet your goals. Push your digital detox even further by challenging yourself to leave your phone behind for a few hours on the weekend! Most Americans have never gone 24 hours without their cell phone—are you up for the challenge?
The Importance of Movement
Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.—Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby
When I asked other attorneys what helped them approach their legal work with a healthy mindset, I was struck by how many lawyers spoke about the importance of movement in their daily lives. We tend to think of the benefits of exercise as primarily physical, but as these lawyers’ experiences illustrate, movement can have powerful, positive effects on our mental health as well.
Research consistently confirms that daily movement is key for maintaining mental well-being. For example, a 2010 study by the University of Vermont found that 20 minutes of aerobic exercise has immediate positive effects on our mood that can last for up to 12 hours. The study’s author, Dr. Jeremy Sibold, explained, “This goes a long way to show that even moderate aerobic exercise has the potential to mitigate the daily stress that results in your mood being disturbed.”
Walking to wellness. Overall, many attorneys found that exercising before work helps put them in a positive frame of mind for the rest of the day. In particular, walking—especially short walks in the outdoors—were the overwhelming crowd favorite among attorneys of all ages and experience levels. Here’s what your colleagues had to say about the benefits of walking in their daily lives and legal practices:
Attorney Jackie Dys shared, “I started doing a morning walk—sometimes with a neighbor, sometimes with a dog, sometimes just with a podcast—and every time, it improved my mood. In hindsight I always realized I did have the time, or at least 20 minutes. The change of scenery/outdoor time makes me better for the rest of the day.”
Family law solo practitioner Jennifer Thuy-Tien McCall also gets her movement in before work: “I work out in the mornings so I’m sure to get a workout in, even if my day goes sideways. I step away from my desk and go on short walks to clear my head.”
Fellow Georgia solo attorney Kathyrn Guzner has found walking has a similarly positive effect on her state of mind: “I take short walks a couple of times throughout the workday to clear my head. I just walk around and observe, or call a friend or my spouse to chat for a few, or call a coworker or ask them to join to discuss cases. I always feel so much calmer after my little walk around the office park. It just puts life back in perspective.”
Small steps add up! In addition to walking, research shows that small doses of movement can positively benefit our mental health. According to a 2019 Harvard study, mindful movement can offer protection against depression. Study author Karmel Choi shared, “Intentionally moving your body in more gentle ways throughout the day—like walking, stretching, taking the stairs, doing the dishes—can still add up in good ways for your mood.”
The science is clear—you can actively promote and protect your mental health by incorporating small movements into your daily routine. Set yourself up for success by programming reminders every hour or so to get up from your desk and do whatever movement resonates for you, such as taking a short walk outside or stretching. Take a page from Nevada attorney Stevie DeSomber, who multitasks to move as much as possible throughout her workday: “If I’m on a meeting that I can walk during, I walk! Lunch break, I walk or run!”
Incorporate simple, restorative movements throughout your workday, especially to relieve physical tension and stress of sitting for prolonged periods. For example, try out gentle yoga movements, such as shoulder and neck rolls, as well as self-massage. These mindful movements don’t take much time, but the benefits are both immediate and cumulative—so the more you invest in yourself, the higher the returns!
So often, I hear from attorneys that they “don’t have time” for healthy lifestyle habits. In reality, it doesn’t take much time each day to have a positive, lasting impact on your mental and physical health—but it does take commitment and dedication. Wherever you may be on your well-being journey, be gentle and compassionate with yourself.
If you are looking for more ways to further deepen your self-care, the Legal Burnout Solution has created a Mindfulness Resources Guide for attorneys with tips to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll be happy to forward you a copy.
Rebecca Howlett, Esq. (email@example.com), is an attorney, legal educator, and certified meditation instructor. In spring 2020 she co-founded The Legal Burnout Solution with the mission of empowering others to effectively manage their stress by promoting holistic health and mindfulness practices in the legal field. In her first year as the organization’s director of attorney well-being, she has led guided meditations for more than 3,000 lawyers.
Originally published in the September/October 2022 full issue of GPSolo Magazine 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.