Saint Asphalt, my county’s namesake, lived in what is now Eastern Luxembourg in the 15th century. She was known for her extreme compassion for the poor and her miraculous efforts on their behalf are what eventually led to her sainthood. Saint Asphalt would take a person’s problem, dig a hole in the ground, put the problem in the hole, and then cover it all up with bits of rock and dirt. Miraculously, the problem ceased to exist. So many of her followers came to her for help that eventually the small city she lived in turned into a hardened shell, with absolutely no problems. No problems whatsoever.
In this post, I would like to speak a little about anxiety. I know that my writing has been a little lean for the past year or so. That is because I have been on a “rest assignment” rather than an exciting “trial tour.” My office regularly rotates attorneys through assignments to help them avoid burnout. While I enjoyed the lower stress and regular office hours, finding interesting material to write about was quite a challenge. I found myself using the new lifestyle to gain some perspective on my inner being as I continued to adjust to life as a family-man.
I decided to use my “rest” time for some internal renovation; I resolved to deal once and for all with the anxiety that would sometimes paralyze me at work.
“Well of course you’re anxious; you have an incredibly stressful job!” This is what well-meaning colleagues told me when I worked up the courage to confide. So I would stop talking and leave the topic to smolder like a dumpster fire. I replayed their chipper explanation in my head as, “My feelings are normal. Why should I think I’m entitled to feel anything other than terrible all the time?” Which then turned into, “I have to stop feeling this way. My feelings bore people. ” Which turned into, “My feelings are a weakness, and I’d better keep them hidden.” Which invariably turned into, “My feelings are literally Hitler right now.” It wasn’t until I began paying a professional by-the-hour, twice-per-week that I actually told someone what I meant by anxiety. While it’s true that my job is indeed stressful, when I stayed too long at this shallow interpretation, I found that I lost intimacy with my deeper feelings, with what was really going on inside of me.
Let me illustrate by telling you about one focus point around which my anxiety would swirl: the red blinking light on my desk phone that warned of a new voicemail. I hated checking my voicemail. One red blinking light was an angry message from a client who was mad at me because I was too busy being in trial to visit him at the jail. Another red blinking light would be from the family of the client whose trial I had just finished, and I would have to deliver the message framed as “happy news” that their son would be out before they turned 70. Another blinking red light would be from the DA, and she would have more bad news for me or for someone else that I would have to deliver.
One constructive way to deal with this issue would be to check the voicemail right away, make the return phone call or calls first thing in the morning and just be done with it. That’s not exactly what I did. I tended to wait for when I would have adequate emotional space to handle such difficult conversations, and then make the return calls at that time. Of course, what ended up happening was that the damn blinking red light of doom would menace me all day until it was time to go home, where I knew it was still blinking, waiting for me first thing in the morning.
Then there were the piles of files on my desk. There was never any time to open a calendar and triage the most important and urgent tasks first; everything is important and everything should have been done yesterday! So I grabbed the nearest thing and worked on it until I could, in a better conscience, stuff it away in a drawer so that I would not have to look at it any more. I repeated this until about midday when my mind would start to wander to something, anything else. I would take a short break to regroup, end up by distracting myself for far too long, then after my hurried snap-to, I continued to shuffle the remaining piles as quickly as possible until it was time to go home. I left work with a crushing sense of defeat and dread for the next day. I tried to avoid talking to anyone that I didn’t have to. I worried that if I spoke to anyone for too long, they would find out. They would find out that I was a terrible, terrible fraud. That I was a scarecrow held together by duct tape into a surprisingly passable resemblance of a good lawyer and functioning person. And O! The shame! Such shame behind that mask of adequate functionality!
I speak glibly about this now. It took me a few months of speaking to a professional to realize that I was the one doing this to myself. Not my clients, not opposing counsel, not the blinking red light of doom; it was me making myself miserable.
Tolstoy famously said that happy families are happy for the same reasons, while each unhappy family is miserable in its own unique way. From my reading, I learned that the psychologist, John Gottman, proved less-famously that the opposite is true; happiness allows for unique and individualized relationships between people, while misery makes our interactions more rigid and thus more predictable. The widespread misery of lawyers is noted in legal circles with an almost blasé boredom; every few weeks a new story appears about how lawyers have the highest rates of suicide, divorce, and substance abuse of any group of professionals. The state bar’s required 1.5 hours of education on the topic has done little to stem that tide.
I believe that lawyers’ collective unhappiness splinters off into a handful of predictable flavors. Mine has been anxiety, and so this led me to pick up Scott Rogers’ book “The Six-Minute Solution” in recent weeks; Mr. Rogers’ primer on “mindfulness for lawyers” has quite a few good things to offer, but also accidently reveals a surprising amount about the collective state of unhappiness among anxious lawyers.
Mindfulness has become vogue enough to where law schools now offer courses on it. “The Six-Minute Solution” presents mindfulness as a blend of Eastern meditative practice and cognitive-behavioral therapy. The lynchpin of mindfulness is sitting in stillness and quiet. Thoughts will inevitably float through your bubble; Rogers anticipates that many of these thoughts will be about the seemingly more productive things that you should be doing (finger wag) instead of sitting still doing nothing. However, the anxious lawyer returns to stillness by recognizing this guilty notion as a thought, nothing more, no more important than any of the many thousands of thoughts that pass uninvited through one’s head every day.
Rogers warns us that the mind will not readily slip away and leave us in our calm silence. By observing our anxious thoughts as mere thoughts, we then wander into deeper, less transient thoughts: thoughts about ourselves as people that give rise to the scolding surface thoughts that come during the first few moments of stillness. Rogers borrows a term from cognitive behavioral therapy and calls these automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts are thoughts we have about ourselves; many of them are negative, and most of them are the result of repeated patterns of interactions that we have had with others. These thoughts come so quick that sometimes we don’t perceive them as a thought, more of an internalized self-projection we assume is true. I’m not good enough/smart enough for this job. Everyone else has their shit together except for me. I’m a fraud and everyone will find out sooner or later. According to Rogers, repeated mindfulness practice can lead to serious examination and confrontation with these destructive automatic thoughts, and that process begins by seeing them, experiencing them, and recognizing them as mere thoughts, and nothing more.
Rogers’ book is one of many available on the topic of mindfulness, but is one of the few directed specifically at lawyers. Rogers makes several stylistic choices that arguably reveals more about his audience than it does about his subject matter.
Rogers presents mindfulness concepts in one–and only one–format. First, a mindfulness concept or meditative practice is presented in reference to some sort of legal principle or concept (presumably to make it memorable for the reader). Second, the concept is presented. Third, Rogers presents references to scientific journals to prove the long-term effectiveness of mindfulness techniques. These three steps repeat once per page, and all but a couple of concepts require more than one page.
If we assume that this is an effective method for reaching his audience, what does it say about his audience? How skeptical must his audience be to need reassurance on each and every page that neuroscientists have given these concepts appropriate levels of peer-reviewed scrutiny and, thankfully, can reassure us that they aren’t snake oil? Personally, I have found lawyers, in general, to be a very skeptical group of people. I myself see no problem with skepticism, but I know–don’t ask me how I know this–that skepticism slides easily into cynicism and distrust. Lawyers, as a group, show profound distrust of any self-care technique that doesn’t involve booze or Crossfit-levels of pain. In this regard, I think that Rogers understands his audience.
I did find curious his frequent reliance on legal concepts that I haven’t had to use since law school. For example, Rogers offers one particular meditative practice that involves specific patterns of breathing and hand placement that he calls “The Learned Hand” technique. Who was Learned Hand? In law school, every lawyer is taught that the Honorable Learned Hand was a very smart, very important judge who wrote very smart things about…well, like 99% of lawyers, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what Learned Hand was actually famous for. But like many of the legal concepts that Rogers uses to introduce his mindfulness techniques, the phrase “Learned Hand” takes the reader back to law school more than anything else. Is Rogers really relying on these tired law school tropes to teach his concepts, or is he trying to take the reader back to a time in his life when being a lawyer was a dream and a goal, rather than a source of pain?
I do have but one grievance with Rogers’ book. The main obstacle to lawyers caring for their own well-being is the myth that they just don’t have time to care for their own well-being, especially when they’re at work. Rogers gives quiet support to this myth by reassuring the reader of just how little time his techniques require. He does this as early as the title of the book; six minutes is equal to 0.1 hours, and it’s the minimum unit in which a lawyer bills a client for her time. Surely this is not coincidental; Rogers reassures his reader that his techniques will only consume the absolute minimal amount of time that is worth anything at all to a lawyer. I believe this phrasing gives tacit support to the idea that a lawyer is only worth his or her billable time. Rogers even reassures his reader that she can practice certain mindfulness breathing exercises while talking to a client or while in court! It is certainly efficient to be able to bill a client for the time that you spend taping your sanity back together, and I believe Rogers’ encouragement of this behavior somewhat undercuts his message.
While “The Six-Minute Solution” is an approachable, easily digestible introduction to mindfulness, overcoming anxiety takes far more time than it will take the reader to finish this book and the 0.1 hours per day putting it into practice. My suggestion, if you’re looking for mindfulness resources, is to start with Rogers, and then keep going. For the first time in many years, I finally feel as though I’ve gotten my head above water and I gave a lot more attention to my self-care than six minutes per day.
So what did I finally do to overcome my anxiety? Well, like I said before, I started seeing a therapist. Hmmm. Yes, I see. I found a form of exercise I enjoyed. En garde! I cleaned out all the clutter in my office once and for all. Does this old file on my desk spark joy? And I make a list every Friday afternoon with the tasks I have to do for the following week. Interview rooms at the jail full? On to the next task! I’m also more sensitive to things that contributed to my anxiety and I’m proactive about dealing with them. This box of paper transcripts I keep kicking under my desk will upload or die! Now, I find that I have plenty of time to plan and organize, and no time to waste on anxious worry.
Do any other lawyers out there relate? What helped you? I would love to hear more ways to overcome anxiety in the comments.