While stress and depression can go hand in hand with practicing law, lawyers can implement strategies to effectively manage both. Robin Belleau, Kirkland & Ellis’s first director of wellbeing, offers several practical tips to foster mental wellbeing.
I began my legal career as a public defender representing juveniles. While I encountered many children with tragic stories, the circumstances surrounding one particular client made a lasting impression.
On what was otherwise a normal morning, I was suddenly, and unusually, summoned to the presiding judge’s chambers. It was there that I learned that a young man whom I had represented over a number of years for drug-related misdemeanors, had murdered his mother while high on cocaine. She had attempted to call 911 to secure him medical attention because she thought he was overdosing. He mistakenly thought she was trying to have him locked up again. Over the years, through his numerous cases, I had come to know her very well.
At the family’s request we sat together in my office and listened to the 911 tape. I was completely unprepared for the rush of emotions that followed. No one had ever talked to me about establishing boundaries, compassion fatigue, or the depression that can result from a constant onslaught of seemingly hopeless circumstances. I was convinced that, had I only pushed harder for drug treatment, this poor woman would still be alive.
After many years and learning multiple coping skills to deal with the stress and depression, I left the practice of law to become a therapist, but experiences like the one I described have never left me as I work with people facing challenges who are looking for skills to cope with their reality.
Eventually, I began working directly with judges, lawyers, and law students as the clinical director and then executive director of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program. Today I am Kirkland & Ellis’ first director of wellbeing.
While stress and depression are inevitable elements of the legal profession, there are a number of strategies that help to effectively manage them.
- Connections. We all need a support system. Lawyers are no exception. It’s important for us to understand that our stress, anxiety, and even depression is not unusual, and that it is not a sign of weakness. Fellow lawyers may be able to help put things in perspective. A colleague can help you see that you are often harder on yourself.
- Identity. Have an identity or interests outside of the law. Challenge yourself each day to do something just for you. Make firm plans with friends—don’t just wait to “see how it goes.” You’re much more likely to follow through when a group is counting on your participation.
- Get organized. Disorganization breeds stress and anxiety. If need be, start small. Organize little by little.
- Manage your calendar/set boundaries. Make sure that your calendar is current. Know what is on your calendar before you say yes to an assignment or event. If you can’t turn down an assignment, ask for more time when necessary.
- Reduce multi-tasking/task switching. Focus on the task at hand. Limit your review of emails and phone messages to certain times of the day, and set an outlook message to let others know when you will be off-line. Do not switch back and forth between tasks. Make sure to finish a task before starting a new one.
- Positive mindset. Avoid negative “self-talk.” Identify your strengths, and create a positive affirmation or mantra that you can repeat to yourself when you are feeling overwhelmed. Remember “thoughts’ are not “facts.” Challenge any negative self-thinking by evaluating its veracity.
- Change your vocabulary. Start to think about stress differently. After all, not all stress is negative. With the right mindset, an “annoyance” can become an “opportunity.”
- Positive visualization. Recall how good success feels. Next, see yourself successfully tackling a situation or assignment that you’re finding challenging, and pushing all the negative energy away from you, leaving yourself feeling calm and relaxed.
- Structure. A regular routine can help to combat depression. Idle time often gives us the opportunity to ruminate. Setting goals, even small ones, helps to establish a routine and can help you find a sense of accomplishment. Increasing that self-efficacy will help alleviate the symptoms of depression.
- Personalization. Be careful about over personalizing. How often are you truly the reason the case was lost? You can’t change the facts of a case. Taking too much ownership of the outcome of a case that results in a loss can lead to stress and depression. You are not always going to win, so are you ready to handle that loss or roadblock? Identify healthy activities and people ahead of time that will help you cope.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Robin Belleau is the director of wellbeing at Kirkland & Ellis. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor and an attorney. Prior to joining Kirkland & Ellis, she was the executive director of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program.