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The Healthiest Lawyer I Know

The Complete Lawyer
Volume 2, Number 3
July 2006

Since her cancer, Angie understands the health benefits of supportive relationships and savors her time with people she loves. In fact, she says that she is generally happier now — in spite of the fact that she’s not out of the woods medically.

After eight years of coaching lawyers, I’m used to having my warnings about the dangers of chronic stress go unheeded. And I must admit that my argument is a tough one to make — how does a lawyer required to respond to ever-increasing client demands (for fear of losing to the competition), also make rain, bill 2000+ hours, and find time to relax, much less have “a life”?

Please don’t misunderstand me - I’m not forsaking my tag line: “Isn’t it time for a life worth more than the billable hour?” It’s just that I recognize how challenging it can be for an attorney in any work setting to strive for well-being and success simultaneously.

My Doctor Told Me That Managing Stress Is Crucial To My Survival – I Don’t Want To Die

I’m used to nods of understanding when I talk about how stressful legal practice is today; and I’m all too familiar with the shrug of resignation when I encourage a lawyer to take control of her life. So you can imagine my reaction to my first conversation with Angie. A 35 year-old share partner at a west coast firm of 600 lawyers, this is how she answered my typical phone consultation question about what goals she’d like coaching to help her accomplish:

“I just finished six months of chemo and radiation after a radical mastectomy. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I lived a very high-stress life. I’m starting back to work now and I’m quickly falling back into my old habits. My doctor told me that managing my stress is crucial to my survival, but I’m already running around like a ‘maniac’ and I’ve only been back to work a few weeks. I’d promised myself that I’d exercise consistently and eat regular and healthy meals, but I’m back to fast food and never seem to have time to get to the gym. I don’t want to die - at least not for a long time - so I think I want a coach to help me do the things I need to do to keep me alive.”

Angie Loved Her Practice And Did Not Want To Risk What She’d Worked So Hard To Accomplish

A client who truly needed me to help her balance work and life – and was willing to commit to a program? I was deeply moved. During our first coaching call we discussed the obstacles she faced trying to maintain a regular eating, exercise and stress-reduction schedule. Her hours were down. Of course they’d be down for the year since she’d been out for so long, but she assumed, now that she was back at the firm, that her monthly billings ought to be up to par. Her anxiety was palpable. She believed that the firm had already extended itself and she’d soon run out of leeway. The only child of working-class parents, she’d worked her way through law school. She loved her practice and did not want to risk what she’d worked so hard to accomplish.

She spoke to two members of the management committee and they assured her that she had the freedom to come back at her own pace. But both of us knew many lawyers who’d received similar reassurances only to be asked to look elsewhere at evaluation time. After all, firm management had to be concerned about the bottom line. Could she count on them to support her survival efforts?

Bottom Line: “Is Staying At This Firm Worth Dying For?”

There was no way to deny the risks of failing to “measure up.” Then I asked her what coaches call a “bottom line” question: “You told me that your goal is to survive. I know how important your career is to you, but is staying at this firm worth dying for?”

Put that starkly her choice was obvious. But putting it into practice was the real work. Angie created an exercise schedule. Although she’s had to tweak it to manage fatigue and energy cycles, she’s been pretty consistent for the past eight months. We devised a plan that would enable her to eat regular, healthy meals with a minimum of work and she’s been able to keep with it unless she’s traveling for work. Aware of how much difference getting adequate sleep makes for her well-being, she developed a plan that provides her with eight hours/night - regardless of her workload. She’s so much more energetic and efficient when she’s well rested, she finds that she’s far more productive leaving work for another day in order to get sufficient sleep.

To Help Reduce Her Stress And Increase Her Focus, She Began A Daily Meditation Practice

In order to be able to sleep when she had uncompleted work, we crafted a plan that has her determining the next action step for each project and deciding whether she’ll delegate it or do it herself. If it’s work that only she can do, she assigns it a specific time for completion in her calendar. Following the plan reduces her worries about how everything will get done.

At my suggestion, she began a gratitude journal, so that she literally falls asleep “counting her blessings.” To help reduce her stress and increase her focus, she began a daily meditation practice. This only takes her a few minutes each day, but it makes her more mindful of the present moment. Increasing her focus on the here-and-now of her life has become an effective way to shift her thoughts away from fears about her future.

“Nothing That Puts My Life At Greater Risk Is Worth It”

Our discussions about what gives her life meaning led her to be more protective of her time with her husband and others in her family. She understands the health benefits of supportive relationships and has practiced savoring her time with the people she loves. In fact, she says that she is generally happier in spite of the fact that she’s not out of the woods medically.

At the same time, she’s worked hard to strengthen and grow her practice. Learning to delegate more effectively has reduced wasted time. She’s learned to consider a range of things before taking on new work: how much travel it will require, how stressful it will be, and how much she’ll enjoy the work. I love listening to her talk about her practice - there’s so much energy and excitement in her voice.

During our last call, Angie described a “domestic crisis” that had interrupted her work and exercise plans. A pipe had burst, flooding most of the carpeting on that floor of her house. But the Angie telling me about this “catastrophe” was a very different person than the one I’d spoken with eight months earlier. She acknowledged what a nuisance the damage was, but had a great sense of humor about it. What about the disrupted exercise schedule and the client meeting she’d had to reschedule? “It’s not worth getting stressed about,” she replied. “It doesn’t make sense to worry about missing a day at the gym, even though I know I used to worry about that all the time. I just don’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself any more. I’ll get back on schedule tomorrow. And I’ve worked hard to develop a great relationship with this client. He can withstand a rescheduled meeting. It all seems pretty simple now. If I die, I won’t have my loved ones, clients or a practice. I look at everything now in the context of saving my life. Nothing that puts my life at greater risk is worth it.”

The opportunity to coach Angie occupies considerable space in my gratitude journal. After all, do you know a healthier lawyer?


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