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The Healthiest Lawyer I Know (September 2006)

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The Healthiest Lawyer I Know

Special Issue - September 2006


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?

Also available in the same issue of The Complete Lawyer, an interview with Ellen, entitled: "Is Law the Unhealthiest Profession?"

Healthy Lawyers Are More Fully Engaged

If you work from your strengths and enjoy good interactions
with your colleagues every day, your odds of becoming a healthy
lawyer grow dramatically. You may even add 8 years to your life.

The Complete Lawyer Interview: Ellen Ostrow
Conducted By TCL Editor, Don Hutcheson

To begin this discussion on the topic: Are You A Healthy Lawyer?, we sent each professional we interviewed a copy of an op-ed article from The New York Times entitled "Our Sick Society." (May 5, 2006, Editorial Desk, Paul Krugman)  The columnist commented on a recent study in The Journal of the American Medical Association that said, and we summarize:

  • There's something about American society that makes us sicker than we should be.
  • The richest third of Americans is in worse health than the poorest third of the English who are not known for their good health.
  • One possibility is that Americans work too hard and experience too much stress; what the columnist calls our "workaholic economy."
  • Finally, being American seems to damage your health regardless of your race and social class.

We then offered this quote from psychologist Martin Seligman who wrote the book, Authentic Happiness: "Lawyers are trained to be aggressive, judgmental, intellectual, analytical and emotionally detached. This produces predictable emotional consequences: he or she will be depressed, anxious and angry a lot of the time." 

Then we asked each interviewee to ponder these questions: 

  • In your experience, are lawyers a healthy group overall? Why? Why not?
  • Do you agree with Dr. Seligman's assessment? Why? Why not?

TCL Do You Think Lawyers Are Healthy?

Ellen: No, as a group lawyers are the unhealthiest profession, at least psychologically. Out of 101 professions studied they have the highest rate of depression.1 Surveys also indicate that lawyers experience anxiety & substance abuse problems at rates significantly higher than the general population.2  Lawyers also appear to get divorced more frequently than non-attorney couples and women lawyers who get divorced are less likely to remarry than women doctors who get divorced.

TCL Why Is This?

Ellen:  Well I think there are a lot of reasons. There is one study that Martin Seligman3 did which indicated that the most successful law students were the most pessimistic. And it's the most successful law students who are going into the big firms. Pessimism is worrisome because it is a predictor of depression, poorer health and shorter lifespan.

TCL What Did You Tell Me Earlier? Pessimism Shortens Life Span More Than Smoking?

Ellen:  An average of eight years.  Pessimistic people are less likely to engage in good health behavior.  If you teach them about the effects of smoking or other unhealthy habits, they don't change their behaviors.  Pessimism is associated with depression, cardiovascular illness, and with greater likelihood of a second heart attack after the first one.  Among the most interesting of Seligman's findings is that an optimistic vs. pessimistic attributional style is associated with success in every endeavor studied--except law. The most optimistic baseball players, football players, Olympic swimmers, and salespeople are the ones that -- after they lose a competition or a sale -- respond to losing by winning the next time. Optimists attribute the failure to temporary situational circumstances. Since the defeat is not seen as due to permanent causes which affect everything, the optimist can plan on doing things differently next time. The pessimist attributes failure to permanent and pervasive causes; he feels helpless about changing the outcome. And pessimism leads to people feeling helpless and helplessness is the precursor to depression. 

Lawyers don't appear to start law school with any greater levels of mental health problems than other students entering graduate programs. But that doesn't mean they don't have other personality characteristics.  So, it's possible they are more motivated by achievement.  It's possible they are more individualistic.

TCL More Logical, More Cerebral

Ellen:  And analytical. And it may be even that they are more pessimistic but nobody has studied that.  You can be more pessimistic and not be depressed. Then they go on to law school and they are put into a situation where there's tremendous ambiguity and lack of feed-back.  Everything rests on one exam and you don't know how you're doing until the end of the term and you are evaluated in relation to everybody else.  So you're ranked.  And ranking increases competitiveness and lack of feedback increases helplessness.4 

TCL OK, Then What Happens?

Ellen:  Professor Andrew Benjamin finds that the incidence of depression at the end of the first year of law school is up 30% to 40%.

TCL And Even After They Get Out Of Law School It Stays At Roughly 20%

Ellen:  Well, 20% is what Professor Andy Benjamin's5 results indicated for lawyers in general.  It's four times the rate of the general population of the country.  And rates of substance abuse are two or three times higher than the general population.

TCL What Happens To Them When They Get Into The Firms?

Ellen:  The culture of most big law firms is extremely competitive.  You are evaluated twice a year.  And you rarely hear about how well you're doing. The rule is typically that if there is something wrong we will tell you at the evaluation.  We won't say anything before and we won't say anything at all if there is nothing wrong. 

TCL And What Drives That?

Ellen:  I think it's partly a function of how busy lawyers are. Pessimists also tend to notice what's wrong vs. what's right.  And often firm partners are conflict-avoidant in interpersonal vs. formal situations.

TCL As Seligman Says, Lawyers Are Trained To Be Emotionally Detached As Well As Judgmental.

Ellen:  Nobody has ever accused law professors of teaching their students to trust their feelings.  Human beings respond emotionally because emotions have survival value. Feelings provide us with crucial information.  So what happens when you ignore a fundamental part of your biological functioning that has evolved because of its adaptive value?  How do you know what you need to do without taking emotional information into account?

TCL The Research On Emotional Intelligence (EQ) That Dr. Travis Bradberry And Dr. Jean Greaves6 Have Done, Clearly Demonstrates The Profound Impact That EQ Has On One?s Performance And Sense Of Well Being.

Ellen:  Yes. Also, law is an adversarial profession. The nature of the work itself tends to generate negative emotions. These narrow our focus to either fighting or fleeing from danger.  Barbara Fredrickson's5 research has shown us the adaptive value of position emotions: What she calls "broaden & build." Experiencing positive emotions makes us more creative and more inclined to build connections with others. And these supportive social connections are also resources from which we can draw in the future. So, the attorney working 60 to 70+ hours/week in fight-or-flight mode looking for potential dangers (which is, after all, what lawyers are paid to do) and who does this in a competitive environment is receiving all of the negative effects of negative emotions -- significant physical and emotional health risk -- without the health and quality-of-life benefits of positive emotions.7

TCL What Do You Say To These People Who Are Under Duress?

Ellen:   Well I think a lot of things need to be done. 

TCL Let?s Talk First About The Individual Versus The System

Ellen:  I see it as an interaction.  Optimism can be learned.  Seligman teaches pessimistic undergraduates how to be optimistic and six weeks of training produces increases in optimism that are sustained throughout four years of college.

TCL That?s Rather Amazing, Especially Since That Pessimism Was Ingrained Over A Lifetime

Ellen:  Yes, and the pessimistic control groups are more vulnerable to depression than the students who go through the training.  So I coach a lot of lawyers on how to think optimistically.  Also the most likely circumstances for burnout are a combination of high demand and low control and that is also the most toxic combination in terms of increased risk for cardiovascular disease.  What does the associate in a large firm experience?

TCL Nothing But That

Ellen:  Nothing but that. Here the solutions are more systemic than individual, so I consult with firms to give lawyers the greatest possible latitude to decide how, where & when work gets done.  If you look at the research that The Gallup Organization has done, employee engagement not only is one of the biggest variables influencing the bottom line but it also has significant health consequences for the employee.  And engagement seems to be determined by two things: 1) the ability to use your strengths; and 2) the moment-to-moment interactions in your day--particularly with your supervisor. Engaged workers receive personal recognition of their contributions.  So it's not just "good job," it's personalized.  And you're getting feedback that it is you that makes a difference.    

I agree with Larry Krieger that when everything is extrinsically motivated--when all you are working for is money or status--you may be living a life without meaning. Unless you're investing significant time outside of work engaged in something that gives your life meaning.  Few time-starved lawyers can do that. 

And a life without a sense of purpose combined with pessimism and negative emotion and all the other things we just talked about--I think that becomes pretty problematic.  The other thing is that the billable hour model makes all time fungible - any hour you're not billing is "wasted" time.  So, Wednesday at 1:00 P.M. has the same value, as Friday at 8:00 A.M., so there is no "sacred time."  And I'm not aware of any culture without sacred time.

TCL That's Interesting, Talk About That

Ellen:  Well every culture that I'm aware of has separated the sacred and the profane in some way.  And there are periods of time set aside to engage in sacred rituals.  Whether those are rituals you do with the shaman or the priest or the rabbi or minister or you do when you're meditating.  But if all time is equal then all time is potentially billable and every hour that you are not working is wasted.  So there is valuable time, which is billable time and all the rest of the time is wasted. The greatest accomplishments that cultures have produced have not been produced under the circumstances that we've just described. We're describing a very narrow, fearful, defensive life.  Looking for the risk, looking for what's wrong, defending against it, looking over your shoulder, and trying to figure out who's going to take something away from you--that's a toxic formula. Couple that cycle with living on the anhedonic treadmill where no matter how much money you make or how much stuff you buy it's somehow just never enough, and you don't get a recipe for well-being or happiness.

TCL Anhedonic Means That You Can?t Feel Your Feelings?

Ellen:  Anhedonic is life without joy.  But the "hedonic treadmill" is: You get a bonus that you're all psyched about. Now you can afford to buy that big house in the prestigious neighborhood and decorate it with Louis XIV furniture and buy your designer wardrobe. But six months later you've gotten used to that lifestyle and you're back at work. You're used to living in your big house. We become accustomed to the things and events that produce temporary emotional changes.  A few months after winning the lottery the initial elation has returned to that person's baseline level of happiness. So six months after getting your bonus it's no longer producing a lot of positive emotion. Your work is unlikely to have become more meaningful than it was before and you're barely seeing your family because you are working all the time.

If you're on a treadmill it doesn't mean that there is no such thing as enduring happiness.  It means that enduring happiness doesn't come from things. If you spend your life being grateful for your daily  "blessings," maintain strong, supportive relationships with others, do work that engages your strengths and has significance beyond your income, then you can experience what Seligman calls "authentic happiness."

TCL What Are The Three Things That Lawyers Can Do Today To Become More Mentally And Emotionally Healthy?

Ellen:  First, remember that thinking like a lawyer is a tool not a way of life.  It's fine to work toward objectivity in your legal analysis but remember that this is not the most effective approach to the rest of your life.

TCL Larry Krieger Calls That Using 10% Of Your Mind. You Use Your Analytical Mind 10% Of The Time And Then Forget About It.

Ellen:  Second, have a systematic way to reflect on your priorities: What makes your life meaningful?  And a systematic process for keeping your priorities in front of you at all times so that you can't get thrown too far off course.

TCL What Would That Systematic Process Look Like?

Ellen:  I often invite the people I coach to write out their vision statement and keep it on their bathroom mirror, or on their computer screen or to keep some image that reminds them of it so that they can't get too far away from remembering it.

TCL What Else?

Ellen:  Use your strengths and use them in the service of something that is meaningful to you.  Law firms are conformity-creating institutions.  Everybody is expected to be able to do the same thing.  But if you want to be healthy, know what your strengths are and find ways to use them every day. Figure out how much money you need and every penny above that put in the bank so that you don't create a lifestyle that traps you.  It's not what will make you happy anyway. 

Keep a gratitude journal so that every day before you go to sleep you think about three things that happened to you, or that you did -- that day -- for which you are grateful.  And savor as many of the moments of your life as you can.  Especially when you are not at work, create sacred time and savor it.  Savor the time with the people you love. Be present when you are with them.

TCL It Was A Pleasure, Ellen. Thank You.

Ellen: Thank you, Don. I enjoyed it. 



1. W. W. Eaton, J. C. Anthony, W. M. Z. Mandell, R. A. Garrison, (1990) Occupations and the prevalence of major depressive disorder. Journal of Occupational Medicine, 32, 1079-1085.

2. Connie J. A. Beck, Bruce D. Sales, & G. Andrew H. Benjamin, Lawyer Distress: Alcohol Related Concerns Among a Sample of Practicing Lawyers, 10 J. L. & Health 1, 18 (1995-6).
G. Andrew H. Benjamin et al., The Prevalence of Depression, Alcohol Abuse, and Cocaine Abuse Among United States Lawyers, 13 Int'l J. L. & Psychiatry 233 (1990).

3. Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness, Free Press, 2004.

4. G. Andrew H. Benjamin, Alfred Kazniak, Bruce Sales, & Stephen B. Shanfield, The Role of Legal Education in Producing Psychological Distress Among Law Students, Am. B. Found. Res. J. 225 (1986).

5. G. Andrew H. Benjamin, Bruce Sales, & Elaine Darling, Comprehensive Lawyer Assistance Programs: Justification and Model, 16 Law & Psychol. Rev. 113 (1992).

6. Travis Bradberry, Ph.D., Jeane Greaves, Ph.D., TalentSmart, Inc.,

7. B.L Fredrickson, & C. Branigan, (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 313-332.
B. L. Fredrickson, (2003). The value of positive emotions. American Scientist, 91, 330-335.
B. L. Fredrickson, (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226 

8. The Gallup Organization,



Krugman, Paul, "Our Sick Society," The New York Times, May 5, 2006. 


Seligman, Martin, Authentic Happiness, Free Press, 2004. 

Rath, Tom and Clifton, Donald, How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies For Work And Life, Gallup Press, 2004.


The impact of emotional intelligence onperformance and well-being: 

How to improve employee engagement: 

Finding your natural talents and abilities:

More on finding your strengths:

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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC

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