[Podcast] RL 88: Nefra MacDonald— Emotional Awareness: Mindfulness’ Secret Weapon to Psychological Health

 

 

 

In this episode, I am excited to have Nefra MacDonald on to talk about how awareness of one’s emotions can revolutionize your presence and how you communicate with others.

Nefra MacDonald is the Business Development and Strategic Partnership Coordinator at Rocket Matter. After working in various capacities at law firms, corporations, and non-profit organizations, she decided to use her experience to help address the pain points that practicing lawyers feel every day. She currently co-chairs Rocket Matter’s Product Advisory Committee, which serves as a source of targeted feedback for the company’s product improvement strategy. Her passion for wellness has also led to heavy involvement in producing more wellness programming for lawyers, including Rocket Matter’s Legal Wellness Retreat, where I will also be presenting.

 

Topics Covered

  • Nefra talks on how personal hardships changed her path from being a law student working at a firm, to where she is now helping other lawyers balance their life with mindfulness.
  • How Kundalini Yoga helped her to be more present, more aware of her emotions, and how she uses that awareness to better control her emotions rather than the opposite. She talks about how she expresses those negative emotions to others and allows herself to feel it rather than bury it deep down.
  • Common pain points with lawyers, work/life balance issues, and wellness and mindfulness issues, such as the inability to disconnect from work without feeling anxiety and trying to manage staff.

Find out more on Nefra at:

Twitter
Legal Productivity podcast

Links mentioned:

Rocket Matter’s Legal Wellness Retreat– save $100 off registration for the conference with the discount code “JEENALWR18

 

 

Questions? Comments? Email Jeena! hello@jeenacho.com. You can also connect with Jeena on Twitter: @Jeena_Cho

For more information, visit: jeenacho.com

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Transcript

Nefra MacDonald: [00:00:12] I need to show up for myself first, every single day before I can be of service to anyone else.

Intro: [00:00:18] Welcome to The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this podcast, we have meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and change agents. We offer tools and strategies for creating a more joyful and satisfying life. And now your host, Jeena Cho.

Jeena Cho: [00:00:43] Hello my friends, thanks for joining me for another episode of The Resilient Lawyer podcast. Today I have Nefra MacDonald, she is the business development and strategic partner coordinator at Rocket Matter, and she has worked in various capacities at law firms, corporations, and non-profit organizations, and she decided to use all of her experiences to help lawyers address their pain points that they feel every day. She is currently the co-chair at Rocket Matter’s Product Advisory Committee, which serves as a source of targeted feedback for the company’s product improvement strategy. Her passion for wellness has also led her to be heavily involved in producing more wellness programs for lawyers, including Rocket Matter’s Legal Wellness retreat, where I will also be a presenter so I’m looking forward to talking about that. And with that, here’s Nefra. Nefra, welcome to the podcast.

Nefra MacDonald: [00:01:33] Thank you so much Jeena, it’s great to be here.

Jeena Cho: [00:01:36] So I want to just jump right in, one of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is how’d you decide to go from going to law school to be a lawyer, and to take a different path. So can you share your experience on how you went from going to law school with the intention of becoming a lawyer, to becoming a business development strategist at Rocket Matter.

Nefra MacDonald: [00:02:03] Yeah, so when I decided to go to law school I was actually already working at a law firm; I was working at a local personal injury law firm in South Florida. And I started to see ways that I could benefit other people; I’ve got all these skills, I’m a really great people person, and being able to take my education and give people access to justice was something that really excited me. So I applied to law school, I got into the University of Miami, I got into their dual degree program for music business, because my dad was a musician. And I thought man, that would also be a great way to help with the family business. So it was so multi-faceted, really exciting time. And then I started my first year, and all of the lawyers that are listening to that, I’m sure you’ve got your favorite first year memories, probably the first time you got cold-called on or something like that, that sends a shudder through your spine. But for me, that wasn’t the most traumatic thing about my first year. A few weeks into my first semester of law school, I found out that my father was diagnosed with lung cancer, pretty late stage. And it was really, really difficult. And his biggest ask of me was, “Just keep going, just keep going; focus on what you have to do there, and I’ll focus on what I have to do here.” And that worked for a few weeks, and then things started to get really bad as he started to go through treatment.

[00:03:37] He had a heart attack one night after chemo, and it was just one thing after another that his health just continued to deteriorate, for the reasons of the cancer and other things. And it was very hard to stay focused at school, you know I’m getting updates from home in the middle of class. And of course emotions take over, and your classmates are interpreting that as, oh she can’t handle law school. And really, in reality if I’m being completely honest, it was like I can’t handle this and my life. But I didn’t know what to do or what to reach for, I didn’t have very good coping mechanisms at the time, and things just started to take their toll. I lost a ton of weight, I was completely anxious all the time, I was shaky and really just depressed. I was in complete auto-pilot, and I knew that if I’m going to make it here, nobody can see these emotions; nobody can see me struggling, I just have to keep going.

And I know that a lot of people can empathize with that feeling, especially in this profession. Showing any sign of weakness, it’s an opportunity for opposing counsel to prey on you; you feel like prey. And showing weakness doesn’t exactly inspire confidence when you’re dealing with clients and people that are paying you to get them a certain result. So how do we build up some of those skills and some of those coping mechanisms to combat that? Well I had no clue, and I didn’t really have a whole lot of resources.

[00:06:38] The only resource that was available to me at that time was our school counseling center. So I went to the counseling center and I was seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist, we came up with a treatment plan and I was a guinea pig. I was on all sorts of medications that weren’t really making me productive or focused, I was losing a lot of sleep, all sorts of fun stuff, and just trying to get through classes. So law school in general, those few years were actually really difficult for me. My dad passed away my second year, and things with my family did not get much better after that, things actually were just getting started. So I don’t think I was ever fully present during that time. And it wasn’t until after I walked across the stage that I realized, maybe this isn’t for me; maybe I’m not cut out for this. Maybe this kind of lifestyle is demanding too much of me for where I am right now. And I started to get on the path of taking good care of myself, because I knew that no matter what I decided to do, I needed to just feel better to approach it from a place of clarity. And so I started to dive into some self-help books, I started to work with a life coach who pointed me in the direction of resources that could really help to shift the way that I was approaching getting control of my own life. I’d been living my life for other people for a really long time, and you take on other people’s problems.

[00:08:01] And that really distracts from you focusing on what might be coming up for you, and how you show up for yourself. So the biggest lesson I learned out of that time was: A. I never want to get back to that kind of dark place that I was in, and B. I need to show up for myself first every single day, before I can be of service to anyone else. So I just started to dive into tools that could really help me do that. And one thing that has totally changed the way that I live my life and the way that I am mindful and present in the moment is meditation. And I’ve experimented with all kinds of meditation over the years, most recently I’ve been diving into Kundalini meditation. Which is a little weird for some people, it was a little weird for me at first too. I mean, the first time I saw somebody doing Breath of Fire and teaching someone how to do it, they were sticking their tongue out of their mouth and panting like a dog, and I was like oh my God there’s no way I can do this. But really, you start to feel shifts and it’s kind of a great new addiction. It’s the healthiest thing that I’ve done for myself, and I’m more aware now of my emotions than I’ve ever been. And that awareness helps me to manage them and control them, and not get sucked down the rabbit hole of negative thoughts, or experience periods of really high anxiety or stress. I can really bring myself back to center fairly quickly because I’m so aware of what’s happening now.

Jeena Cho: [00:09:32] Yeah, I love that point you made about being aware of your emotions, because I find that so many lawyers are afraid of their emotions. So they just think, oh if I just disconnect and not feel them.. of course you still feel them. It’s not like the emotions disappear just because you go, oh it doesn’t exist; I’m going to deny its existence. So when you’re working on coming more in touch with your emotions through mindfulness and meditation, how did that help you to actually.. because I think one of the things people are afraid of is that they’re going to react from that place of emotion. So if you feel anger you’re going to react in anger, which is actually very different than allowing yourself to feel it. So how did mindfulness actually help you to become more familiar with your emotions? And then how did that change or shape how you manage and express your emotions to others?

Nefra MacDonald: [00:10:26] Yeah, so when a negative emotion comes up there’s a feeling in your body that happens. And when you’re doing certain meditations, well most meditations actually, you’re bringing awareness not only to your breath, but to the feelings that are coming up in your body. Whether it’s pain or discomfort or tightness, or if you’re taking really short breaths as opposed to deeper breaths, any sort of illness you might be feeling; you really become so aware of what is happening in your body. And because of that, you know that those things may have an influence on how you react. They may be making you more irritable, and having that time to not judge what’s happening but just notice what’s happening allows you to also in the day-to-day life notice what’s happening without judging it. We’re really quick to react because we’re being forced to judge something and say this out of it. When you’re just taking a step back, being fully present, seeing what might be triggering you in the moment to maybe be angry or upset or cry. And say I’m not going to judge this, but what is this? What is it bringing up for me, and how does this really make me feel?

I know I feel angry, but what else could this be? Especially in the context of interpersonal relationships, like when you’re dealing with a boss or a co-worker or opposing counsel or a judge or your client, what else could this be? What could they be going through that’s causing them to express themselves in this way, and how can you react from a place of kindness and love? And the thought process seems really long, but actually when you’re sitting in that place constantly, at some point in your day (whether it’s for six-minute increments, I know Jeena trains her lawyers to do, or 10 minutes or 20 minutes or however long your practice is) when you’re practicing, doing that every single day, it’s easier to do it moment by moment. To temper those reactions, to not ignore how you’re feeling but also just asking yourself to approach it in a different way, and to choose differently than you normally would. And it starts to feel really good, it becomes a part of your practice.

[00:12:41] But getting back to how I got to Rocket Matter, after I started doing some of this deep work I started to ask myself what kind of work I wanted to do. And I fell into a job at a healthcare technology company, and I really loved tech. I loved still being able to do the legal side of things, as far as helping with forming the corporation and doing minutes for board meetings. I worked under an attorney to help with due diligence for acquisitions and all of that really fun stuff. And there were certain parts of it that I really enjoyed, but the environment was very high stress; it was still a lot of the same. And I was also working with people that were not very good for me, they were very toxic people. So those two things were not good, I was still attracting some of that chaotic environment into my life. And so I needed to figure out a way out of that. So I started to think about what I really wanted out of a work environment, what I really wanted out of a job, how I wanted to grow.

And I wanted to work with like-minded people who were passionate about what they do, who really wanted to help people. I wanted to get the opportunity to lead and to teach, and to expand my skills in new ways. And some of my skills, I went to undergrad for broadcast journalism and I really loved public speaking, so I also wanted those kinds of opportunities. And I thought to myself, if it happens it happens, but you never know.

And I was working with a temp agency that I used during law school to find those rare paying jobs, and Rocket Matter had a position open. And so I got the call and it was supposed to be a two-week assignment, and then it got extended to another four weeks, and then our CEO Larry created a position for me. And it was something that they never had before. But I basically get to play a little bit in our product world, where I take feedback from our lawyers and hearing some of the things that they’re going through day to day that are super painful, and figuring out how we can take our technology and develop it in a way that it eases that pain point. So they have more time to build, to develop their business, to become more profitable. I also was working in our customer success department, so helping our customers and training them. And I got the really cool experience to go back to my home country (I’m from Trinidad, and I got to go to Trinidad) and train an all-female law firm how to use Rocket Matter. They also wanted to go paperless, so help them develop their paperless protocols. So that was a really cool experience. And then last year I transitioned to our marketing department, where I get to work on our strategic partnerships with integration partners, that can also be really helpful to our clients. And then I also teach our CLE’s and webinars every month, I host our podcast occasionally. So I’m getting to use all of these skills that I really love, I’ve gotten the opportunity to grow, I DO work with like-minded people, and because of my own experience and the things that I’ve done, I get to bring some wellness aspects to what I do at work.

[00:16:14] I’m the girl at work that’s diffusing essential oils and doing meditations at 4:00, but that’s who I am and I’m proud of it. And I work at a place that embraces that, so it’s been pretty amazing. But there’s a lot to be said about what you can do when you approach things from a place of being centered, and what you can actually manifest in your life once you focus on core qualities that you need more of in your life. I’ve been able to achieve that over time, and be patient and allow it to happen, as opposed to stressing about it. So it’s been great, it’s been really good.

Jeena Cho: [00:17:00] What are some of the common pain points that you hear from lawyers?

Nefra MacDonald: [00:17:06] Oh man, there are so many.

Jeena Cho: [00:17:08] Maybe we can narrow in on some (and I hate this term) work-life balance issues, and sort of overall wellness or well-being issues that they struggle with.

Nefra MacDonald: [00:17:24] Yeah, one of the biggest things that I hear all the time is feeling like they can’t disconnect. That even if they’re on vacation or they need to take a day off, they have to be tuned in to what’s happening in the office. Otherwise they can’t feel right about taking time off, especially if they’re the only managing partner at the firm where they’ve got associates under them that aren’t well-trained, or staff that’s not as reliable as they should be, it makes those things a whole lot more stressful. And I know from your story, you couldn’t take vacations either Jeena, without feeling super anxious. So it’s something that isn’t completely uncommon, but one of the things that we try to help our attorneys with is understanding some of the mechanics behind running a business, and how those things can help you disconnect.

So if you have processes and procedures in place for how things should go, and you’ve got a way that you can check in on those things very quickly and from a bird’s eye perspective, that might be one way that you can take a break and maybe set aside 20 minutes a day to check in and just take a look at your practice management software. And you can see how many outstanding tasks there are, how much time your associates have billed, or whether certain phone calls got made or certain e-mails got sent. It’s all from one central location, and if you’re utilizing the tools properly (like utilizing our project management features) you can see when things are past due or the statute of limitations is coming up, and all of those things can really help to give you peace of mind. If you’re not going to be missing a deadline, it’s totally okay for you to take a break for a week and spend time with your family, spend time with yourself, and not really worry about what’s going on at the firm. Because you’ve done the hard work of making sure that things can run without you being there every second. The other thing that I hear a lot about too is trying to manage staff. When we’re in law school, we don’t learn how to manage others.

Jeena Cho: [00:20:03] There are so many things we don’t learn in law school!

Nefra MacDonald: [00:20:04] Oh gosh, yes. But aside from not knowing how to track your time and what you can actually bill clients for and all of that good stuff, how to manage others. And it comes in two perspectives: one is having unrealistic expectations of your staff, how much work can they really handle and creating the opportunity to have a constructive conversation about it. So if you’re delegating a ton of stuff to your support staff and they’re not getting it done in a timely fashion, you may want to blame it on laziness or lack of skills or what have you, but a lot of the times it’s because they don’t have the support they need; in terms of training, in terms of processes, in terms of support, and they may not feel like communication is open to be able to come and tell you these things. So we also direct our users to really utilize the software to take a look at productivity reports, to take a look at task reports and see, okay if you’ve delegated something to someone, how long is it taking them to get things done? And how much do they really have on their plate? Is that reasonable?

[00:21:24] And being able to look at those things and then have a conversation with someone to ask what it is they can handle and what they can’t, that stuff’s really important. And then mindfulness also comes into play here, because if you’ve got your own stuff going on, like you’ve got a sick child at home and a ton of deadlines and you’ve got trial in two weeks, you may be feeling a certain level of stress. And if you haven’t checked in with that and somebody comes to you with a problem or there’s a screw up that happens with one of your staff members and you need to address it, you may address it in a way that is not from a place of kindness or love. And that can really blow up and it can really affect the relationship and the dynamic in your office. If you’re taking the time to be aware of where you are and then addressing the problem, you can address it from a place of compassion and also understanding what’s happening with that. And it’s more constructive that way, you can be a part of the solution as opposed to expressing anger and frustration, and not really getting things anywhere because now that person’s upset.

Jeena Cho: [00:22:39] It’s like working on processes and streamlining everything, and utilizing technology but also working on actually developing some of these tools and to be able to manage stress and anxiety. And I think those two things actually sort of feed on each other, even though we may not necessarily think about it. Like if your mind is constantly going 150 mph and you’re constantly distracted, having all of the processes in place probably won’t help you because your mind is just not available to actually pay attention to those things, so it’s almost like you…

Nefra MacDonald: [00:32:41] Yeah, you don’t have the bandwidth.

Jeena Cho: [00:32:42] Right, yeah. And I love that point you made about knowing what your limitations are, and I think having a system where you can see exactly what your capacity is is really helpful. Because if you’re going on feel or a memory, it’s probably not going to be all that accurate because it’s just going be how you’re feeling in that moment.

Nefra MacDonald: [00:32:57] Yeah, that’s not real business intelligence. We’re able to give people actual numbers and things that they can act on from a place of knowing what’s actually going on. And if everyone is trained and using the system in the right way, you have the ability to make intelligent business decisions. Like hiring more staff or bringing in somebody twice a week to help with billing, or hiring a temporary file clerk; you can see where the bottlenecks are in your office and how it’s putting stress on the system itself, and come up with solutions that can work temporarily, until you can figure out a more permanent way to tighten up those processes. Business is an iterative process; you’re constantly looking at it and finding ways to improve. And I think it’s also analogous to the way we should be living our lives. Like I am so comfortable always being a work in progress, because I just know how much more full my life is going to continue to be because I think that way. It should make you really hopeful for your business too, in knowing that there’s always going to be a way for you improve. And it doesn’t have to happen all at one time right now, but it can happen over time and you’ll get to experience and see that growth and enjoy it.

Jeena Cho: [00:34:07] Right, I think it’s that ability to hold both. So being okay where you are right now and accepting things just as they are, and also being open to the possibility of something more, something better, being a slightly better version of yourself or even having your business be where it is now, but also recognizing that that’s a temporary state. That’s not how it’s always going to be, and that you can actually work on improving it over time.

[00:34:32] So as we mentioned before, Rocket Matter is hosting its first legal wellness retreat. Some people might be like, oh they’re a technology company why are they doing a wellness retreat? So tell us about the idea behind the wellness retreat, and what your goals are.

Nefra MacDonald: [00:34:46] Yeah, so Rocket Matter as a company, our values have always been aligned with health and wellness. It’s actually one of our cultural pillars internally, so we do a lot of wellness programming for our employees. We have a gym upstairs on our second floor, we do company picnics with tons of sports, we had a meditation expert come in and train the entire company on meditation, and it opened a lot of people up to the practice that weren’t familiar with it before. But it’s really a company where people can try to find that balance for themselves, and we always want to provide those tools to our employees.

[00:35:20] It ties into our attorneys as well and our customers, because they’re a part of our extended Rocket Matter family. And when our firms are doing well, so are we. And there is this really big problem that we’re aware of, in terms of depression and anxiety, suicide rates, substance abuse problems, and just people not really enjoying the practice of law anymore. And the Florida Bar has been doing so much this year, in terms of studies and surveys. And there are a significant portion of the attorney population that, if they could do anything else with their lives, they would not be practicing law. Hi, living example. So how do we shift the culture, how do we make a change? And we want to be a part of that, we want to give people ways to really reframe the way they look at lawyering and running their businesses and practicing law. And what is it like to be in the same room with someone who is highly stressed versus someone who brings a little bit more peace and centeredness? It really does shift the energy and the dynamic, in terms of negotiations, in terms of how you deal with clients, in terms of how you deal with your staff, and how things are with your family. And we see that with our own employees, and because our customers are our extended family, we want to bring some of that knowledge and awareness to them as well. So that was how the idea for the legal wellness retreat was born.

[00:36:42] We want to bring aspects of wellness in terms of your mind, your body, financial wellness for your firm, practice management and processes; all of those things will be topics that we discuss at the retreat. So attendees will be able to get those hours of CLE’s in the morning. But it’s also going to be mixed in with programming to help you tune in, like in the morning you can run one of the trails or you can do yoga in the afternoon. We’ll have activities that you can take part in in the beautiful mountains of western Massachusetts, which are just so stunning, stuff like ropes courses or hiking one of the trails, canoeing on the Housatonic River; there’s so many beautiful, beautiful parts of nature that you can experience and connect with. So it’s a really great chance to do a mix of both.

You get those CLE credits, you get some time in nature, a lot of our attendees will be bringing their families so they can spend some time with them and extend the trip through the weekend. But there’s gorgeous food and culture and views, and it’s going to be a really awesome experience. We’re really glad that Jeena is going to be there to share her tips for mindfulness and take our attendees through some practices they can take home with them. And that’s what we want too; we want people to have action items to take home with them. We want to continue to be your accountability partner once you leave the retreat. So any insights that you get, any next steps that you come up with, we want to be able to check in with our attendees and see how it’s going, offer support and make sure that the experience is actually transformative in one way or another for them.

Jeena Cho: [00:38:17] I love it, and I’m really looking forward to it. So the dates are July 18 through the 20th. And for the listeners out there that want to learn more about the retreat, where’s the best place for them to do that?

Nefra MacDonald: [00:38:29] So they can go to legalwellnessretreat.com, and from there you can see a list of our speakers, our agenda, and be able to register for the conference.

Jeena Cho: [00:38:38] Great. So once again, that’s legalwellnessretreat.com. All of this information will be in the show notes. And for my listeners, there is a $100 discount code that you can use, it’s “J-E-E-N-A-L-W-R-1-8.” And again, all of this information will be in the show notes. Nefra, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate you taking the time and sharing your wisdom with the listeners.

Nefra MacDonald: [00:38:50] It’s been my pleasure and honor, thank you guys so much.

Closing: [00:38:52] Thanks for joining us on The Resilient Lawyer podcast. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please tell a friend. It’s really the best way to grow the show. To leave us a review on iTunes, search for The Resilient Lawyer and give us your honest feedback. It goes a long way to help with our visibility when you do that, so we really appreciate it. As always, we’d love to hear from you. E-mail us at smile@theanxiouslawyer.com. Thanks, and look forward to seeing you next week.