In this episode, I am excited to have Leslie Wallis on to discuss the benefits of compassion, care, listening while seeing, and recognizing secondary trauma that comes with the career.
Leslie Wallis is a shareholder at Ogletree Deakins, where she provides advice and counsel, training, and litigates employment-related matters. Before entering the legal arena, Leslie was a professional ballet dancer. Now she works with individuals and companies as a mindfulness facilitator and speaks about bringing mindfulness programs into the workplace. Her passion is in increasing the breadth of human awareness and introducing anxiety-ridden professionals to the concepts of compassion and self-care.
- The underlying trauma of practicing law that most lawyers don’t recognize and how it impacts attorneys.
- The “C” words that we don’t speak (compassion, care, “kindness”) and how these attributes help you to be a better lawyer.
- Finding the body and learning how to see and feel how different parts of the body are affected by different secondary trauma ailments. She also goes into how dance and movement and the intellectual exercises in both law and business can compliment each other.
- Learning to listen, and the effect attentive listening has on ethics and secular mindfulness.
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Leslie Wallis: [00:00:00] Well I don’t think compassion is concession. If you can exercise compassion, you have a better ability then to make an argument that’s going to be heard by the other side, so that you can move forward and advocate for your client in a much more effective way.
Intro: [00:00:19] 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: [00:00:44] Hello my friends, thanks for joining me for another episode of The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this episode, I’m so happy to have my friend Leslie Wallis. She is a shareholder at Ogletree Deakins, where she provides advice and counsel, training, and litigates employment-related matters. Before entering the legal arena Leslie was a professional ballet dancer. Now she works with individuals and companies as a mindfulness facilitator and speaks about bringing mindfulness programs into the workplace. Her passion is in increasing the depth of human awareness and introducing anxiety-ridden professionals to the concept of compassion and self-care.
[00:01:22] Before we get into the interview, if you haven’t listened to my bonus episode on working with loneliness, go back and check it out. I shared a 6-minute guided meditation to help you work with a sense of loneliness, which I think a lot of lawyers can feel. So often I hear from lawyers that they know they should practice mindfulness and meditation, but they don’t have the time. Mindful Pause is designed for busy lawyers like you, and is designed to be done in just 6 minutes. So head on over to JeenaCho.com or check it out and the show notes. And with that, here’s Leslie. Hello Leslie, welcome to the show.
Leslie Wallis: [00:01:56] Hi Jeena, I’m so happy to be here.
Jeena Cho: [00:01:59] Let’s get started by having you give us a 30-second introduction of who you are and what you do.
Leslie Wallis: [00:02:05] Well, my name is Leslie Wallace. I have practiced law now for 32 years. I’m kind of surprised I’m still doing it, but I do still do it. And I also, as you said, have a passion around mindfulness and how we practice law now, watching how the practice has changed over the years. And so my goals are more around resolution, understanding each other, advising people, and trying to remember the human aspects of being a counselor, as well as what we do as zealous advocates.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:47] Yea, and I think that idea of being a counselor is so critical to what we do as lawyers. We’re not just robots, we don’t just produce documents; that we play the role of being a counselor. And I know you have spoken a lot about working with the trauma of that is often involved in practicing law. So tell us about that.
Leslie Wallis: [00:03:11] Yeah, it’s been an interesting journey for me, that I have done some training around facilitating mindfulness. But as I have introduced these concepts to people I work with or people who are our clients, I’ve started to realize that there is, for many of us, a trauma associated with the practice that we don’t really recognize or maybe want to accept. And for some of us, it’s a form of secondary trauma that comes from interactions with opposing counsel, it could be with court, it could be with our clients, either because our clients themselves are in pain or they’re difficult.
But our practice on a day to day basis involves a lot of dealing with other people’s problems, which we then tend to take on ourselves; it leads to demands on ourselves and some very unreal expectations about what we are capable of as people. And as a result, we end up experiencing ourselves either compassion fatigue or a form of secondary traumatic stress. And what I see that leads to is a number of things, avoidance of emotions and numbing, we see a lot of anxiety and depression in the profession. We may see that we become even more judgmental, not only of colleagues and opposing counsel and clients, but of ourselves or the people that we are close to, and that we may become cynical or even angry in terms of our practice. And these are all symptoms of experiencing this kind of trauma that we don’t even talk about, and certainly we are not trained to deal with. Law school doesn’t mention anything about trauma.
Jeena Cho: [00:05:19] Yeah. Can you give maybe a specific example from your own life about some type of trauma that you experienced as a lawyer, and also how the mindfulness practice helped you to move through that trauma and what that looks like?
Leslie Wallis: [00:05:38] I practice employment law, and I actually practice it primarily now on the defense side; I do management practice, so we are typically defending cases. So we often have people, for example, who may be accused of something that they didn’t do, or feel they didn’t do. And so I might be hearing that for them, but I want to use a current.. something that just recently happened, because it’s alive for me right now. And it was around trying to resolve a case. We had mediated it some months ago, it did not resolve. And then I got a call from a mediator saying, we can maybe resolve this. The other side is willing to move tremendously if you can do it basically immediately; you have two days to try and do this.
And it was like, 6:00 at night when I got the call. Like if you can do it by the end of the next business day, we can make this happen. And I was a little bit flummoxed about what the rush was suddenly after all this time, and I was told that my opposing counsel was going to sign a declaration saying that I had said something that was going to impact the case, and that after he signed that he assumed I would be unwilling to work with him anymore around resolution. So the immediate thing that happened for me, and I could feel it in my body, was that initial what did I do, what have I done wrong? What is my client going to think, and did I create some problem here? What is he talking about, where is this going? And then, being able to step back from that with all the arising emotions; I could feel it in my shoulders and my chest. And think wait a minute, this is where the mindfulness kicks in. This isn’t about me, this is not about me. This is about this case, this is what my client wants to have happen, not what I want to have happen. That’s not how I operate anyway.
And the idea that somebody who really doesn’t know me, except I have not litigated across from this person before, would automatically jump to the idea that his opponent would be so unwilling even to talk once a statement which he must believe to be true would be made was rather astonishing. So yeah, it brought up all kinds of things about my own sense of self-worth, my own capabilities and all of that. And also then having to present to the client in advance, this may be coming down the pipe. And in this particular case, I was lucky my client didn’t say, well why is he saying that? But that could happen, that has happened. Where you have your own client frustrated with how you got to a certain point; that in the process of making it happen it made sense, but in the context of whatever’s coming up in your litigation or resolution is now a problem for them. And the blame starts coming or their frustration may shift to you, and you’re trying to hold the other side’s sense about you, your client’s sense about yourself, and then whoever is actually involved in the litigation, hold their space at the same time to let them know what’s happening. It’s a lot to hold.
Jeena Cho: [00:09:39] Yeah, yeah. And as you’re telling the story, I can feel the pit of my stomach drop, I can feel that tension. It’s just such a bad feeling, when something like that happens and you just don’t know what to expect and they’re threatening you. It’s just such an unpleasant feeling, and I think we as lawyers is something that we often experience. Which actually then leads me very nicely to the next topic of compassion and care, what you call the “C” words. So tell us about how compassion and kindness and caring for yourself and others helps you to be a better lawyer. Because I think so often lawyers kind of frown upon that, I know that’s certainly been my experience. I talk about compassion and they’re like, no I’m a lawyer. No, there’s just no room for compassion. So actually maybe backing up a little bit, when we talk about compassion what does that mean to you, to start with?
Leslie Wallis: [00:10:39] So compassion (and this is not probably my definition, but one I’ve heard) is when caring comes up against someone else’s pain. So there is some issue that is definitely not mine in the room, somebody else who is suffering in some way, and that I can see that person and whatever they are saying or doing as first of all human, and not just a vehicle for a message. And I think we lose that a lot in our effort to want to dive into our point and our message, and to show how smart we are and to remove ourselves from the emotional aspects of what we are doing.
Sometimes forgetting that this whole process, the whole legal process, is designed as a problem-solving vehicle for the society. So that we don’t go around punching each other or hurting each other in other ways, we have a system set up that is without a doubt not perfect, but is better than some of the alternatives of what people try to do. But we are also, the one “C” word I think many, many lawyers, particularly litigators, would use is “competitive.” And competitive, sometimes we don’t think that it can be in the same room with compassion. And I don’t know that that’s true number one, and number two if I have a choice between competition and compassion I’m going to choose compassion every time, because I think ultimately that’s going to get us to our result. Which is a resolution of a problem that both sides are acknowledging exists, whether or not they think that they are at fault for it; there is a problem or they wouldn’t need us.
Jeena Cho: [00:12:51] Yeah. So what do you say to a lawyer who says I can’t be compassionate because it’s my job to advocate for my client? If I’m being compassionate towards the other side, that I would be conceding to what they want, or that I wouldn’t be doing what’s in the best interests of my client.
Leslie Wallis: [00:13:11] Well I don’t think compassion is concession. Again, I think in order to make the best arguments we can for our clients, (we were taught this in law school) you need to be able to see the other side. What better way to see the other side and see what that human.. and I mean that even when you have a corporate client because a corporation has a name at the top of a building or on the door and a bunch of walls, but the people are what make it what it is. So it is understanding where they are coming from, why they’re acting in the way they’re acting, and understanding on the other side what they may be feeling that is driving whatever their concerns are. And if you can exercise compassion, you have a better ability to make an argument that’s going to be heard by the other side, so that you can move forward and advocate for your client in a much more effective way. So I don’t believe that compassion and effectiveness are at either end of the spectrum, I actually think that they coincide in the middle.
Jeena Cho: [00:14:25] Yeah, yeah. And I think you can be fierce and you can advocate for what you believe to be true and stand up, and do it in a way that’s compassionate. And I know for me, when I started practicing compassion one of the hardest things I had to learn how to do was to be compassionate towards myself. And I remember having all kinds of concern in the beginning, like if I’m being compassionate towards myself how am I ever going to get off my butt and do stuff? I’ll just be a complete lazy ass, right? I just had all kinds of misconceptions about being compassionate towards myself. Can you talk a little bit about what that journey was like for you? That journey of learning to be kinder towards yourself, and to hold yourself to a standard that’s less than perfection?
Leslie Wallis: [00:15:18] Well that was really hard for me, and although I don’t like to make generalizations I think that I’m going to make this one. Which is, I think many, many lawyers, maybe not all, but many lawyers are perfectionists. That’s the type of personality often that is drawn to the profession, are people who have very high expectations of themselves and somehow, somewhere believe that perfectionism is possible. So this vision of the lawyer who always gets it right, who knows what to say in every situation, is in a lot of our heads. And the ability to look at myself and say, “I, like the person next to me, is also human, and that means I’m going to make mistakes is a form of compassion towards myself, but it doesn’t mean I’m a doormat. And so I let everybody roll over me because I’m imperfect, and therefore I’m just going to make mistakes so oh well.”
So there is a drive to do things right, and then to also appreciate that I am an imperfect human. I am imperfect because I am human. And then the part about self-care, I did find for myself also that in doing compassion practices or kindness practices of any sort, that (and I don’t think my experience is unusual) being able to bring those to myself was far harder for me than being able to do that for somebody I care about, and people that I don’t really know that well. That I might go out of my way to help them in a way I won’t go out of my way to help myself, because that is seen as somehow a sign of weakness, that I need to take care of myself. We tend to push through to believe we can do things without sleep or without food or without.. you know, we’re going to be stronger, better or faster than everybody else. And I’m sure you’ve used this phrase before as well, that we do need to put our own oxygen masks on first. We aren’t really capable of taking care of our clients, our cases, whatever it is that we need to take care of, without standing on the ground ourselves, knowing where we are coming from. Because otherwise, the question will come to us, well how did you get there? Why are you saying this?
And when the ground isn’t underneath your feet around that, you haven’t really thought that through; you haven’t really taken care of the space for yourself to say this is why this is going to work or I feel this way, it’s really hard to make anybody else believe it. So that’s part of it, but also just that self-care of the physical self-care that we tend to really abandon very quickly in this practice of law, as opposed to the practice of mindfulness, is something we do need to learn and stop thinking about as being selfish. It is not selfish to take care of oneself. I had someone tell me some years ago, and I really like this image, that they want to be a safe space for other people to be around. And my image of that was a tree that people could sit under, and be comfortable being there next to it. If the roots of that tree are not stable, you’re not safe for the people who are sitting under you, or the people sitting by you.
Jeena Cho: [00:19:08] I love that image, wow.
Leslie Wallis: [00:19:10] So I see that self-care as watering and caring for the roots, so that I am able to be a safe space for my clients, for the people in my personal life as well, and to be able to hold myself steady and strong in the face of when people come after me. So when they are attacking, to realize how impersonal that attack may be; that that’s not mine. I’m not carrying that, and I can stand with the issues that are important and be able to come back in as kind a way as I possibly can. Which may mean I’m very firm and I don’t take what someone is saying to be even true in certain instances and point out why; that may be the kindest thing to do under the circumstances.
Jeena Cho: [00:20:02] You know, I think one of the things that come up often when we talk about self-care is caring for both the mind and the body. And it’s interesting because when I first started going on this mindfulness journey, I think one of the things you realize is that emotions and so much of your direct experience to the world happens in the body, but I remember feeling like no, I don’t have any emotions in the body. I don’t even know what you’re talking about; I do all of my thinking and all of my processing and all of my life experiencing through the mind. So can you talk a little bit about that connection between the mind and the body? That connection between the intellectual exercise in law and the importance of being connected to the body?
Leslie Wallis: [00:20:54] Yeah, this is a place that I really like to talk about and focus on. I think in some ways, I have an advantage over other people driven to this profession, because I started my life from when I was 3 years old in dance. I was a ballet dancer, so in ballet there’s a lot of discipline; your expression is focused in a particular way. But it is definitely expression through the body. And still some of the same senses of perfectionism again and discipline that you get in the legal profession, so when people ask me how I got from point A to point B those are things I can actually talk about. But it was a little bit easier when I started in the mindfulness journey to say, oh I see that; I can feel that in my body, because I’m used to seeing where things happen in the body. Whereas I.. I have a slide in something that I present sometimes to lawyers, and it’s a statue that’s a head with two legs coming out of it. And I feel sometimes that that’s what the people around me are like; that everything is in the head, and all that body is is a vehicle to move that head around the world. But if we stop for a minute and think wait, where am I feeling this? I’m agitated for example, that is something that we tend to think about in our head. Or I’m anxious.
What I can say to myself is, how do I know I’m anxious? How do I know I’m agitated? And it may be that there’s looping thoughts going on in my head, but in fact the reason I know I’m anxious is because there’s a tightness in my chest and my fists are balled or my shoulders are tight. I can remember when I first started practicing, there was a place on the left side of the middle of my back that was this hole that I would experience a lot of pain in, and I realized that’s where I was holding a lot of the stress. That that’s where it was for me. And then where does it go in my body, so I can trace it down? And the other question that can I ask myself to understand the mind and body connection is, where am I not feeling this? Is there a place that I don’t feel anxious? Do my feet feel anxious, do my earlobes feel anxious? Does my nose feel anxious? And then noticing oh wait, I don’t feel things perhaps in those places. So what anxiety is for me is this collection of sensations; and once I could see that, then I can pull those apart, they’re not so controlling. Over, “Well I’m just anxious and my thoughts are zooming, and I can’t stop them,” which is a place that I certainly tended to go. Like, how do I stop this or I need to fix it.
[00:24:26] I’m a fixer. You know, you could be judgmental, you could be comparing, you could be a fixer. I’m probably all three, but my default is fixing. I’m just going to fix the problem and I’m going to think my way out of it. And noticing one, no matter where my thoughts are, no matter where my mind is, which is often planning in the future for me. How am I going to fix what happened yesterday? My body is here in the present; it’s always in the present. So when I can come back and see what’s happening right now, you can say wait a minute I’m not at risk right now; nobody’s threatening me right now in this moment. So I can take a breath around that, I can notice.. or even just engaging in the conversation and I think, oh am I saying the right thing? Where do I feel that? I actually can feel it in my thighs right now. That’s interesting, that I’m feeling that there. And as I breathe into it, it doesn’t go away but it releases a little bit.
Jeena Cho: [00:25:39] And I found paying attention to the physiological response of anxiety.. so I always feel it in the center of my chest; I can always notice my heart beating faster, my stomach will clinch up. And paying attention to that and working on softening the belly and breathing a little bit slower and deeper is much more effective in managing anxiety than trying to logic or reason my way out of anxiety. Because my mind, the anxious brain, is so much better at telling me that it’s totally justified to feel anxious and why wouldn’t you feel anxious. So it’s not a fight that I can win with my own mind; versus it’s much easier for me to go, oh yeah I can definitely feel it in the pit of my stomach, let me just focus on breathing. I actually found that to be a much more effective strategy for working with anxiety than trying to think my way out of it. I think that’s so often what we try to do, is we try to logic our way out of that unpleasant feeling that we’re experiencing.
Leslie Wallis: [00:26:48] The one thing we’re trained in is logical thinking. So it’s not exactly surprising, especially as lawyers that that’s what we do. But I have found, even with clients.. I’ve had clients where they’re really frustrated about some problem that’s going on or they have an issue with an employee and they’ll call and say, “In my day I’d just do this and that.” And that I can actually say to them before we even start this conversation, just take a breath. Because (and here’s where the compassion comes in too) I understand you’re frustrated; I understand this is really upsetting and this is what you would like to do. But if you could take a breath, then we can then actually reason our way through what’s going on. But in fact, very often where we think we’re reasoning we’re going from an emotional response.
And being with the body allows us to get back to noticing again like you said, just releasing the things that are causing the tensions physically in the body, to a place where we can hear; we can hear what’s actually being said. We can hear what’s around us, and then resolve whatever the issue of the moment is and really look at that issue instead of what happened yesterday, what’s happening tomorrow, and how we’re creating problems before they even happen. That happened for me a lot in advice work, where people will say well what if this happens, what if that happens? There are an indefinite number of possibilities of what might happen. Here are a few of the ones that are most likely, but really we need to take the next step. So just focus on this, and then let’s reconvene and see how to deal with the next step instead of going into that anxious loop about what if, what if, what if, what if.
Jeena Cho: [00:28:51] Yeah, which is not particularly helpful because when things do go off track, it never goes off track in the exact way that you had anticipated or imagined. So I find that “what if” exercise to be not terribly helpful; all it does is increase anxiety and that sense of helplessness.
Leslie Wallis: [00:29:11] And that’s the other thing we as lawyers like to do, is control everything. So when we feel helpless, we tend to wind ourselves up a lot. So understanding that we don’t have that much control over our clients, opposing counsel, what the court’s going to do or the docket, and we realize how little we actually do have control over, it allows me to let go of more things and just say okay something’s going to happen. Things happen, right now it’s like this. What am I going to do about what’s happening right now?
Jeena Cho: [00:29:57] I think one thing that mindfulness has taught me is that, I always considered myself to be a good listener but I realized I’m not actually that great a listener. It actually taught me to listen in a very different way than the way that I was used to, and I’m curious how a mindfulness practice has helped you to be a better listener, or learning how to listen?
Leslie Wallis: [00:30:24] Yeah, that’s a really important thing. One of the things that we learn in law school is we are trained how to listen with one ear. And it’s important, it is important to a certain extent. We need to think on our feet a lot, particularly in the litigation context where the judge or opposing counsel may be making an argument and you need to be able to think about that, and to be formulating your response. That is necessary, I’m not pretending that it’s not. But if we actually are able to (and I think mindfulness has really helped this) listen with instead of 20% of our body and our ear towards what they’re actually saying, and 80% creating what we’re going to do next. If we can shift that dynamic so it’s 50/50 or maybe, even more, listening than planning the next part of our argument or our conversation, we may find that we’re hearing different things and that our response is going to change.
And that that response may be much more reasoned, and also much more engaged. When the other side or the judge or your client or your friend or your spouse or your child thinks you are listening, really listening to them, they are much more likely also to listen to you. And your response to that, the message that they’re giving out is going to be framed in a manner that may be more effective rather than less effective.
[00:32:20] It is a hard exercise to do. I mean I like also to think that I am able to listen, but I’ve realized in my mindfulness practice how often I want to jump in, either to say oh yes I’ve experienced that also, or no no no, this is really where you should be going. You need to go or have you heard, or have you thought about..? Instead of letting the person get to the end of their discussion, where they will actually be turning towards me.. to stream back to where I started this and that traumatic experience of what this attorney was going to say about me, it ended up that what he put in his declaration was very, very limited. And what he put in his papers was very, very complimentary of me. I don’t know whether it was out of fear, it certainly wasn’t based on a personal experience. But he ended up almost undoing his own comments, by saying how much he respected me. And it left me with this smile and this feeling of, well that is really interesting where that landed. And had I not waited to see that that was coming next and only attacked or been prepared to attack the first comment, my interaction with him would be very different.
Jeena Cho: [00:33:56] Yeah. And I think we can so often fall into that trap of jumping to conclusions, or even the way that you’re listening; you’re listening, but your brain is yammering away the whole time, coming up with your defenses and coming up with your responses and your rebuttals. And you might miss what the person is actually saying in the process and not fully understand what’s being said, and oftentimes what’s not being said. And if you truly listen, you can ask follow-up questions and with curiosity say, “Well I heard you say this, but how about that?” And it’s almost magical in a way, when you can show up with that sense of openness. It diffuses the other person; they may show up with a lot of anger, hostility, defensiveness, so on and so forth. But if you can allow yourself to listen with that sense of openness, then it’s like they don’t have something to push up against so it makes it less likely that the conversation will spiral out of control and get hostile or unproductive.
Leslie Wallis: [00:35:07] Yeah, in my personal life I have some family members who are very, very difficult people; just suffering a lot of both physical and emotional pain. And my lessons in dealing with them have carried over into my professional life, and one of the things I have learned is when there is this push back and blame and, “I think you’re saying this or why are you doing that or I believe this is wrong or immoral or difficult or whatever,” then I can say I don’t disagree with you about “x” maybe, but I disagree with you about “y”. Or I disagree with you about this but I still feel.. let me use a specific example because it’s a little hard in the generalities. I was sitting in the car having a conversation with one of my family members who said, “I don’t know why you’re still friends with this particular person; they’ve done something that I think was harmful.” And my response, that I don’t think would have been before I was a mindfulness practitioner; I might have been very defensive.
The friend is somebody I’ve known essentially my entire life. And I said, you know I don’t disagree with you what this person did was wrong. I might even argue that it was unethical or immoral, but he’s still my friend. And that action was not all of what I know this person is. And that was a much wiser response than I would have been able to do, had I not listened to everything that my family member was saying to me, and be able to say, “Yeah I hear you; I’m listening to what you’re saying. It makes sense to me that this is how you feel, and my feelings about this are different. And they’re my feelings, they’re just my feelings. This is my own experience.” And I think we can bring that into our professional lives; I hear you, we hear what you’re saying. This is what we do as lawyers, and I have a different perspective. Can you hear me?
Jeena Cho: [00:37:37] Yeah, and that’s such a powerful experience. Even if you don’t agree, just that sense of being heard and understood can really soften and have that human connection; I think that’s one of our most desired things that we want as humans, is to be heard and understood and have that sense of connection with others. So that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to agree with the other person; all those things can happen and you can still have your different perspectives.
Leslie Wallis: [00:38:10] Yeah, I think it also leads to trust in the professional relationship. The other side trusts that you’re going to do what you said. And that they trust in you as a person to listen to them, even if you’re going to do something completely different than they want you to do. And that trust is important in allowing our system, our legal system, to work. We have to, on some level, believe that we are working towards a common goal within the system. We may not want the same outcome, but we’re working to make the system work for our clients.
Jeena Cho: [00:38:55] Yeah, definitely. One last question before I let you go. The name of this podcast is called The Resilient Lawyer, what does it mean to be a resilient lawyer to you?
Leslie Wallis: [00:39:06] Well that’s kind of a big question as the last one, but I think what it means to me is to remember that I’m human. To remember when I am judged, to try to be less judgmental of others. To notice where I’ve become rigid or overinvolved, and to be able to be aware that that’s what I’m doing. And then to come back to a place where I’m standing my own ground, and I feel content with myself standing there; that I’m not unhappy with what I have done or what I have said in the interaction. That’s the resilience that I work for, so that I can come back and fight another day.
Jeena Cho: [00:40:16] Leslie, thank you so much for being with me today. I really appreciate it.
Leslie Wallis: [00:40:20] It was a pleasure.
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