Let’s start with the obvious. As lawyers, we have a duty to represent our clients competently, zealously, and deliver the best possible outcome. In California, competence is defined as:
(B) For purposes of this rule, “competence” in any legal service shall mean to apply the
2) learning and skill, and
3) mental, emotional, and physical ability reasonably necessary for the performance of such service.
California Rules of Professional Conduct, RULE 3-110. Failing to Act Competently. (emphasis added)
There are many ways to learn the legal skills necessary to become the best attorney possible, to represent our clients with excellence. Obviously, we learn some of these skill in law school, but mainly, we learn by trial and error. We also seek help of others through mentorship, CLEs, and reading. Sometimes, having a skilled opposing counsel kick our ass can also be a great way to learn. We learn by making mistakes and learning from them. I have a lot of scars from those battle wounds. Often, it’s the most painful experiences that can serve as our best teachers.
To learn the skills necessary to represent our clients takes a lot of time and effort. It’s called a practice for a reason.
As the rule points out, it’s not enough to just focus on the clients. In addition to serving our clients, we must also pay attention to our own mental, emotional, and physical health.
We as a profession are failing at this. Here are some statistics from a paper published by the South Carolina Bar Association’s HELP Task Force:
- Of more than more than 100 occupations studied, lawyers are the most likely to suffer from depression and were 3.6 times more likely than average to do so.
- One in four lawyers suffer from elevated feelings of psychological distress, including feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, anxiety, social alienation, isolation, and depression.
- Male lawyers in the United States are two times more likely to commit suicide than men in the general population.
- Estimates from around the country indicate that the incidence of substance abuse among lawyers is as much as double the national average.
- Almost 26% of respondents exhibited symptoms of clinical depression, and almost 12% said they contemplated suicide at least once a month.
It’s hard to imagine an attorney being able to do her job — to zealously and competently represent her clients — when she’s looking to the bottom of her vodka and gin for the answers to her problems, contemplating suicide, suffering from depression, or simply overwhelmed with anxiety. Which is to say, focusing on self-care and wellness isn’t being selfish. It’s necessary.
When we suffer from a physical illness or injury, for example, a stroke or cancer, there’s no stigma against seeking help or practicing self-care. However, if you’re suffering from mental illness or substance abuse, the perception seems to be buck up, tough it out, or drink/medicate your problems away. Better yet, just shut up and quit complaining about it.
Secure your own oxygen mask before helping others.
– International Civil Aviation Organization, Pre-Flight Safety Demonstration
Self-care and wellness are not mutually exclusive to being an excellent attorney. It’s actually complementary. You cannot have one without the other. As the rule states, we have a duty to take care of our mental, physical, and emotional health so that we can be competent attorneys.
So, go ahead. Practice taking excellent care of yourself so that you can be of better service to your clients. Just like excelling at law takes practice, self-care requires practice too. It’s not something you can do once and check off your list. It requires consistent effort and dedication.
For me, practicing daily mindfulness and meditation is the cornerstone of self-care and wellness. After all, if you aren’t paying attention to yourself and the world around you mindfully, how do you know what adjustments or changes you need to make? Without mindfulness, how do you recognize when you need to pivot, push harder, or back away? How do you find the balance between caring about your clients and caring about yourself, your family, your friends?
If mindfulness or meditation isn’t your thing, that’s great too! There are many different ways to practice self-care. Go for a walk, call someone you love, read a good novel, get more sleep, floss, and eat your broccoli.
This article first appeared on Above the Law.