A dear non-lawyer friend of mine recently gave me a joke book about lawyers.1 If you’re like me you have received such a gift before and you smile, nod your head, chuckle at the gesture, and relegate the book to being a bathroom staple until your conscience allows you to throw it away.
Inside you are thinking “Really? Changing lawyers is like changing decks on the Titanic? I hate this kind of tripe.” After all, I belong to an ancient and honorable profession. The profession of Abraham Lincoln, Thurgood Marshall, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mahatma Gandhi, and somebody’s cousin named Vinnie. People who know less of Shakespeare than they think delight in invoking him by saying “first kill all the lawyers,” when, in actuality, the Bard’s point was that if a tyrant wants to avoid challenge or accountability, getting rid of the lawyers would be a useful strategy—making that line a shout out from the Bard himself.
Nevertheless, right now we seem to be in a historical cycle when lawyers are not generally held in high esteem, and frankly, this irritates the daylights out of me for two reasons:
1. It is undeserved. For centuries lawyers have been the champions of the liberties that protect us all, including the depraved, the guilty and the wrongfully accused. What began as the moral code of biblical times has evolved into the property issues of a post-Imperial Europe, the contracts between individuals with newfound freedoms and the protection of individuals from wrongful acts. I need not remind this audience that our good work has resulted in safer workplaces, justice for marginalized populations, cleaner food and water, and safer products for our families. Lawyers have been, and continue to be, progressives in social change.
2. This negative perception of lawyers is damaging my profession and frankly my friends and colleagues. Studies show that lawyers, when being held in public low esteem often react by holding themselves in private low esteem. And lets face it: we belong to a profession that asks people to bring us their problems, and not the easy ones at that. A typical client is often unhappy about having the problem and unhappy about having to pay a lawyer to take care of the problem. We are trained to focus on logic and set aside emotion, which may be good for detached examination of a legal issue, but it is probably not the best method for dealing with personal stress. The results are both tragic and predictable. Death by suicide among lawyers is six times that of the general population. If you don’t know of a colleague who has wrestled with substance abuse or depression, you are either in denial or a tax lawyer.2
I reached out to Loretta Oleksy, attorney and clinical case manager at the Indiana Judges & Lawyers Assistance Program (JLAP) and she captured my attention right away by noting that our adversarial system adds a dimension not found in many other professions. Let’s face it, a surgeon may be under stress while operating on a patient, but there isn’t an equally skilled surgeon in the operating room trying to kill the patient at the same time.
Loretta noted to me that JLAP certainly helps practitioners with substance abuse and depression issues but it also helps sufferers of compassion fatigue: the cumulative physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion that results from emotionally demanding work situations. Common signs of compassion fatigue include sleep disruption, feeling overwhelmed, increased anxiety and too often adopting clients’ stress as your stress.
So now I know. In the Land of Compassion Fatigue, I am their undoubted Queen.
The good news is that Loretta also gave me some marching orders—compassion fatigue is preventable and certainly treatable:
Sleep. Really. Seven to nine hours a night.
Follow a regular exercise regimen. It’s spring. Take a walk at lunch! Hint: Exercise helps you sleep better too.
Set boundaries. We rarely do our best work at 11 p.m.
Unplug. I know this is increasingly difficult but stop sending the message that you are ALWAYS reachable. You don’t have to be.
Laugh. It is the best medicine.
Good nutrition is key but don’t go crazy. Never completely eliminate chocolate if it can be avoided because, in my opinion, it is the source of all things good.
Finally, remember, JLAP is here to help and support judges, lawyers, and law students who are dealing with all issues that affect our quality of life and/or our ability to practice law. All contact is completely confidential.
And about the lawyer jokes? I remain annoyed on behalf of the profession that brought you the mythical Denny Crane, who would undoubtedly say: “If you think lawyer jokes are funny, next time you’re in a jam, call a comedian.”•