One of my college friends started her graduate program for social work the same week I began law school. At the end of our first week, we compared notes. She enthusiastically talked about an entire day that was spent focusing on and discussing a self care program. Representatives from the college counseling center talked about the importance of caring for themselves if they were going to help others. The future social workers learned about the benefits of meditation as well as the need for exercise, proper nutrition and taking time for themselves.
I wondered why my first week of law school had not included professional self-care. I had a few ideas. Maybe it was because I would only be arguing motions and writing briefs in my career, not really exposed to the emotional or traumatic events which caused my clients to need my assistance. Perhaps being a lawyer was just a job, and my work would not impact me outside the office in a way that necessitated self-care.
Many years later, I can definitely say that both my theories about the legal career and its emotional impact on attorneys were totally wrong. First, lawyers are not just working on administrative tasks—we are very much exposed to the trauma our clients have experienced. Maybe our exposure is different than those experienced by other helping professions, such as emergency responders, but it is there. For example, some lawyers work with witnesses of violent crimes while others assist victims of domestic violence. Early in my career, I had to directly examine a 20 year-old who had walked in on her dad’s attempt to hang himself. During her testimony, she kept sobbing that “Why am I not enough to live for?” It is impossible to not be emotionally impacted by experiences like these, and I thought about that daughter for weeks after the trial.
Second, it is clear that our work as attorneys impacts us outside the office. Being a lawyer is not just a 9-5 job. A study funded by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, in the February 2016 Journal of Addiction Medicine confirms this. The study reports that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. The study found that younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice were more likely to be included in these categories.
The stakes are high if we do not care for ourselves. We can develop conditions such as compassion fatigue, secondary trauma stress and burnout. Symptoms of these conditions vary but frequently include anxiety, feelings of isolation, irritability, sleep disturbance, intrusive thoughts and apathy. Physical symptoms may include increased heart rate, shortness of breath, headaches and muscle tension. In some cases, these symptoms will become too much and our colleagues will leave the profession, something unfortunate considering the time and money we invest in our legal educations. Our work impacts others besides us. Our personal relationships can be affected whether friendships, spouses or children.
With so much on the line, why don’t we, as attorneys, take the time to care for ourselves? One excuse I have heard is that “I just do not have time.” Time spent meditating or exercising is time away from work or many of life’s other demands such as our family or community obligations. Also, others have said that their needs do not need to come first, that they can “snap out” of being in a funk. They simply do not need to focus on themselves. It reminds me of when I was recently flying home. I heard the familiar announcement that came over the speaker before the flight took off: “In case of emergency, air masks will drop. If you are traveling with small children, please make sure your mask is fastened before assisting minors.” Thinking about this announcement further, I realized there are many times in our lives when we “fasten the air masks” of others, our clients, before our own.
When Should Law Students Focus on a Self Care Program
While attorneys can learn about self-care during continuing education seminars, why not start earlier? Law school is the ideal place. The American Bar Association has been emphasizing experiential learning through law school clinics and externships. During these experiences, as well as employment, students may be introduced to traumatic experiences. Self-care can be incorporated into the experiential curriculum.
Additionally, most law schools have resources that students can utilize for a self care program. Many universities have on-site counseling centers with mental health professionals available to work with students. For law schools located in Illinois, the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program (LAP) is a tremendous free and confidential resource for law students with on-site counseling sessions and support groups. The earlier future lawyers are exposed to self-care training, the more it can help reduce stress, particularly during preparation for and taking of the bar examinations.
NIU’s Self Care Program for Law Students
Northern Illinois University (NIU) College of Law, where I teach, is helping students with self-care during their law school careers in a variety of ways. First, during Spring 2015 semester, “The Mindful Lawyer” was offered for the first time. The course, per its course description, “introduces students to mindfulness and explores how mindfulness can aid many essential lawyering skills such as interviewing, empathy, ethical decision making, conflict resolution, and civility…It also examines how mindfulness is a tool that can assist with stress management and life-work balance.” The course is being offered again this year
Second, the Lawyers’ Assistance Program conducts on-campus hours at the law school to meet with students who want to discuss mental health issues in a confidential setting. The NIU Psychological Services Center is also available to law students.
Third, “breakfast clubs” are hosted at the law school to encourage conversation on relevant topics impacting lawyers. This fall, a session was devoted to stress management and self-care. I spoke along with the Chicago Bar Association Committee on Mindfulness Chair and another NIU professor who practices heartfulness meditation. Students brainstormed different strategies for helping them with stress and asked a variety of questions of the speakers.
Fourth, our clinical programs are incorporating self-care. I direct the NIU Health Advocacy Clinic, a medical-legal partnership which is located in Aurora at Hesed House, the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois. Many of our clients, who include single parents, veterans and children, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Our students have experienced tragedy while at the clinic. We have had clients die. I learned early-on that professional self-care needed to be included in the curriculum for my students to not get emotionally overwhelmed. This is done through reflections, education on trauma, and working on self-care plans. The students have been exposed to the benefits of meditation, and we brainstorm habits for long-term lawyering. Students are asked to identify what activities bring them joy when stressed, something that does not easily come to all of them. They leave the clinic with tools to help them handle the emotional challenges that may arise throughout their careers.
It is imperative that our profession start to acknowledge the emotional impact of being a lawyer. We can learn from other professions that already incorporate self-care into their training. Hopefully future lawyers will be able to tell their social work friends that they also heard about self-care during their first week of classes!