During the course of the COVID-19 lockdown, I have spoken to many lawyers of all levels about how they are managing through this time. And regardless of whether they are at a top tier firm, a boutique firm or in house, and regardless of their seniority, one of the key points that frequently comes up is their individual wellbeing and how they are managing through this time.
And what I have come to realise after so many conversations, is that if you are a lawyer who is feeling anxious, uncertain, unproductive, or just not “good enough” the overwhelming response is that you are not alone.
Common scenarios I have come across involve lawyers who:
- are without jobs (including new graduates) and are feeling anxious and worried about being able to find a new role, and wondering how long it will take;
- are employed, but feeling like their productivity is not what it used to be and that their best is no longer good enough;
- are experiencing slowing workflow, and feeling frequent anxiety about future job security;
- are trying to facilitate their children’s learning from home whilst practising as a full-time lawyer and feeling like neither role is being done well, whilst the fatigue of trying to do both sets in.
And in the meantime, we are reading about several law firms cutting salaries, implementing part-time working arrangements and in some cases, standing staff down.
All of these feelings of fear and anxiety are completely justified.
There are many negative stories being shared in the news and social media. We are in an unprecedented situation where many of us feel that we have, to some degree, lost control of our destinies.
So what can lawyers who are experiencing these uncomfortable feelings do about this?
(1) Let go of what you cannot control and focus on what you can control
People who have read Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” would be familiar with the notions of the “circle of influence” vs the “circle of concern”. If we apply this principle to the COVID-19 situation, things in our circle of influence include:
- how well we look after ourselves;
- how kind we are to ourselves;
- how hard we work; and
- our goals.
Things in our circle of concern would include:
- our job security;
- whether a vaccine is found for COVID-19; and
- what other people think of us.
By taking our focus off things in our circle of concern and only focusing on the things in our circle of influence, we regain some of that lost control and can refocus on our productivity.
(2) Be mindful of your thoughts; and know you are free to choose your reactions
We also need to be mindful of our thoughts and to recognise that we can choose our reaction to these experiences, no matter how difficult they are. Viktor Frankl’s memoir “Man’s Search for Meaning” which chronicles his experience in Auschwitz illustrates this perfectly. He concluded that those who survived this experience did so because they were able to find meaning in their lives despite their suffering.
One of his famous quotes is:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
We may feel powerless due to situations beyond our control, but as Victor Frankl demonstrated, no matter what happens, we always have the power to choose our attitude.
(3) Practise self-compassion
Most people are able to find compassion for others but yet are not so kind to themselves. Those in the legal profession might be more likely to exhibit perfectionistic tendencies which can be exacerbated by an overactive inner critic which becomes louder during times of stress. So if, for example, you are the parent who is judging yourself harshly for not being as productive as usual and getting frustrated with trying to help your children learn from home, let yourself off the hook. Think about how you would advise your best friend during this time and then take your own advice
If you feel like you aren’t able to do this, then take some time (if you do actually have some time) to take a look at Kristen Neff’s website: www.selfcompassion.org. Kristen is a pioneer in self-compassion research and has a number of books and tools to help you change the way you judge and treat yourself.
(4) Reach out to others
During social isolation, it is a critically important time to feel connected to others. And those connections shouldn’t be limited to friends and family. Connect with your co-workers, your neighbours and people you do business with. Don’t be afraid to ask how they are – how they really are. Chances are that their experience is not dissimilar to yours.
(5) Look after yourself
This may be obvious – but taking time to eat well, exercise moderately and take time for yourself are also important components to your wellbeing. Make time to do something you enjoy every day if you can. Even if it is just a 10-minute walk around the block, a brief mediation session or reading a chapter of an engaging novel.
If you feel that this situation is negatively affecting your mental health, do not hesitate to seek help from a professional. Many firms and organisations also have Employee Assistance Programs, which allow you a number of free sessions with a psychologist.
Ultimately, I believe that the discomfort that many of us are experiencing during COVID 19 is actually an invitation to engage in personal growth. And if that invitation is accepted, then the positive benefits of this growth and improved self-awareness will benefit you in your profession and your life for years to come.