By Robin M. Wolpert
Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board
As I travel around the country, speaking about well-being, the question that inevitably comes up is this: “I am learning a lot about well-being and I am working on being healthier. But there is only so much I can do. My organization, colleagues, and clients expect me to do things and meet deadlines that simply do not allow me to consistently live a healthier life. I am often stressed and anxious. I do not have time to work out or sleep enough. What do I do?”
To be a good lawyer, you have to be a healthy lawyer. The legal profession, however, is the most hazardous of all professions to our health. In 2017, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being issued a call to action, asking us to step forward and transform our profession. The task force declared that we could create a thriving legal profession through cultural change. One of the most important messages from the task force report is that no one person can do this alone. The profession must act. All stakeholders must act. This article focuses on the role of “we” in creating well-being for ourselves and others.
The opening question is based on several unstated, but widely shared experiences, as a lawyer. These experiences include (1) I have little or no say in my work schedule, which is driven by others’ needs, and (2) I am all alone here in creating my own well-being. For the person asking this question, it does not matter that the Task Force Report outlines strategies and action plans for organizations and stakeholders because we are in the process of doing that work. We have not yet created a thriving, healthy legal profession and culture. We are in transition. We are at the foot of the mountain, or maybe one ledge up. The mountain is high. And there is pain right now.
In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey asserts that the way we see a problem is the problem. Similarly, in “The Three Laws of Performance,” Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan declare that how people perform correlates to how situations occur to them. “Occur” means the reality that arises within and from your perspective on a situation. The authors explain that there is a significant difference between the objective facts of the matter and the way those facts occur to each of us. Our actions relate to how the world occurs to us, not to the way that it actually is.
The opening question is based, in part, on the view that I have little or no say in my work schedule, which is driven by others’ needs. Covey calls this “environmental determinism,” and urges us to consider another way of viewing the situation. Covey describes the story of Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Jew imprisoned in the death camps of Nazi Germany. One day, naked and alone in the death camp, Frankl became aware of what he later called “the last of human freedoms,” a freedom that could not be taken away by his captors. Even though they could control his entire environment and even his body, they could not take away his freedom or power to choose his response to what they did to him.
According to Covey, a fundamental principal about the nature of man is that “between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.” Covey urges us to follow this fundamental principle and develop the habit of proactivity. Proactivity, says Covey, means to take responsibility for our own lives, choose our response, and make things happen. Instead of behaving based on our feelings and environment, we have the freedom to choose. Of course, the habit of proactivity does not answer the opening question—but perhaps it gives us another way of thinking about the question that provides openings for action.
The opening question is also based, in part, on the view that I am alone in creating my well-being. I ask you to try on the idea that the way things occur to us is that everyone can take care of themselves, and should take care of themselves, and the well-being of others is not our responsibility. I am not saying this is true, I am asking you to consider it. In the context of this belief system, the opening question has no satisfying answer—at least not right now, the way things are. That’s because I am in a zero-sum game. I am trying to win for me and I am not responsible for others.
But what if I choose a different way to think about this issue? Suppose I am committed to something bigger than me, to the well-being of the profession. This means that if someone in my group fails, I fail too. Leaving others behind means I lose. I am responsible for others, not as a burden, but because the group is a source of my own success. The group creates power beyond itself resulting in performance, even peak performance, beyond the capacity of the individual. For those of you who have been fortunate enough to work on fantastic teams, you know exactly what I mean. In this context, the opening question seems answerable. The question itself could disappear if everyone in the group is playing for everyone to win, where no one gets left behind.
I began this conversation with the quotation from Albert Einstein because the opening question appears irresolvable as we raise awareness about well-being and begin to build the future envisioned in the National Task Force Report. The question itself speaks to the pain our lawyers are experiencing right now from stress, anxiety, chemical dependency, and mental health challenges. In this period of transition, we seem to be in a trap. We know more about how to enhance our well-being, but we have not yet created the environment around us to support that change. How to we reconstitute our environment to help us? Perhaps the way out of the trap is to consider that it is our way of seeing things that gets in the way of taking action to enhance our well-being and those of others.
Robin M. Wolpert is the chair of the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board.