One of the ways that I describe the work I do is “professional and personal coaching for lawyers.” Although I occasionally do what amounts to life coaching for someone who happens to be a lawyer, my passion lies in helping lawyers develop their professional lives, which often relates in some way to their personal lives. We are, after all, people first and lawyers second.
Sometimes, the relationship between the professional and personal sides of life becomes blurred. That may be a work/life balance issue that calls for reflection on the degree, if any, to which the lawyer wants to separate the two.
But sometimes, a lawyer will experience a personal problem that he can’t keep entirely separate from his professional life. Serious illness is one example, though the challenge there tends to come when the actual crisis is over, when recovery begins. My take on that situation is rather clear: do whatever is necessary to ensure your reclaimed health, no matter what professional consequences may follow, but conduct your affairs so that your clients don’t suffer.
Then there are the personal circumstances that don’t have the potential for personal life-or-death consequences. Examples are a family member’s prolonged illness or death, or facing the prospect or reality of divorce. Although most of us are practiced at putting on the “game face” and getting on with work, events of this magnitude may make it difficult or impossible to manage that. Each person is, of course, different, and no solution will fit everyone. Here, however, are some ideas of coping mechanisms.
Support. Get the support you need, whether that’s counseling, a support group, a coach, or some blend of the three. Asking for help may not come naturally, but it can help you avoid mental or emotional tunnel vision and help you identify your best options.
Consider whether to share your news. Depending on the situation, you may need to let a colleague or supervisor at your firm know what’s going on. There’s no need to share details, but especially if you suspect that there will be an actual conflict between your professional responsibilities and your personal ones, it’s often best to let someone else know.
Practice centering exercises. Whether it’s meditation, yoga, or just deep breathing, physical activities can help you center yourself so you are better prepared to deal with work while you’re working and less likely to be pulled away mentally or emotionally by whatever is causing you distress. This can be as simple as sitting in silence for 3-4 minutes and paying attention to your breath, gently releasing any thoughts that may come up. The beauty of a practice this simple, of course, is that you can revisit it at any moment, without even letting others know you’re doing it.
Excellent self-care. Get enough sleep. Eat real, healthy food. Don’t drink too much alcohol. Keep your body well-hydrated. When you’re under severe stress, it’s easy to let this go, but the extra effort will serve you well.
Be realistic. You may need to cut back on your hours, take a “vacation,” or even take a leave of absence. Or you may not. Just don’t try to be a hero. A realistic appraisal of your energy will keep you from taking on too much, causing yourself to crash and burn.
Reflect. Journal writing can be a terrific tool for working through difficult issues.
Manage your energy. Take advantage of the days when you have sufficient energy to work hard. Although you can take steps to keep your energy as high as possible (the other steps suggested here, for instance), it’s a reasonably safe bet that your energy will lag at some point, and you’ll be able to work with that rhythm if you maximize your output when you can.
Remember that this, too, will pass. It’s a trite saying that may not offer much comfort in the moments of deepest pain, but the difficult times will not last forever.
Julie A. Fleming, J.D., A.C.C. has coached countless lawyers, has practiced law for over 15 years, speaks for bar associations and law firms, and publishes a weekly email newsletter.