Looking for a new practice in 2020? Try using the word “and”

This post is authored by Jessica Chinnadurai. Jessica is a recently-licensed attorney who graduated from the University of Missouri School of Law in 2018. She currently works at the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, D.C., where creativity and work-life balance are valued every day. Her hope is to increase transparency around mental health issues in the legal profession, and to spread light to those fighting battles no one can see. You can connect with Jessica on LinkedIn.

Last January, in a moment of utter desperation, I found myself pacing my apartment in a new city I’d moved to for a job that hadn’t yet started and seemed unlikely to ever start. At some point, I found myself standing in front of my tall black bookshelf in my living room.

On it were pictures of friends and family, knickknacks from my travels across the world, and souvenirs and other gifts loved ones had given me. I’d organized my books on the shelves by topic and one section was dedicated to “self-help,” including a book titled “Lonely” written by a former lawyer named Emily White and my eye-opening guide on the explanation of adult attachment styles, called “Attached.” Also on the shelf was a book I bought in 2017, still completely untouched, which my first therapist at the University of Missouri recommended to me. It was called “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” by Mark Williams, a renowned scholar of the practice of mindfulness.

I decided to crack it open. I hadn’t been planning anything special to start off my year. So of course my life forever changed from that moment onward.

While unemployed and desperately searching, or perhaps waiting, for the right opportunity after law school, I had plenty of spare time on my hands. It took a conscious choice on my end to turn that idle time into productive time. I wanted to be sure I could recognize and appreciate the difference between being productive, or what I like to think of as “busy with a purpose,” rather than just being busy for the sake of being busy. The latter is not healthy for my introverted personality type and arguably not for anyone. It seems to be counterproductive and detrimental to our health when we try to do things that ignore our human need to periodically sit in stillness or silence. To just be.

That’s exactly what the eight-week mindfulness program taught me to do. Just sit with my thoughts and emotions, my bodily reactions to both, and not place a judgment on or try to change what I am thinking about or the way I am feeling in any given moment. One of the most powerful metaphors in the book and corresponding sound recordings (that I easily found on Spotify) was that of watching my thoughts pass by me like clouds in a beautiful blue sky. Sometimes they may feel more like a train on the ground, rumbling by and literally shaking the ground on which I stand. Other days, they are undoubtedly more peaceful and easier to witness. But that’s just life:

“Even if your life is 80% sunshine and 20% storm, it is so easy to let that 20% be the weather. Do your best to keep it in perspective. Think about what you’re grateful for – everything that makes the bigger, brighter part of your life bigger and brighter. Be thankful. Keep moving.” – Maggie Smith, poet

What I’ve learned in the past several months, with a new therapist in a new city where I finally landed a job I love six months ago, is that when the storm inevitably comes, it’s possible to feel both grateful and upset. We can still acknowledge our general feelings of gratitude for life and acknowledge or accept that we also feel sad, frustrated, or angry about other aspects of or situations in our lives. The “and practice” is a new one that I look forward to integrating with my mindfulness practice in 2020. . .and beyond.

I strongly believe most lawyers are wordsmiths and yet so few probably see the beauty of this simple three-lettered word:

“The word can represent – and perhaps encourage – such mental adaptations as acknowledging and empathizing with other peoples’ viewpoints, more fully appreciating our own emotional states, and allowing ourselves to move in new directions.”

“Embracing the word ‘and’ is about cultivating openness, seeing nuance, and acknowledging possibility. . .We can accept our past and also commit to creating ourselves anew each day.” – Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D, therapist

We rarely see coming or plan the moments when our perspective or circumstance changes for us in the way we’ve always hoped or wanted, leading to lesser anxiety and maybe even inner peace. And most of the time, the “answer(s)” have been in front of us for a while, given to us many years prior via a passing recommendation but one our mind either couldn’t or wasn’t open to receiving at that time. But that’s okay, too.

You’ll be ready when you’re ready.

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who we recently honored on January 20th, “The time is always right to do what is right.” And in the world of mental health, for the most part, you get to determine when and what is “right” for you.

Amending Bar Character and Fitness Questions to Promote Lawyer Well-Being

Authors David Jaffe and Janet Stearns will soon publish an article in The Professional Lawyer, the ABA Center for Professional’s Responsibility periodical on Ethics and Professionalism, detailing the process and progress among various states in modifying or eliminating questions that address an applicant’s substance use and mental health disorders on Character and Fitness portions of bar admission applications. Read the article here.

2020 National Conference for Lawyer Assistance Programs Calls for Program and Speaker Proposals

The American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs seeks program/topic and speaker proposals for its 2020 National Conference for Lawyer Assistance Programs, to be held in Springfield, MA, October 20-22, 2020, at the Tower Square Hotel.

The Conference is attended by hundreds of staff and volunteer professionals of state, local, and international lawyer assistance programs, lawyers, clinicians, treatment providers, judges, law school deans, professional services administrators, law students, regulators, and representatives of legal employers. Proposed sessions can cover a wide-range of topics related to the mental health and well-being of the legal profession, but generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • Basic skills for treating Alcohol Use Disorders, Substance Use Disorders, and Process Addictions
  • Screening, Evaluating, Diagnosing, and Referring Individuals to Appropriate Level of Care or Triaging Individuals in Crisis
  • Nuts and Bolts of Lawyer Assistance Programs (Organization, Marketing and Outreach, Volunteer Programs, Governing Law, etc.)
  • Relationship Between LAPs and Regulatory Entities

Hot topics to consider proposing this year include:

  • Aging Lawyers & Cognitive Decline
  • Impacts of Implementation of the ABA Well-Being Pledge for Legal Employers
  • Lawyer Well-Being
  • Best Practices and Protocols: When & How to Integrate and Differing Perspectives

This list of topics is intended as guidance, and is not exhaustive. Please submit a proposal on any topic that might prove interesting to conference attendees.

You can find more instructions and guidelines here, as well as a link to submit your proposal. If you have any questions, please contact Sharon O’Connell at sharon.oconnell@americanbar.org. Submissions are due Friday, January 31, 2020.

Call for Programs and Speakers Proposal

The Attorney Well-Being Committee of the ABA Law Practice Division is seeking webinar proposals for its inaugural Lawyer Well-Being Week, May 4-8, 2020. The five areas of focus for the webinars are:

  • Stay Strong (physical well-being)
  • Align (spiritual well-being)
  • Engage and Grow (occupational/intellectual well-being)
  • Connect (social well-being)
  • Feel Well (emotional well-being)

Webinars that are selected will be offered to ABA membership and marketed to numerous state, local, and private bar organizations.

The deadline for submissions is December 13, 2019. You can submit your proposal here.

NY State Bar Association House of Delegates Adopts Report Recommending Removal of Mental Health Questions from Bar Application

The New York State Bar Association’s House of Delegates has adopted a report from the Association’s Working Group on Attorney Mental Health, recommending that all mental health questions be removed from the bar application.  The Working Group found that questions related to mental disability are “unnecessary,” and should be eliminated.

Earlier this year, the Conference of Chief Justices passed a resolution calling on state bar admission authorities to eliminate questions about mental health history from bar applications. The Administrative Board of the Courts in New York will now review the NY State Bar Association’s recommendations in the coming months. If New York removes these questions, it would join California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Virginia, and Washington in a growing list of jurisdictions that prohibit mental health questions on bar applications.

You can read the full report of the New York State Bar Association’s Working Group on Attorney Mental Health here.

National Survey of Judges released at the 2019 ABA CoLAP National Conference for Lawyer Assistance Programs

Since the release of “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” LAPs, ABA entities and other interested individuals and organizations have worked at warp speed. One recommendation, a national survey of judges, has been in the works for over a year.  While we all know judges experience stress, limited data was available that identified the most significant sources of stress and their impact. “CoLAP’s National Judicial Stress and Resilience Survey: The Results Are In,” a plenary session at the annual ABA CoLAP Conference in Austin, released data for the first time that begins to tell this story.

Judges were introduced to the survey with this purpose: “This survey is designed to describe the experiences of US judges related to judicial stress and resiliency. It will identify general and unique sources of stress by judicial setting and the impact of stress on aspects of well-being. The survey will also identify how coping mechanisms, including resiliency practices, are employed to deal with stress. The results will help clarify areas for support and services, implications for stress management and resiliency skills, and serve as context for considering changes in early professional development and continuing education.”

Among the top sources of stress for judges were the impact of decisions, a heavy docket of cases, unprepared attorneys and self-represented litigants.  Nearly half of the judges identified exposure to trauma and horrific facts as a significant factor.  Effects include fatigue, distraction, negative and intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and health issues.  The good news is that many judges are engaged in efforts that benefit their overall health.  Individual connection and support were also important resilience factors.

Members of the ABA CoLAP Judicial Assistance Committee and others are synthesizing the results and preparing a written report which will provide greater detail and offer recommendations.   Read the preliminary report here.

ABA Law Student Division Launches Mental Health Awareness T-Shirt Design Contest

The ABA observes Mental Health Awareness Month each October, as well as World Mental Health Day and Law School Mental Health Day on October 10. Law students know firsthand the struggles of those affected by mental health issues, and the ABA Law Student Division and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs are committed to increasing awareness, national participation, and funding for mental health and well-being in all aspects of the profession.

To that end, the ABA Law Student Division has announced its Mental Health Awareness T-Shirt Design contest. Students at ABA-accredited law schools can submit their design for an official ABA mental health t-shirt by November 30, 2019. The winning design will be selected and printed on to t-shirts, and proceeds from the sales of those shirts will benefit the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP)!

You can find more information about the contest, including contest rules, here.