Washington Lawyer - January 2018 - 19
FEELING BURNED OUT?
IT'S OK TO SEEK HELP
t was early in her career when SP* realized that something was
not quite right. She felt that she had taken all the right steps -
graduating from Harvard Law School and moving to a boutique
law firm in the District of Columbia - but she still felt discord in
the direction of her career and life.
"In my first two years of practicing, I felt such a sense of resignation
toward my work," SP says. "I found myself daydreaming of working
in other professions, so much so that I was buying GMAT prep books
and considering going back to school."
Paired with the intense workloads and long hours, SP felt like she had
missed something crucial, and questioned her choices that led her to
become a lawyer in the first place.
"I left law school and felt like the 500 other people who graduated
with me had a five-year plan for taking over the world and I didn't,"
SP recalls. "It seemed kind of ludicrous: Who graduates from Harvard
Law and feels like a failure?"
The solution came by way of a work-life balance lecture by a local
clinical psychologist. SP later met with the doctor, where she
learned about psychoanalysis. As a result, SP has been taking part
in intensive sessions multiple times a week for the past decade,
and credits the treatment for helping her to navigate and work
through complex issues, which has greatly improved her outlook
on her law career.
Why? Because to be a successful lawyer, you have to work hard, use your brain
intellectually, and function at a high level. That generates a strong sense of ego
that gets in the way of asking for help. And worse, lawyers are taught, beginning in law school, to separate their heart from their mind. That gets people
"Lawyers don't often see when they are not doing well. They need to believe
that they don't need any help and they've got all this covered," Perme says.
"Weakness is not something you want to admit to, being a lawyer, and they
see needing help as being weak."
John* was just finishing law school when he ran into life challenges. He didn't
have a job yet and found out his on-again-off-again girlfriend was pregnant.
He knew something was wrong when he realized that what should have been
happy times - realizing a lifelong dream of becoming a lawyer, getting
married, and becoming a father - were making him feel trapped.
"It was a level of helplessness," John recalls. "I could describe it as kind of like
an abyss, a place I never wanted to be. I felt crazy from everything. Growing
up in the city, I had seen a lot and been through a lot. But that particular point
in my life, I had never been in a place that felt like an abyss. There was no way
up, there was no bottom. At least when you get to the bottom, you're like, all
right it's a bottom. I didn't feel like there was a bottom. I just felt trapped in
the situation I was in."
By Jeffery Leon
"I feel much more joy about being a lawyer," SP says. "Therapy has
benefitted me by providing a quiet space, which is non-adversarial
and noncompetitive, which values articulation, specificity, nuance,
and duality. It allows you to process conflicting ideas and motivates
you take them on subconsciously, and gives you the chance to
evaluate and possibly discard them."
Niki Irish, a senior counselor and licensed independent clinical social
worker with the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), credits
attorneys like SP for taking steps to improve their mental well-being.
Irish notes that chronic stress, depression, and anxiety are pervasive
issues for lawyers and are among the most prevalent among clients
who have sought the help of the LAP.
"Lawyers should be aware of this because they are at greater risk than
the general population," Irish says. "Burnout and stress is progressive.
We often don't notice it until we're in the midst of it, and the earlier
you can address these issues, the better."
The LAP often serves as the first stop for D.C. Bar members seeking
help for mental health, substance abuse, and well-being issues, providing them assistance, counseling, training, and referrals in an
accepting and strictly confidential environment. Irish says attorneys
should contact the LAP at the earliest signs of burnout, which include
feelings of irritability, avoidance, social withdrawal, as well as physical
changes such as headaches and disrupted sleep habits.
"If you seek help, it will get better," Irish says.
Working with an LAP counselor, John developed a game plan for working
through his situation. The counselor gave him tools to cope with his thoughts
and the narrative in his head, and taught him to embrace his feelings and to
establish better boundaries.
"It was very humbling," John recalls. "Because as a lawyer, you're successful
and you just think of yourself in this mighty way as exceptional. You couldn't
have told me that I was not the strongest individual. I was very arrogant, just
because of what I had accomplished."
Bobbie* started going to counseling while she was in law school in D.C.
Already suffering from anxiety, a death in her family pushed her over the
edge. The shock drove the anxiety into other areas of her life.
"Going to class became really difficult and being in social situations became
really difficult, and then everything became really difficult. It started with one
really bad event that kind of snowballed because I was in law school at the
time," Bobbie says.
Now years later, Bobbie is the executive director of a nonprofit she
founded and attends counseling sessions provided by the LAP. She's
contemplating a career move and is getting life coaching from an LAP
counselor who helps her by breaking down big challenges into doable
and practical tasks.
JANUARY 2018 19