Contributed by Holly R. Jensen, Esq.
I’m that woman - you know, the one you love to hate. And the reasons why you love me are also the very reasons you hate me: I’m driven, focused, smart, and determined. I have accomplished a great deal in life due to my ability to work harder and longer than most others, and by all measures, I’ve enjoyed much professional success.
But that success came at a cost, and I did not understand that my methods were a recipe for physical and emotional disaster until it was almost too late. I have worked through several periods of extreme burnout in my 22-year law career. I kept telling myself that it was OK, that everyone goes through this, and if I just kept showing up, it would eventually go away. And it did, or so I thought.
Unbeknownst to me, my body was hanging on to all that stress and burnout, even while I convinced myself I was fine. And in one fell swoop, my body revolted. I mean, I crashed and burned HARD. I developed several really awful autoimmune diseases that made it impossible for me to sit at my desk, made it impossible for me to focus, made it impossible for me to carry out even basic daily functions. I descended into depression coupled with an impenetrable brain fog as my body marshaled its resources to fight itself. Many days I could not even string a sentence together coherently - the words just would not come. It felt like a civil war was being waged under my surface, and my brain was off floating around somewhere, completely disconnected from the work we were supposed to be doing.
At my core, I felt like I was on the brink of a monumental mistake. I didn’t know what form it would take - maybe I’d get in a car wreck, maybe I’d misstep and injure myself, but more likely, it felt like I was going to make an irretrievable mistake on a client file and lose my law license. Now I’d added a healthy dose of fear to the rest of the stress swirling around in my body. And I lost faith in what has always been my greatest weapon and ally - my brain.
So I decided to stop. Just stop. I needed to get off the merry-go-round and heal myself if at all possible, and the only way to do it was to shut off the stress spigot. I wasn’t doing any good to anyone by going through life at 15% max power. But how to do it? Now that was the question.
The answer was simple - I had to relinquish control. Oof. For a long time, I tried to come up with a plan to get better while keeping control, but each variation of those thoughts kept me in the chair, kept me at my desk, and kept me an indentured servant to everyone else=s emergencies. I needed to pay attention to my own emergency, so I finally embraced the idea that the control was the thing that needed to go.
I’m not gonna lie - it took me 3 years to pull the trigger. Not for lack of trying - it just takes a long time to implement a year off when you’re a solo practitioner. I needed my firm to survive so that my staff and I could all keep earning a living, but if I shuttered for a year, that wouldn’t happen. I made the decision to hire another attorney and speed-train them to take over for me. That ended up being a three-year process, mostly because the first attorney I hired only lasted a year, which set me back a bit. I was already soooooo done when I had to start over with training another new attorney. That was the point at which I almost cracked for real.
I got sick in 2013. I barely remember that year. I came back to life somewhat by 2014, and by 2015 had decided on this radical change. I took my sabbatical in 2019. Like most things I do, I approached the sabbatical with ridiculous focus and a list of Ame projects@ that I wanted to accomplish. So much for my original idea of doing nothing for a year! I should have known better than to expect I could turn off the routine of going to work every day, and make that full mental shift between me clocking out at 5pm on 12/31/18 and waking up at 8am on 1/1/19. I laugh now that I gave myself a whole 15 hours to adjust. Needless to say, it took a bit longer than that.
Here’s what my sabbatical taught me:
1) It takes a long time to undo the physical damage that stress does to the body and brain.
2) I never want to sit at a desk and computer full-time again.
3) I have some artistic talent I never really embraced or explored before.
4) It took about 4 months to become disconnected from the calendar to the point where I stopped knowing what day it was.
5) It took about a week to start waking up later.
6) It took about 3 months to start going to bed later.
7) I napped almost every day for the first 6 months.
8) Hot flashes will f**k up your sleep whether you’re working or not.
9) My instincts were right and I should trust them more.
10) The time I was able to spend with my elderly parents during the twilight of their lives can never be taken away from me.
I’m still that same driven, focused person. But I had to adopt a mind shift that said I was worthy of all that drive and all that focus - that it was okay to direct all of it inward and to engage in radical self-care. In the final analysis, that’s the biggest lesson of my sabbatical – it’s OK to unplug, it’s OK to indulge, and it’s OK to be kind to myself and forgive myself for many past actions that I now view as missteps. I am so happy to have the greater clarity that a wider perspective brings. My focus was so narrow that I was missing the forest for the trees, and now I see not only the trees, but all the branches and leaves on each one.
Final thought: It’s as simple as giving ourselves permission to put ourselves first for a while and ignore not only everyone else’s expectations, but also our own inner critic. I fired my critic in 2019. And in case you’re wondering, I’m working again, putting in about 6-8 hours per week. It’s all I can manage, and guess what? It’s enough. I’m enough. We’re all enough.
Authored by Dr. Amy Wood, PsyD
Life balance is a goal many women attorneys strive toward without a solid grasp of its meaning. Popular misconceptions are that it’s about juggling multiple responsibilities with exacting finesse or having personal and professional lives equally weighted like a yin-yang symbol.
This black and white understanding of life balance used to be largely attainable when work and home lives really were distinct and clear. But that once-indelible line between home and the office is blurry in a world where technology allows us to be accessible around the clock from anywhere.
The truth is that life balance is an ancient definition of success that is reached when a resonant outer life nurtures a vital inner life. Way, way back in simpler times, the idea was to invest money in personal surroundings expressly designed to rouse pleasing thoughts and feelings integral to overall fulfillment and productivity.
The original American ideal was to put earnings towards beautifying the home and garden, creating a sanctuary in which passions, relationships, and inspirations could flourish. Balance was possible when you enveloped yourself with a customized balm of intellectual, emotional, and social stimulation necessary to rejuvenate from daily pressures and keep evolving at a satisfying – not exhausting -- clip.
Most Americans – it’s not just women attorneys -- don’t experience true life balance anymore because our outer environments are distracting and noisy and pull us away from -- rather than enrich -- ourselves. We are so swept away by external directives – Respond to this signal! Read that text message! Keep up with it all or you will be left behind! – that we are downright depleted internally.
To bring life balance back in the way it was initially intended, we must give up the crazy notion that every outside call beckoning for our attention is worthy of our response. We need to see that trying to be in command by flexing to an ever-multiplying flow of information is a sure way to feel off-kilter. Regaining our equilibrium requires taking from “out there” only what we know deep down will serve and sustain us.
The more you cultivate your inner world in ways that feel fortifying and right, the more likely you are to feel balanced. And when you have real life balance, you feel grounded, curious, connected, confident in your inner wisdom, and fully alive – and much more able to thrive in an external world that will never be balanced no matter what you do.
You can experience the exquisite centeredness of genuine life balance by practicing the spirit of these stabilizing suggestions:
As you pursue true life balance, the most important question to consider is what kind of atmosphere will keep you lawyering and living at your best. Navigating the constant cacophony of modern life takes a clear, calm head – and if you put your focus on fostering that kind of equilibrium with well-suited circumstances, you will always be up for the challenge.
Authored by Tiffany N. Provence, Esq.
My Legal BFF is excited to announce that we have approval from the South Carolina Bar Association to offer a Mental Health / Substance Abuse hour to our members by webinar. The CLE, entitled The True Meaning of Work/Life Balance and How to Create It, will be presented by Psychologist Amy Wood. Amy trains and coaches attorneys nationally to reach greater levels of achievement and fulfillment. She created the research-based attorney wellness system Law and the Good Life, is the author of Life Your Way: Refresh Your Approach to Success and Breathe Easier in a Fast-paced World, and is often called on for her expert opinion by media ranging from Maine Public Radio to Parade Magazine.
Here is her synopsis of what you can expect:
Work/life balance is an over-used term that isn’t possible — unless we know what work/life balance really means. This webinar will highlight how women attorneys cause stress by aspiring to false definitions of work/life balance, ultimately damaging their mental health as they cope destructively with that stress. Attorneys will learn what work/life balance really is, how to achieve it, and, most importantly, how to sustain it for greater productivity and satisfaction.
As a result of attending, participants will be able to:
We look forward to having everyone join us. Please save the date of November 21, 2019 at 2:00 PM EST. To receive the registration information, please make sure you have registered with My Legal BFF HERE.
Authored by Ashby L. Jones, Esq.
Looking back over the last twenty-one years, I realize—there have been so many rules. We’ve learned about cases and statutes, procedures and expectations. We have learned the unspoken rules. Law school was all about teaching us how to understand the rules, speak about the rules, and write about the rules. We were supposed to learn to apply the facts of our cases to the rules. I suppose we learned how to do that. Mainly we learned that we will never, ever learn all of the rules. And if we ever came close to learning the rules, the rules would change.
Thankfully, during that first year of practice all of the rules were accessible to me. Not only did my first firm have the statutes, advance sheets, and a subscription to Westlaw, my senior partner subscribed to every law magazine available. He also purchased training videos, hornbooks, non-fiction lawyer books, fiction lawyer books and whatever was sold at continuing legal education courses. Though I was grateful I could view the rules at any time, I was terrified. I would never be able to learn all the rules.
Even scarier, I was expected to practice law that first year while I was learning all of the rules. I did not have enough time to absorb the rules, because I was meeting with clients and going to “roll call.” When I questioned how little I actually knew before I was sent to court appearances, my boss told me exactly what your first boss told you:
“Ashby, I am going to throw you in the water and see if you can swim.”
The Honorable Marc Westbrook conducted my first civil roster meeting. I put on my little black suit, combed my serious hair, and sat in the back of a courtroom full of too many lawyers. My boss had five or six “damages hearings” on the roster that week. Not only did I not know what a damages hearing was, I did not know what a roster meeting was.
I was submerged.
I needed to quickly learn Roster Meeting Rules. So, I observed each lawyer stand and answer a few of Judge Westbrook’s questions. I surmised that the Judge wanted to know how much court time would be required for each case. I listened to dozens of lawyers estimate the time required for their cases. I jotted down everything they said in the spiral notebook on my lap. I determined the average amount of time required was two days. So, when it came time for me to discuss my damages hearings, I indicated each hearing would take—two days. By the third case, Judge Westbrook stopped me. “Ms. Jones, I do not really want to listen to Billy Walker talk for two days just for a damages hearing, are you sure it will take that long?”
I was drowning.
Billy had told me about the Spiral Notebook Rule. If you want to be a good lawyer, you must always have a spiral notebook with you. You write down who called you, case to-do lists, and ideas. It is acceptable to use the spiral notebook to jot down grocery lists or to remind yourself to pick up the dry cleaning. When you have addressed an item on the spiral notebook page, you may scratch through that item. When every notation has been considered, you may turn to the next page. This will give you a sense of accomplishment. If you have not addressed each item, you may not turn the page. Oh, how I yearned that year for a fresh white page of lined spiral notebook paper. Rule Subpart (A): when you have filled the notebook front to back, you must flip through it and reminisce. Rule Subpart (B): you may have more than one spiral notebook.
I was treading water!
Pre-trial Conference Rules: I learned that pre-trial conferences are conducted in chambers. Chambers is an office where the judge takes off his robe and has a picture of his wife on his desk (taken back when she was young and pretty). The Pre-trial Conference is the place where the other lawyer will pretend to be nice to me in front of the judge, even though a few weeks ago he thought I was a secretary and asked me to get him some coffee. If the Pre-trial Conference is in Barnwell, the (now retired) judge will smoke cigarettes and eat Little Debbie chocolate cakes while picking on me about my pre-trial brief. Rule Subpart (A): Barnwell judge has a “special” pre-trial brief. Rule Subpart (B): Don’t bother researching the details of (A), you are supposed to just know this.
Deposition rules: I learned early that before you start to take a deposition, you draw a vertical line down the center of note paper. You make notes on the left side of that line while you are questioning the witness. You make notes on the right side of that line when others question the witness. When it is your turn again, you slowly flip through the notepad and stare at both columns quietly and methodically before saying, “That’s all I have.” This is called the Catharine Garbee Griffin rule.
If your own client is being deposed, no need to draw the vertical line or write down anything at all. Your client’s deposition is an excellent time to read the newspaper (this is the Billy Walker Rule).
Before the formal deposition rules changed (and the rules ALWAYS change), there was a fair amount of interrupting and yelling during a deposition. If the interrupting and yelling became too much, someone called the judge. If it was me that called the judge, I was so very brave and aggressive. In fact, once I knew the Charleston law clerk who answered the phone, which made me feel smug for a moment. But, when the actual judge got on the phone, I learned the judge attended law school with opposing counsel. They might have even identified one another by first name. Cravens Ravenel Rule: Calling the judge during the deposition might backfire.
I was swimming, but everyone could tell I needed to stay near the shore and take breaks to build sand castles.
Those first few years, I noticed a number of attorneys wanted to tell me how many years they had practiced law. I learned this information not because I asked specifically, but because the other attorney thought I needed to know. “Ms. Jones, in the twenty years I have practiced law, I have never seen anyone take such a position.” “Ms. Jones, I have only practiced law for nineteen years, but I do not think the jury is going to like your client’s case.”
Once, after a particularly uncomfortable mediation, I had learned that opposing counsel was incredibly smart and gifted, having practiced law for seventeen years, three months, four days and fifty-three minutes. I had learned my case was terrible, the jury would not like my client, the judge would not like me, and I was really not suited for law practice anyway. I should open a gift shop and sell Snowbabies or Precious Moments figurines. After I complained about this to a partner, he pointed to the framed Supreme Court of South Carolina certificate on my wall. “Ashby, do you see that? That piece of paper says you are a lawyer. It is the same piece of paper hanging in every other lawyer’s office in this state, and you are every bit as good as they are.” (This is the Ben McCoy rule, and it has helped me keep my head above water many times since).
Sometimes the waters get rough, our clients are unreasonable, other lawyers are arrogant, and the judges are high up there on the life guard stand, having forgotten what it is like to swim in the deep sea. We remember how we were told in law school to develop a “thick” skin as quickly as possible. Our skin must become so thick that we develop an invisible coating all over our bodies. The coating is meant to protect you from caring when opposing counsel is dishonest, when the judge rules against you, or when your client is unpleasant. The coating also keeps the inside parts of you from seeping out. That way, no one will know how you actually feel during litigation. This is called the Scuba Suit Rule.
The problem is, the scuba suit is uncomfortable and weighs me down. I find I focus so much on not letting the outside-get–inside-of-me and the inside-get-out-of-me, I forget how to swim. Oh, it is true the scuba mask provides clear shoreline visibility, but I have a hard time seeing anything else, like the colors of all the fish. I can’t detect the current of the sea. If I am wearing the scuba suit and I reach out for a starfish or to collect a shell, I can’t really feel its contours. Also, there are all these stories about scuba tragedies. These are the times when the scuba team is so focused on the finish line they do not notice one of their comrades has drifted away.
I suppose I’ve been swimming twenty-one years. My stroke is not always strong and I sometimes gasp for air, but I am swimming all the same. The roster meetings haven’t changed much. Next time you attend one, take a good look around. The same folks are bloodlessly circling the room. There are rows and rows of scuba suits. There is also a fellow wearing cartoon swim trunks and holding his kid’s boogie board. I see a woman in a dreary Land’s End tankini, and a nervous young lawyer in the back holding a spiral notebook.
No matter what type of swimwear you choose, which stroke you master, or how quickly you reach shore, try to remember we are all out at sea together. No one expects you to remember all of the rules all of the time. You can break a few of the rules if you need to. It is only important that when you return to the shore, you do not wait for someone to drop you in the water. Go ahead and execute that glorious imperfect swan dive of yours and get yourself back in the water.
Sometimes the best swimmers make the biggest waves.
My Legal BFF is the brainchild of a group of South Carolina female attorneys with 20+ years in the profession who felt they craved a place to support one another and to offer their support and wisdom to others.
The idea came to mind when we learned that a dear friend and fellow female lawyer called Lawyers Helping Lawyers in the middle of the night simply because she felt she was at a breaking point and didn’t know where else to turn. It was sad to think that she didn't feel comfortable enough to reach out to one of us! We then realized that perhaps as women in a male dominated field we don't do enough to be there for each other - personally and professionally. We looked for support type networks to join but we just didn't find them, so we created our own.
We hope that My Legal BFF will be more than a networking site for female attorneys. We hope it will be a gathering place where women in the legal profession can find a friend. We aren't counselors, therapists or career coaches, we're just a community of women all struggling to cope with the demands of the legal profession topped with those of being a wife, partner, mom, sister, daughter, friend, boss, employee, caretaker and more. Our contributors and moderators all have stories to tell and wisdom to share - they've survived nasty divorces, cancer, death, addiction and more all while becoming successful in their chosen career. Whether you need support from a Legal BFF or have a story to share yourself, you're in the right place . . . we'd love to consider you a friend.