Are lawyers suffering from an identity crisis? Is it an occupational hazard that our training has made us good at our jobs, but bad at life? In many instances, we are legally and ethically compelled to subvert our personal interests and identities in favour of our professional interests and obligations. As lawyers we are typically pessimistic, risk-averse, adversarial, argumentative, confrontational, overly opinionated, critical, over-achieving, “type-A” and blame-avoidant on our clients’ behalf. Admit nothing. Say nothing. Give nothing. Defend, defend, defend. Attack, parry, thrust. Are our personal identities slightly subverted to these interests or have they been completely eradicated?
Is it possible that, in the course of navigating our professional obligations, our ‘lawyer’ selves have completely engulfed our ‘natural’ selves? If that is the case, do we like who we have become?
Within our own little community of solo and small firms, we have started to question whether these professional qualities find meaningful expression outside of our professional lives. As is common with these kinds of questions, they only served to open the door to more questions, perhaps the most poignant of which is: “If I met me, would I want to know me?”
For us, bringing mindfulness and awareness to the legal profession has involved, among other things, looking at how lawyers are perceived by other members of the profession and by the public at large. Have you ever been in conversation with someone and watched their demeanor suddenly change once they realize that you are a lawyer? We have begun to question the foundation for how lawyers are perceived, and we examined the extent to which this reputation is accurate. That is to say, we have begun to question the extent to which we have internalized these perceptions.
It would be difficult to pinpoint exactly when this happened, or whether it was ever explicitly stated; but, as a community, we decided that we no longer wanted to be defined by others. We decided that we needed to take active steps to define ourselves.
But why does any of this matter?
It matters because these perceptions, once internalized, affect our personal and professional bottom-lines. It is not just about your emotional wellbeing, the “warm and fuzzy” stuff (authors’ note: we firmly believe that the ‘warm and fuzzy’ stuff is the stuff of life, but that’s beyond the scope of this article). It is also about lawyer retention and profitability in law firms, and the movement of our professional culture towards a more relationship-driven, inter-personal approach to doing business and serving clients.
Now, the managing partner’s voice in all of us may counter with, “We do not have to worry about what other people think of us, because what we think of ourselves matters more”. Ah, yes – but let us dissect that objection for a moment. To whom are we referring when we say ‘us’? How often do we recognize those parts of our professional selves that may not be part of our authentic selves? Can we acknowledge that there is a separation between the two, and, if so, can we identify what the effect of that separation might be? Once acknowledged, can we distil one from the other, separate the truth from the illusion? Have we even tried?
In our experience, the wider the gap between our false selves (the person we spend so much time trying to be) and our true selves (the person who we consciously decide to be), the more dangerous, time-consuming and exhausting it is to manoeuvre from one side to the other. It requires the sort of emotional acrobatics only possible from a skilled gymnast. This gap is the prime breeding ground for burn out, low job satisfaction and anxiety in the legal profession.
This misalignment also affects our personal lives. When we live in accordance with our ‘true selves’, we experience peace. The feeling of being ‘at peace’ can be felt on physical, emotional, and spiritual levels. We learn to love and accept ourselves without judgment; and our ability to love and accept ourselves is directly proportional to our ability to love and accept others.
Doesn’t that sound nice?
Does this ‘peace’ erase all conflict? No chance. There is conflict. In many ways, there is as much conflict as there ever was. The crucial difference is that we have become more comfortable with navigating conflict in a mindful, honest and introspective way. Each conflict becomes an opportunity to practice non-judgment and to claim who we are as individuals. What would this movement mean for the legal profession? We hope that we are given an opportunity to find this meaning, and only time will tell. Until then, all we can do is commit to engaging with the choices we have made and affirm them by choosing them again. Or not. Align or choose not to - that’s the amazing thing about choice.
From our own experiences, we have found that maintaining this alignment is hard work. It is a challenge at almost every turn, and it requires conscious effort and a supportive community. The process is not static: it changes from day to day, sometimes from moment to moment. People, things and situations knock us out of alignment, but the process of returning to balance becomes easier the more we commit to making this choice. We are privileged and grateful to work within a community of colleagues that provides the support and the encouragement that this choice requires. There is discomfort, shame and confusion inherent in this choice… but there is also freedom.
Hard-fought. Well-earned. Freedom.
If we could make a recommendation based on our experiences to date, it would be to resist being subsumed by a professional culture that defines you as someone you do not recognize, someone you never thought you would be, someone you no longer want to be. Change the culture by questioning it and engaging with it. If you leave it to others, be they inside or outside of the legal profession, to decide for you, you had better refine your acrobatic skills.
We recommend the uneven bars.
Check out our podcast interview with The Law School Show where we discuss mindfulness, mental health and spirituality applied to the legal profession. http://thelawschoolshow.com/listen/the-redline/