An important talent for a highly-functioning lawyer is to know the bounds of one’s expertise. Somewhat ironically, the better we know our own field, the better we are able to identify discreet areas of practice that are definitely outside our comfort zone. There is such a thing as flexibility and the impulse to stretch ourselves professionally, of course. Just as importantly, however, there is the judgment to know when one aspect of our client’s problem requires another specialist. Happily, that judgment and the ability to follow through on savvy referrals both within and without your firm inexorably lead to greater influence among your peers, a more diverse and extensive client base, and, eventually, a more lucrative practice.
A transferable skill
The same principle works in other spheres as well, however. Yet there is a tendency among lawyers to restrict ones energies towards the practice, all it entails, and only what it entails. An attorney will spend all his or her mental and emotional energies on a particularly nasty contract issue or pivotal brief, but be unwilling to spend even a fraction of the time analyzing his/her own personal issues. I can hear one hundred voices simultaneously asking "But why would I?"
The Holistic Approach
By “personal issues,”I don’t mean keeping track of how much one’s home has appreciated in the last quarter. I don’t mean keeping track of the rate of return on one’s stock investments. And I don’t mean worrying about hiring a new pool guy. I’m referring to those issues which are the most personal to the individual lawyer, and yet, paradoxically, can have the greatest impact on one’s career: one’s particular mental and emotional health.
Getting Your Brain Around It
It is a trick, I admit, to develop a sufficiently sophisticated intellectual construct to even see that such issues as mental and emotional health matter and have value--other than in the abstract, or as applied to someone else--anybody else. Even surmounting that hurdle, it is still more difficult to start to see one’s self objectively and make a determination whether one is indeed mentally and emotionally healthy—indeed, mentally and emotionally healthy compared to what, precisely??? As a now former litigator, it still amazes me how much we used to laugh about, even idolize, ridiculous and destructive behaviors. The depth of our cynicism knew no bounds. Anyone who didn't enjoy dark humor about the insane life we lead was dismissed as Pollyanna, beneath contempt. At the least, they were certainly NOT one of "us."
Fostering an Open Mind
Yet I know that even the most jaded attorney can see that at least as it applies to "others", good mental and emotional "hygiene" is conducive to good practice, sound judgment, and longevity in the field. The trouble is to know, as to which I have already alluded, just what mental health "looks like" and how to make an assessment.
I can't give you an easy picture of what such an assessment should look like. I do know however that at least keeping one eye open to the possibility that one's own professional failings can lead, eventually, to self-awareness. Keeping a weather eye out for issues that crop up more than once on evaluations, realizing the patterns that develop when certain of our daily tasks are ignored or done poorly, or if we find ourselves inconsistent in the quality of our work or inconsistent in our ability to relate to or respond to clients and colleagues, can all help lead to identify that there might be issues in our mental and emotional make-up that could use adjusting.
Trust a Professional
I have repeatedly encouraged lawyers to work with professional coaches to get their professional lives in order and on the fast- (or faster-) track. I likewise now suggest that it is an excellent idea to submit oneself to a thorough mental and emotional examination with a trained professional, at least periodically. After all, even our automobiles are subjected to occasional "deep" examinations for glitches that are important, yet may not otherwise result in performance issues until much later. So too our psyches can use a bit of deep probing to ensure that all is firing properly.
Sitting down with your last (fully unabridged and unedited) personal review for last year (again, how many times have I advocated for this?) and trying to see any issues in terms of mental health is a good start. Taking the summarized results to your general medical practitioner with the clear purpose of seeking to undergo a review for potential work performance, depression or other mental health questions is a great start. A referral to a psychiatrist (just look one up under your "PPO" list) is a another great start. If all is well, what have you lost? (A great way to sift through the legion names on the page is to seek those affiliated with a teaching hospital, by the way--for example UCSF in the Bay Area). On the other hand, that extra effort now could save you much lost time, productivity, and even loss of reputation in the future.
. . . Or Suffer the Consequences
Let's face it, we are in an extremely hazardous profession. Far too many of us end up with substance abuse issues and other extreme behavioral problems. Don't let this be you. Check yourself out and keep your mind open to what comes of your efforts. Remember, with just a slight tweak on the old line "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean no one is out to get you," so too is it true that you are the only one that can say whether you are truly happy with your interior life. Some of our dissatisfactions do actually result from issues that, if left unchecked, can loom large.
Just a thought.