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Resilience is Key to Thriving in Law Practice

A progressive approach to resilience for lawyers addresses the “whole person.” This creates equilibrium in the body and mind. It boils down to creating a resilient brain, a resilient nervous system, and a resilient mindset, and it starts with the kind of core well being that optimizes the brain’s executive functioning, emotional regulation and impulse control, and reduces the brain’s ancient survival functions. It’s a sustainable homeostatic state...

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Lawyers Are at Risk for Secondary Traumatic Stress

Legal work is replete with stress. at’s a given, but what is not as well understood is that secondary traumatic stress, also known as vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue, is a high occupational risk for lawyers.
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What is Secondary Trauma?

Consider immigration and civil rights attorneys, public defenders, prosecutors, juvenile justice attorneys and family law attorneys (just to name a few) who are barraged on a daily basis with stories of traumatic hardship or violence. Many attorneys, day in and day out, directly observe their clients’ pain, fear and terror as they listen to accounts of adversity and suffering. Many attorneys read stacks of heart wrenching reports of traumatic events, or view endless graphic evidence. The cumulative direct exposure to others’ trauma can result in emotional duress to the lawyers and judges and other legal personnel who work with traumatized populations.

When lawyers are continually called on to support their clients and listen to their traumatized clients’ feelings and experiences it is nearly unavoidable to not take in some emotional pain. Further, lawyers are obliged to control their reactions so they often maintain an image of toughness, or seek to appear unruffled as a stronghold of calm. They often feel a responsibility to fix their clients’ trauma, conceivably by winning, even when they have no control over the outcome. Imaginably they may feel guilt when the outcome is not positive. To make matters more difficult, lawyers’ high caseloads mean the exposure to trauma may never let up.

Under these conditions it’s not surprising that some lawyers empathize with, internalize, and to some degree, experience their clients’ feelings of fear, hopelessness, anger or rage. Secondary trauma can create within lawyers a state of psychological tension and preoccupation. Some may experience disturbing images from cases intruding into their thoughts or dreams, and they may experience intense emotions alongside these images. Another area of concern is that a lawyer, having been triggered by secondary trauma, may find him/herself re-experiencing personal past trauma memories.

Leading trauma, emotional intelligence, and resilience authorities agree that emotional residue from trauma gets lodged in the brain, body and nervous system. A brain response is the uncontrollable hair trigger for emotional hijacking. Body responses may be physical and emotional exhaustion, stomachaches, headaches, nausea, and a variety of physical illness. Nervous system responses may include feeling upset, on edge, or powerless and hopeless.

Secondary trauma can produce extreme imbalances in the autonomic nervous system, whereby one can get stuck in a neurochemical deluge of fight, flight, freeze, or shut-down physiology. Some nervous system symptoms of secondary trauma mimic post traumatic stress disorder. These common symptoms include: anxiety, feeling emotionally overwhelmed, depression, insomnia and other sleeping problems, concentration problems, memory problems, feeling numb, feeling agitated and prone to anger, or hyper-vigilant and viewing the world as inherently dangerous.

Further, attorneys may begin to question their own competence or efficacy. With lower self-esteem and PTSD-like symptoms producing problems in work and personal relationships they may further spiral downward and be at risk for self- medicating and substance abuse. And, of course, all these responses to trauma result in less productivity and less effective representation.

While it’s true that secondary trauma may be nearly unavoidable in some legal fields, it’s important to understand that it is a logical response to the job. It is also vital to recognize that using prevention strategies can help you cope with your feelings and support your nervous system to mitigate this trauma.

Those that chronically endure the effects of secondary trauma without fortifying themselves against its effects or treating it may experience debilitation that forces them to stop working or leave the field of law.

How Can Lawyers Prevent Secondary Trauma?

The types of tools for resilience training offered by the science of positive psychology can help prevent secondary trauma. “Resilience Training for Lawyers” will be the focus of a companion article in the Bar Bulletin Positive Psychology series, available in the near future. For now, here’s a brief overview of resilience:

Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. It means, “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.

Resilience training focuses on developing awareness of thoughts, emotions, behaviors and physiological responses (usually with mindfulness training) so you can self-regulate and change those thoughts, emotions, behaviors and physiology to achieve a desired positive outcome. Other important aspects of building resilience include a strengths-based focus in order to be more engaged, overcome challenges, and create a life aligned with one’s values. Resilience is also significantly enhanced when one is able to cultivate close relationships, acquire the ability to look at situations from multiple perspectives, think creatively, develop optimism, and practice mind-body techniques that keep the autonomic nervous system in balance.

To prevent the long-term, deleterious effects from secondary trauma, it is advisable to conduct periodic self-assessments to determine if you are beginning to experience depletion, and to create an effective action plan.

Here are several effective preventative elements to incorporate into your life:

  • Resilience training
  • Self-care such as vacations, work breaks, exercise, healthy eating, quality sleep, hobbies or activities outside work and connection with friends and family;
  • Regular use of stress-reduction techniques such as yoga, meditation, mind fulness, breathing exercises, body sensation scans and deep nervous system relaxation to turn off the fight, fight, or freeze nervous system response;
  • Wherever possible have a reduced or diverse caseload, a holistic approach to work that includes overall life quality, and the ability to debrief with others who are knowledgeable and supportive of how you think and feel and how you are affected;
  • Professional assistance, when necessary, is an additional avenue to increase well- being and resilience.

Treatment

It is now well understood that trauma affects the nervous system and that residue from trauma continues to affect neurophysiology even after the traumatic event has passed. To move the absorbed trauma out of the body, trauma experts agree that body-based techniques are key strategies.

Here’s how trauma can get lodged in the body: people who have experienced trauma often have continued autonomic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal activity from the initial trauma. This is because a traumatized individual’s brain doesn’t distinguish between past trauma and present peril. The brain continues to indicate danger, and individuals feel body sensations from the danger long after the initial traumatic occurrence. Some body sensations may feel frightening—for example, a knot in the belly, breath-limiting tension or heart-pounding in the chest, a constricted throat, pain or thick fog in the head, the need to fight, take flight or freeze. Individuals can also experience hypo-arousal where they numb out, shut down or dissociate. If frightening sensations aren’t given time and attention to move through the body and resolve or dissolve, individuals may continue to be traumatized.

Body-based therapy provides lawyers with safe, natural tools to manage and neutralize the physiological symptoms and body sensations related to trauma. Body-based therapies heal the fight flight-freeze-collapse nervous system response and create a feeling of safety in the body whereby individuals can attain a calm and peaceful mind, experience emotions in a healthy way, feel a sense of strength, control and efficacy, and thereby begin to alleviate the malady.

Traditional talk therapy can help with insights, but when one digs up memories and relives the event by retelling the story, it can reignite the agony without undoing the effects of dread, anger, powerlessness, or depression contained within the body. This is one reason that individuals with PTSD-like symptoms respond well to body-based therapies coupled with psychotherapy.

A three-year yoga and trauma study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that participation in trauma-informed yoga significantly reduced PTSD symptoms in women with treatment-resistant complex PTSD

Integrative Restoration® Yoga Nidra (iRest) is a proven body-based approach used by that the military, VA centers and countless other civilian organizations to overcome trauma. As iRest founder Richard Miller explains,

“It works directly by changing sensory, cognitive and emotional symptoms that keep PTSD in place. It’s shown to bring about deep relaxation while also producing healthy changes in the structure of your brain, stimulating healing and tissue repair, providing you self-care skills for changing negative emotions and thoughts into positive ones... to restore an inner sense of ease and well-being.”

What is Post Traumatic Growth?

People who endure psychological struggle following adversity often see positive growth afterward. As part of treatment for trauma, it’s valuable to be aware of post-traumatic growth as a possibility. is is because if all you know is post-traumatic stress disorder and you have some horrible occurrence where you think you’re going down a slippery slope, the symptoms will worsen. If instead, you understand that a typical response to trauma is resilience, that given time you may be stronger as a result of what you experienced, and that it’s also possible to experience growth, the downward spiral can be stopped.

Psychologist Richard Tedeschi, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, and Harvard psychologist Richard McNally, created a course taught to US Army soldiers on post-traumatic growth that begins with the wisdom that positive growth and personal transformation following trauma comes from a renewed appreciation of being alive, enhanced personal strength, acting on new possibilities, improved relationships, and spiritual deepening (“spiritual” meaning belonging to or serving something larger than the self).

Conclusion

In conclusion, enhancing resilience can help prevent secondary trauma, and body-based therapies can help heal secondary trauma. It is important to take care of yourself in order to not become a victim of secondary trauma. Secondary trauma can cause debilitating physical and emotional symptoms as well as functional impairment such as difficulty solving problems, increased errors, and low motivation or productivity that interferes with effective legal representation and negatively impacts the legal profession.

Remember, in order to effectively advocate for your client—you need to effectively care for yourself first

The Science of Sleep - Positive Psychology for Lawyers

This article, third in an occasional positive psychology series, examines the consequences a lack of sleep plays in attorney professionalism and productivity, the bene ts of healthy sleep and tips for getting the best sleep possible.

Lawyers are among the most sleep-deprived professionals in the country, and have rates of depression, burnout, substance abuse, and suicide that are two to four times higher than the national average. 
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What is the correlation between sleep and attorney well-being?

Most of us are sleep deprived. In a high-pressure career with its grueling schedule, we are likely to sacrifice sleep to get ahead. But sleep is not an indulgence. Skipping it can seriously hurt cognition, health and well-being. A good versus bad night’s sleep is one of the biggest dfferentials you can have in your work and quality of life.

Lawyers’ well-being and success depend on optimal mental activity. The recent documentary “Sleepless in America” showed that sleep deprivation impairs decision-making, communication and memory by 20–50 percent; additionally there is a 40 percent de cit in the capacity of your brain to concentrate, focus, learn and retain.

There is a link between sleep and health. Sleep elevates mood, provides access to positive emotions and resiliency and pro- vides a buffer against daily stressors. Further, circadian neu- roscientist Russell Foster found that mental illness and sleep are not simply associated; they are physically linked within the brain. The correlation between sleep and physical health is also strong. Since lawyers are susceptible to stress-related illnesses, sleep, a potent stress-buster and immune-booster, is an important safeguard.

What role does sleep play in attorney professionalism?

Sleep studies show that individuals who work through the night have the same cognitive impairment as being legally drunk.Lawyers cannot be at their best professionally or ethically if they are intoxicated at work and similarly, being sleep deprived may put you at professional risk.

Sleep ties into the ability to make good decisions. Sleep science proves that when you lack sufficient sleep you have poor memory, increased impulsiveness and overall poor judgment, which puts you at risk for attorney misconduct.

Lawyers' success requires rational and civil behavior at all times, and sleep is key to emotional regulation. With a good night's sleep you have the resources to think and plan your responses rather than react in stress. Indeed, excessive emotional reactivity, irritability, moodiness and disinhibition are some of the first signs a person experiences from lack of sleep. These emotions and more severe ones like anger or hostility do not bode well for civility required in the Creed of Professionalism.

Alcohol abuse is a familiar problem in the legal profession. Sleep is positively related to self-control resources, which may aid in the prevention and treatment of addictions including alcohol and other substance abuse.

Not surprisingly, when there is such a build up of fatigue that you reach a threshold, you may spontaneously fall asleep due to a substance in the brain that drives the need to sleep. For lawyers, this can have embarrassing or even far-reaching repercussions. In a "sleeping lawyer" case, a complaint based on the constitutional right to an attorney, was filed against an attorney who fell asleep numerous times during his client's legal proceedings.

How much is enough sleep? What processes happen during sleep? How can lawyers achieve restful sleep?

Sleeping pills and alcohol don't solve the problem. The currently available sleeping drugs impair motor coordination, attention, and memory well into the following day, and alcohol does not provide real sleep. It is a biological mimic that sedates and impairs important neural processing (important for memory consolidation and memory recall) that happens during sleep. With alcohol you may fall asleep quicker, but it also interferes with deep restorative sleep, resulting in not feeling refreshed the next morning. Additionally, as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, increased wakefulness often occurs.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep per night for the average adult. When sleep is less than seven hours there is an escalation in obesity, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, cardiovascular disease, depression and substance abuse, according to the top researchers in sleep science.

Further, according to a two-week sleep study by David Dinges, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Chief of the Sleep and Chro- nobiology Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, subjects who slept six hours per night were as impaired as individuals who (in a different study) tested at the cognitive equivalent of legal intoxication after being deprived of sleep for 24 consecutive hours. Another key finding was that sleep-deprived people are poor judges of their own sleep needs, i.e., people who slept four or six hours per night said the sleepiness did not affect them, when in fact their performance had "tanked."

Some crucial psychological and physiological processes that happen during sleep are:

Your brain reviews the day, processing memories and storing im- portant things in "files." This procedure results in waking refreshed with renewed resources to deal with daily stress. Without this process, you wake up with unresolved tensions and less resilience.

Important body maintenance during sleep related to digestion, cell repair and growth as well as functions related to blood sugar, blood pressure, metabolism, and immunity occur. Without this critical maintenance, the body is in stress mode and more sus- ceptible to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and cancer.

During sleep the brain clears out toxic chemicals that are byproducts of neural activity. A protein associated with Alzheimer's that researchers believe causes brain cell death accumulates in the brain, and clearance of that toxic substance is greater during sleep than wakefulness. This finding has led certain researchers hypothesize that the flushing out of this protein is one of the most important functions of sleep.

Components that help you transition into sleep:

  1. A biological timer in your brain counts the number of hours you have been awake, and the longer you are awake the sleepier you get.
  2. This timer needs to synchronize with the circadian rhythm clock in your brain which is reset every day with light. In bright light (including blue light from electronic devices) your body wakes up. In the absence of light, nerve cells at the backs of your eyes send signals to your brain to produce melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy.
  3. You need a calm mind. This is often the most challenging element for lawyers because we are so overwhelmed with deadlines and oppressive “to-do” lists that we have trouble shutting o our brains. Meditation and deep relaxation are o en the best answers to ipping the switch and falling asleep. Even if you fall asleep when your head hits the pillow (perhaps because the physical need for sleep is so overwhelming), without a calm mind, you may sleep for one to three hours, but then your mind breaks through and you wake up thinking or ruminating, and then have trouble getting back to sleep.
  4. It’s best to not take emotional issues, reoccurring thoughts and stress to bed. Daytime techniques such as positive psychology exercises or meditation (described in prior “Positive Psychology for Lawyers” articles published in the Bar Bulletin), or short naps (eight to 10 hours after waking and no more than 30 minutes long so as not to reset your “biological timer”) or “nap alternatives” such as iRest®, www.iRest.com (also described in a prior article) or restorative yoga may help you relax or resolve disturbing issues during the day so they don’t affect your sleep.

To help get restful sleep, make a habit of these "sleep hygiene" practices:

  • Keep your bedroom a haven for sleep, as dark as possible and slightly cool
  • Avoid blue light and reduce light exposure an hour before bed. The brain mistakes it for sunshine and time to wake up.
  • Don't drink caffeine late in the day.
  • Try to have a consistent sleep-wake schedule.
  • Try to have a consistent sleep-wake schedule.

Conclusion

Sleep science proves that sleep is not an option. Just as we need food, water, and air, su cient sleep and quality sleep are important. You may be a “work now, sleep later” kind of person or have an “I don’t have to sleep” mentality. However, you need to take sleep seriously.

Good sleep increases your concentration, attention, ethical decision-making, and mental and physical health. At the same time it reduces stress, hostility, impulsivity, and the tendency to drink and take drugs. You can’t cut corners on sleep and have it not a ect you. You benfit tremendously from those restorative hours in the dark.

Endnotes

  1. Williamson A, Feyer A. Moderate Sleep Deprivation Produces Impairments in Cognitive and Motor Performance Equivalent to Legally Prescribed Levels of Alcohol intoxication. Occup Environ Med. 2000 October; 57(10): 649-655
  2. www.scienceworldreport.com, July 2, 2015, “Sleep: Too Little May Cause Loss of Self Control”; also www.harvardbusinessreview.org, October 2006, “Sleep Deficit The Performance Killer”
  3. aasmnet.org, “Sleepless in America”, Documentary, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, December 2014
  4. aasmnet.org, “Sleepless in America”, Documentary, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, December 2014

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Positive Psychology for Lawyers— The Science of Character

This article, second in an occasional positive psychology series, examines the benefits of developing and using strengths of character in the practice of law.

Psychologists associate the regular application of character strengths or positive traits— such as optimism, zest, gratitude and curiosity—with the promotion of positive emo- tions, which, in turn, create overall well-being.

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What is the science of character? 

Using one’s character strengths in the practice of law pro- motes a productive path for attorneys to increase their life satisfaction and success while working in a profession replete with depression, anxiety, addic- tion, dissatisfaction and ill health. 

In the early 2000s, psychologists Martin Seligman and Christo- pher Peterson led a three-year project involving 55 distinguished scientists devoted to examining character traits across cultures and time. Out of this project, Seligman and Peterson identified six universal virtues —wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, tem- perance and transcendence— in which 24 character strengths reside. Their assemblage of virtues and character traits forms a scientific knowledge base and classification system of what is best about human beings and what builds fulfillment and happiness. One of the key findings about character evident from this project and hundreds of subsequent research studies is that each individual possesses all 24 character strengths in different degrees and combinations relative to context, resulting in a unique profile.

To determine your predominant character strengths, Seligman and Peterson developed VIA-IS, a free, 240-question survey found online at the Values in Action website: www.viacharacter.org. The survey helps people understand the differences between who they are (their character) versus what they can do (their talents) and what they like (their interests.)

Generally, our top character strengths occur easily without much effort and resonate as being so natural one could not help but use them. These strengths are energizing as we embody them, and we would feel a deflation of spirit and emptiness if we could not express them. When people use their top strengths, they report feeling more energized and self-actualized, which allow them to fulfill their potential to a greater degree. We also have situational strengths that we can call on when needed. Additionally, other strengths can be developed to benefit our clients, the legal profession and ourselves.

What are some ways character strengths can be used in the practice of law?

Making regular use of one’s character strengths is a good mental health practice as well as an effective business strategy for attorneys. Employing character strengths provides motivation to stay in a challenging profession and helps prevent burnout. The resultant greater job satisfaction averts unwanted consequences such as employee turnover or malpractice, often caused by alcoholism and depression.

Developing a balanced use of intellectual, self-oriented “head” character strengths and emotional and interpersonal “heart” character strengths can also be a valuable law practice tool. For example, an attorney who is strongest in “head-focused” character strengths—prudence, bravery, persistence and self-control— that are most useful for analytical aspects of lawyering, can benefit from training that enhances “heart-focused” strengths—kindness, grati- tude and social intelligence that are well-suited to the relationship aspects of law such as management, mentoring and rainmaking.1

Attorneys can learn to modulate their strengths to reach desired results. “Head” strengths may temper “heart” strengths such as applying prudence to lessen a tendency to micromanage or be overzealous, and in the area of collections, the “heart” strength of kindness may temper the “head” strength of persistence.

Finally, it is highly desirable to be able to shift between analytical head strengths and relational heart strengths to change communi- cation styles. While the pessimistic or prudent way of thinking is inherent and required in the practice of law, it may be destructive in one’s personal life where an optimistic thinking style and prac- tice of the heart strengths (kindness, gratitude, social intelligence and love) lead to positive relationships that also build emotional resilience. In other words, legal cross-examination can stay at work and use of heart strengths can help one hone a conciliatory communication style for use at home.

What is the correlation between strengths’ use and attorney life satisfaction, well-being and success?

Many of us are doing OK or “pretty good.” Still, life may feel flat and depression rates are rising. We know from positive psychology that a meaningful life provides greater overall life satisfaction and well-being. Many of us spend more of our lives at work than with family or friends so the question becomes, “What can we do to give our time at work more meaning?”

Daily use of our top character strengths enables us to live a meaningful life where we enjoy what we are doing and feel pride and satisfaction in our work; it also energizes us, increases our pro- ductivity and helps us make the demands of the work worthwhile

Some lawyers find more meaning and can bring their strengths to fruition by making a difference, helping clients, being a trusted advisor, bringing in business, finding satisfying intellectual stimu- lation, or creating good office relations and collaboration. Landing a job in a niche in the law that capitalizes on your top strengths provides meaning and a better way to perceive your work as a calling rather than a job.

Additionally, as we are always in control of our perceptions, we can change the way we think about our job or our relationships with our co-workers. We can restructure how we approach work by reshaping certain attitudes in order to find more ways to embellish and access our strengths. If you have little latitude to make decisions, perhaps you can recraft your job tasks for more perceived control or practice character strengths in your relation- ships at work, over which you have high control.

Finally, knowledge of one’s individual character strengths may prompt certain lawyers to seek a more strengths-compatible practice or work environment.

Conclusion 

Character can be learned and practiced. Research has established that regularly using one’s character strengths provides meaning in life, predicts fulfillment and success, and increases positive emotions, well-being and resilience.2

In the traditionally analytically based legal profession, heart strengths need not be sacrificed to head strengths. It is possible and advantageous to use both heart and head strengths and to identify practice areas that profit from each to build our best law practice and life.


1 Snyder, P. Super Women Lawyers: A Study of Character Strengths. University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons, 2012.

2 Seligman, M.E.P., Authentic Happiness: Using the New Posi- tive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, New York, NY, 2004.

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Learn and Practice: Exercises for Developing Character Strengths

You can strengthen your character strengths by focusing on thoughts, emotions and behaviors. One exercise is to focus on a top character strength in a new way each day for a week. Another proven exercise to develop optimism is to regularly recall and savor three things that went well each day. Not only will this lift your mood, but it will also identify the good things that are working well for you and, over time, create benefit-finding neural pathways in your brain.

Positive Psychology for Lawyers— The Benefits of Positive Emotions

The emerging scientific field known as positive psychology helps us understand how the brain can change, and that we can purposefully change it to create more positive emotions. Positive emotions, in turn, broaden our cognitive capacity allowing flexible, openminded thinking for creative problem solving and building of personal resources such as skills, knowledge and relationships.

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Positive psychology matters a lot in the field of law because, while many lawyers are actually happy, there are perhaps just as many who are not happy. It is well documented that lawyers are more likely to suffer from depression than any other occupational group. In a Johns Hopkins University study of more than 100 occupations, researchers found that lawyers led the country with the highest incidence of depression.

What makes so many lawyers so unhappy?

It appears the world view that makes lawyers effective in their profession can pollute other parts of their life. In other words, many of the qualities that help lawyers succeed in practice such as prudence, aggression, and critical and judgmental thinking are traits that can have disastrous consequences when applied in one’s personal life.

Take “prudence,” for example. Martin Seligman, Ph.D., former president of the American Psychological Association, and the “father” of positive psychology notes in his book, Learned Opti- mism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life,2 that a prudent lawyer strives to uncover every conceivable trap or disaster that might occur in a legal situation. This skill of anticipating a range of problems is highly adaptive for lawyers who then foresee even implausible outcomes and defend against them.

Seligman stresses that the trait of prudence makes a good lawyer, but does not make a happy person. This is because lawyers cannot readily turn it off. What operates in the legal world as “prudence” often determines your thinking in the non-legal world because 

the brain is wired to think that way. In the non-legal world, prudence is called “pes- simism.”

Pessimistic thinking is a way of interpreting the world in which the worst is routinely expected. It affects how we in- terpret failure and events that don’t go well. For example, a pessimist experiencing failure often interprets the event globally: “I’m no good; I’ll always fail.” Sadness is interpreted as everlasting, with one believing that everything is going to be ruined. The pessimist experiences negative events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrol- lable, which can create an all-encompassing unhappiness.

In contrast, an optimistic interpretation style, which can be learned, views negative events as specific, temporary and change- able. When an optimist fails for example, he or she experiences the hurt as specific to the event, and asks “What can I learn from the failure and how can I do better the next time?” The optimist is not immune to sadness, but thinks and experiences it as specific to the event and knows it will pass.

Pessimism in one’s personal life creates a high risk for depression. The challenge then is to remain prudent in the practice of law and contain this tendency outside of one’s practice. This is where positive psychology comes in. There are exercises that can help lawyers who see the worst-case scenario in every setting become more discriminating in their personal life. Seligman has termed this adaptation as “flexible optimism.”

Another common thinking style lawyers have is “perfectionism,” which similarly can be corrosive in one’s personal life. According to Dave Shearon, who has a master’s degree in positive psychology and is former director of Continuing Legal Education in Tennes- see, “lawyers tend to be highly ambitious and overachieving, with a tendency toward perfectionism not just in their legal pursuits, but also in nearly every aspect of their life.”

When rigidly applied, the propensity to be a perfectionist can impede happiness. Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., provides another model that offers a more balanced perspective as an alternative to perfectionism. He calls it “optimalism” and describes it in detail in his book Being Happy - You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Lead a Richer, Happier Life.3

The “optimalist” believes that when appropriate, “good enough” is the best option, given the demands and constraints of life, Ben-Shahar writes. The optimalist also appreciates life as a whole and regards successes and even failures as opportunities to learn and grow.

In addition to the influence of thinking styles and traits, the heav- ily charged negative emotions inherent in the legal environment also play a part in lawyer unhappiness.

Take litigation, for example. Litigators are paid to resolve conflict, often between two hostile and irrational sides. In most conflicts that necessitate obtaining a lawyer, the lawyer usually is brought in after things have already gone horribly wrong. In the courtroom, tensions mount and anger, self-righteousness and combative behavior may dominate.

Another source of negative emotions—handling clients’ negative situations and hearing their negative stories on a regular ba- sis—can cause secondary trauma. Counselors and therapists are trained how to handle this to keep it from tearing them down. In the legal world there is little precedent for recognizing the trauma, much less addressing it.

Negative emotions also occur with the high pressures, expecta- tions and stress of the profession. These are exacerbated by many lawyers’ tendencies to focus on the implications of past decisions or events and anxiousness about possible future events.

Fortunately, positive psychology provides realistic solutions to the predicament of negativity in legal practice by offering interven- tions and exercises that generate positive emotions. One such exercise has us consistently noticing and genuinely appreciating simple pleasures. The word “appreciate” means “to be thankful or grateful,” which is the opposite of taking something for granted. Research on gratitude has repeatedly proven that when we ap- preciate the good in our lives, we enjoy higher levels of well-being and positive emotions, feel happier and more determined, and are more energetic and optimistic.

An exercise in appreciation: On a regular basis, choose three everyday things you’ve encountered in the past few days or that are around you right now (e.g., warm sunshine on your face, the smell of fresh coffee, trees or flowers, your laptop or mobile device, a person dear to you) and write a few words or sentences addressing what you genuinely appreciate, enjoy or find amazing

about each one. To “genuinely appreciate,” it’s important to allow enough time for the enjoyment and amazement to sink in and the good feelings to linger. Research has proven that regularly experiencing moments of genuine appreciation changes our brains and help us overcome our negativity bias.

The therapeutic yoga exercises and other techniques including Yoga Nidra, described in my book Yoga for Lawyers - Mind-Body Techniques to Feel Better All the Time,4 also help to de-stress and positively boost overall levels of well-being.

Positive psychology introduces ways to change the brain. We can rewire our brains to affect:

  • the way we interpret and experience the world, helping us feel more upbeat and optimistic more of the time;

  • the way we bounce back from hardships and setbacks, helping us become more resilient; and the way we behave, helping us feel more balanced and levelheaded more of the time.

Further, positive people experience enhanced work productivity and are more successful. They typically enjoy a better work-life balance, greater overall well-being and happiness.

We already changed in law school. Neuroscience proves and the experts agree that if we want to, we can change again. Positive psychology offers the empirical research, proven interventions, and exercises to create and deepen the neural pathways that lead to reduced stress. Incorporating these practices can boost your positivity and provide you with many professional and personal benefits including the broadening and building effects of positive emotions.

Attorney Hallie N. Love, www.fitmindbodybrain.com, cum laude law school graduate, is nationally certified in positive psychology with Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D. Love uses positive psychology exercises as well as therapeutic yoga exercises and other techniques from her book, Yoga for Lawyers - Mind-Body Techniques to Feel Better All the Time, to help lawyers de-stress, develop greater positivity and elevate their overall well-being. 

Work Smarter: The Power of Recharge

A 2012 ABA Law Practice article states that burnout in the legal profession is greater than that of other professions. 

Why does law practice lead to such extreme results for so many attorneys? This article will examine data from a broad spectrum of scientific research in positive psychology, exercise science, neurobiology, neuroscience, and complementary and alternative medicine (the new mind-body sciences) in order to identify factors that may lead to attorney burnout and to explain why those factors may contribute to attorney distress. Further, this article will introduce work trends that utilize the emerging mind-body sciences to pioneer smarter ways to be more productive and thus avoid burnout. Finally, this article will offer an overview of scientifically proven interventions and recharging techniques that may provide a buffer against the occupational hazard of attorney depression and burnout.

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Finding Equanimity Wherever You Are

In April 1991, concerns led the American Bar Association to convene a conference, At the Breaking Point, and issue a subsequent report in which they concluded “there is a growing trend in the legal profes- sion, which left unchecked, threatens the well-being of all lawyers and firms in every part of the country.” This trend was a deterioration of the legal work environment, accompanied by declines in lawyers’ career satisfaction, physical health, and mental health. 

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