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Validation

Something interesting happened when the world screeched to a halt and the courts closed in mid-March. The lawyers we work with as volunteers and clients did not respond as everyone predicted lawyers would.[1] Were there, and are there still, fears of financial insecurity due to the decrease in new legal matters, reductions in salary, or the volatility of the stock market? Of course. Has there been intense frustration for lawyers who are homeschooling and trying to get some work done at the same time? Absolutely. Has there been a heightened sense of fear and anxiety around the virus? Certainly. Has there been terrifying dread when immediate or extended family members contracted the virus? Yes. And sadly, there has been grief in the loss of family and friends due to the virus. But another feeling also arose in many of our volunteers and clients that had them scratching their heads. For many of our LAP participants, inexplicably, this feeling seemed to eclipse most everything else. The feeling was one of immense relief.

We spend a fair amount of time educating the bar about the effects of stress, including the fight or flight response. In a great video by Nat Geo entitled, Stress: Portrait of a Killer (available on YouTube at https://youtu.be/eYG0ZuTv5rs), the opening scene shows a lion chasing a zebra. It also shows a man holding a briefcase waiting to get on the subway. The narrator explains that for the zebra, the fight or flight response is over in about three minutes. Either the zebra has gotten away or it’s over for the zebra. The narrator goes on to explain that the man on the subway is experiencing this heightened sense of fight or flight as well. But what is supposed to be a short-term, acute, survival response is experienced by many of us as a chronic day-in-and-day-out condition.

We often do not recognize in the moment that we are in “reactive mode,” a hyper-adrenalized heightened state of stress, fear or anger. It is only when the stimulus is removed that the highly reactive feeling dissipates. Only then can we recognize what was happening, because we have been restored to homeostasis, or a normal, responsive state. Hindsight is 20/20. But what happens if the stimulus is never removed? What if the feelings never have an opportunity to dissipate?

Tim Fall, a superior court judge in Northern California, documents in his short memoir, Running for Judge, his immediate fight or flight reaction to the phone call that alerted him he would have opposition in his reelection bid and the emotional toll it took on his life and relationships during the campaign. Even though judges in California are first appointed and then reelected, it is unusual for them to have an opponent in a reelection year. He wrote the book specifically to document his “mental illness” and reduce the stigma associated with these conditions in the legal profession. One might question his use of the words “mental illness” to describe a totally normal fight or flight response to a threat. Personally, I would not put his reaction in the category of mental illness. Nevertheless, he does a great job of documenting how he experiences this prolonged fight or flight response in his emotional state and bodily response. It’s not a cliffhanger, so this technically doesn’t qualify as a spoiler alert. The moment he is reelected, he gets the first good night’s sleep since the fateful phone call that started the ball rolling. His symptoms magically vanish into thin air. Poof. Gone. He feels immense relief. He finally feels normal again, like his old self.

That’s essentially what happened to LAP participants. It was only when courts closed, and the day-to-day work demands vanished overnight, that many of our participants finally felt the deep relief they had been seeking for years. This recognition of the curious feeling of relief permeated LAP support group meeting discussions across the state.

I think for many LAP participants, there was not only relief from the chronic fight-or-flight reactive state, but also relief in finally understanding and really getting that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with them. It really was the job – or their totally normal reaction to it. The COVID-19 lock down provided an odd vehicle for delivering a sense of validation. Had I been asked in February, I could not have predicted it. Many LAP participants felt “normal,” like their old selves, for the first time in years, despite all the additional COVID-19 pressures. And whatever COVID-19 pressures they were feeling, these were the same pressures as everybody else.

We often say, and we have published in our law school brochure, “You are having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.” The legal profession is a super abnormal situation, right from the forced-curve get go. With its winner-take-all adversarial nature, its unrelenting demands, and the inherently competitive people who are attracted to it, it creates a pronounced and prolonged abnormal situation for its members. It was only when the abnormal situation was suddenly, wholesale removed that LAP participants went back to a baseline emotional state that, for many, pre-dated law school. We now have LAP participants who are seriously considering leaving the practice of law – or at least the version of law that they are practicing today. They are realizing they have greater agency in choosing circumstances that affect the way they feel and their attendant day-to-day quality of life.

Unfortunately, the prolonged stress, having to fight to accomplish everything (big and small), repeated exposure to other people’s trauma, with no real break in the cycle, all can create PTSD-like symptoms in many attorneys. One need not be a personal trauma survivor to “catch” and display the hyper-adrenalized reactivity found in the neurological dysregulation cycle of actual trauma survivors. When we are in this hyper-adrenalized, PTSD-like reactive state, we are largely unconscious of it. It takes a lot of mindfulness and personal awareness to come back to ourselves. Hard exercise breaks the PTSD-symptom cycle because it releases the adrenaline and cortisol that has built up in our bodies. Sometimes, we just need a different job.

We don’t necessarily need to leave the practice of law altogether. I’m a big fan of what I affectionately call, “bushwhacking your way into a law practice that works for you.” I want to give a quick shout out to friends from law school who have done this. If high stakes litigation or family law is your thing, that’s awesome. Seriously. I have had some lawyers ask, like a form of survivors’ guilt, if something was wrong with them because they were happy practicing law. There is nothing wrong with you for liking what you do and succeeding at it. I knew immediately that litigation was not a good fit for me. One case was all it took, with both the facts and the law on our side! I finally ended up in a transactional and regulatory practice in both in-house and small-firm settings. I excelled. It was interesting, intellectually challenging and complex work. I was happy, as were my clients. It was a good fit for my relationship-driven personality and business acumen. Had I remained in litigation, no amount of therapy or medication would have eased my hyper-adrenalized, paranoid, anxiety-ridden, sleepless state.

LAP often interfaces with lawyers who have entered the discipline and grievance process. Some become LAP clients, but some do not. A lawyer who did not work with us at the time recently emailed me. I have included this with his permission.

“I shared with [a therapist I know] my personal search for a mental health diagnosis that fits the criteria for what I had experienced during that time in my life [when a grievance was filed against the lawyer]. The self-diagnosis was Prolonged Stress Disorder. The symptoms mirror PTSD, but instead of there being one major event causing the disorder, there is persistent stress over time. I did not research any further once I was satisfied that I had not just become a bad person. I realize I was always a good person, just one with clouded judgment from prolonged stress. And I had a lot of circumstances going on that demanded better judgment than I was able to exercise at that time in my life. So, I have a special appreciation for LAP, because you all see everyone as I was able to ultimately see myself.”

It can be daunting to really admit to ourselves that we are in this chronic fight or flight state. First, it might be difficult to recognize because we have been living with it for so long. Also, admitting it means we probably have to do something about it. LAP has supported lawyers through the years as they have navigated this terrain. Whether it is transitioning to a new or different job in the law or learning and practicing mindfulness and meditation tools, the path is as unique as each person with whom we work.

[1] This article represents observations only about trends we noticed with established LAP participants, not the bar at large or new clients who just began working with our program during the COVID-19 lockdown.

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