COLUMN > A Note From the WSBA Executive Director
BY TERRA NEVITT
It is remarkable how much the sun influences my well-being. As we welcome the longer days on this side of the spring equinox, my mood blooms in step with an adorable patch of mini-daffodils alongside my front walk. This year the changes feel particularly dramatic as we start to move tentatively toward what might become our new normal: living with an endemic COVID-19 virus. As we have experienced, the path forward will not be linear. Even as mask mandates begin to lift, we are watching a new variant increase case counts in parts of Europe and Asia. While some colleagues and loved ones have joyfully shed their masks (while they can?), others are taking a more cautious approach. I suspect this two-steps-forward-one-step-back dance will continue for quite some time.
The other day I told my colleagues that it feels like a hard time to be human. The news over the last few years has featured a parade of devastation, death, anger, divisiveness, and injustice. It’s unrelenting and it’s taking a toll—mentally, physically, and spiritually. At the same time, isn’t our history littered with devastation, death, anger, divisiveness, and injustice? I suppose, in many ways, it’s always been hard to be a human, for some more than others. And yet, and as always, part of our human nature is to find joy—sometimes despite and sometimes in direct response to what is happening around us.
I have found a tremendous measure of solace in rejecting “all or nothing” thinking in favor of “both and.” The light and the dark, the good and the bad … they exist all at once. And (see what I did there?), sometimes it’s really hard to find the light. Sometimes the joy of a daffodil struggles to compete with the images of death and destruction in Ukraine or the realization that families just like my own are being accused of child abuse simply for affirming their kiddos’ gender identities.
Throughout my legal career, I have observed a lot of “all or nothing” thinking.
As a profession, legal practitioners are prone to black-and-white narratives (I am a total success or a failure; something is either right or wrong) and disqualifying the positive. Some psychologists have even suggested that the tendency toward pessimism, to catastrophize, and to think in absolutes are thinking patterns lawyers learn in law school in order to be successful.11 www.michbar.org/file/barjournal/article/documents/pdf4article3495.pdf
So what is a human to do? And a human in the legal profession, at that? It’s a cliché, but I think it’s true: You really do have to secure your own oxygen mask first before you can help others. As legal professionals, we spend most of our lives in service to others, often during the most difficult times in our clients’ lives. And emotional well-being and self-care have not exactly been hallmarks of our profession.
Long before the pandemic, the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being sounded the alarm about problem drinking, depression, anxiety, stress, suicide, social alienation, work addiction, sleep deprivation, job dissatisfaction, a “diversity crisis,” lack of work-life balance, incivility, an over emphasis on profit, and negative public perceptions of the profession and the justice system. In 2018, their report implored the legal profession, legal employers, law schools, and bar associations to take action in service of our businesses, our clients, and ourselves.22 www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/task_force_report/.
At the state Bar, we are listening, learning, and responding to these studies, and, most importantly, to the experiences of our members. And that means striving to make well-being in the law a priority. As you have read about in previous columns in this magazine, we have recommitted to national wellness best practices. One significant step has been to change and expand our member wellness model. We are in the process of hiring a full-time employee so members who call for mental health consultations will connect with a licensed mental health professional who focuses on the legal profession, instead of being referred to an outside agency. This wellness expert will also support the entire legal profession in Washington by creating relevant CLEs and resources available to all. Please stay tuned for more WSBA communications as we roll out these services.
I also want to mention that WSBA leaders are tackling head-on the stigma that seems to be associated with talking about mental health in the legal profession, especially in a personally vulnerable way. As an example, I commend past WSBA President Rajeev Majumdar, who has very candidly shared his mental-health challenges and journey with colleagues. (Please take a listen by going to https://nwsidebar.wsba.org and searching “mental health journey.”)
And here I am, also trying to normalize this important conversation. My own self-care practices have been critical in getting through these last few years as a parent, a professional, and a partner. Those practices include a commitment to daily yoga, regular therapy with a licensed professional, frequent walks in the fresh air throughout the workday, lots of good belly laughs with the people I love, and perhaps most importantly, perspective taking. What does that mean? In the most difficult moments, I focus on the people and things that matter most. I focus on the warm feeling I get from the sun on my shoulders and a sweet face of a daffodil emerging from the spring soil. I focus on the joy that exists alongside the difficulty.
After all, being human is hard. And it is also glorious. I get to make the choice about where I choose to focus.
I would love to hear about your own habits of health and wellness as we head toward May 2-6, which is Well-Being Week in Law. Please reach out, and we will compile and share!