What are lawyers worried about in the midst of a global pandemic?
The issues are varied, from balancing childcare with work, to caring for vulnerable elderly family members, to financial concerns. Yet, there is a common thread: people are feeling the pressures of this moment in time and need a way to cope. While social media may say that it is necessary to be ultra-effective in all parts of our lives, that pressure is also exhausting. Building up resilience can help people acknowledge and accept the emotional distress they may be feeling.
Richa Sandill is concerned about the well-being of her low-income clients at Scarborough Legal Services, where she is a staff lawyer working with vulnerable workers: “My fear right now is that out there, a lot of people might have no choice but to sign onto major work condition changes without realizing the long-term consequences of doing so.”
Tanya Pagliaroli, the founding lawyer of TAP Law was in the middle of a four-week trial when the courts shut down. The trial was adjourned indefinitely. “If and when the trial resumes,” she says, “the cost involved in ramping up again for the continuation of the trial will be significant.”
Others are feeling vulnerable with respect to their effectiveness in their work. “I can accept that the professional environment that previously helped me attain and define my success no longer exists”, says Brieanne Brannagan, a partner at Gowlings WLG. However, she continues, “I am finding it challenging to put that understanding in practice when it comes to defining my own day-to-day success” in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A prominent perspective in the legal profession”, says psychotherapist Ellen Schlesinger, is the notion “that resiliency is an individual’s responsibility and it’s correlated with our ability to suffer or push through, often in silence.” Faced with an unprecedented and uncertain present, now is the right time (if it wasn’t already) to try to build resilience by acknowledging the uncertainty, rather than simply enduring it until it goes away.
Schlesinger encourages lawyers to, “first notice our suffering; second, not belittle or diminish it; third, turn towards the uncomfortable experience to investigate what needs are going unmet or disrespected; and fourth, engage in problem solving.” Problem solving means different things to different people. For one person it may mean reaching out to a safe person in whom to confide, such as a friend or therapist. For another, it may mean taking time away from our worries to focus on the task at hand.
Employing Schlesinger’s strategies, lawyers may notice some areas of discomfort: “Even a few months in, my expectations for myself are still stuck in ‘The Before,'" says Brieanne Brannagan.
Yet lawyers may also notice the areas of their practices that have not been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Richa Sandill is impressed by the litigation system’s ability to quickly adapt to the situation at hand, an ability that often eludes this profession. “We have had to suddenly modernize...I think we’re going to be set to have much more efficient practices that are, hopefully, also more cost efficient for clients.”
Tanya Pagliaroli has also seen successes in her practice: “My firm has always had a flexible work from home policy. The pandemic has demonstrated that my firm can be as productive working entirely from home as from the office or from a hybrid model.” However, it’s not all work for Pagliaroli. “I also made a point of ordering all the books I've wanted to read in the last year and have started reading for extended periods of time in the evenings and weekends when I'm not working.”
Taking stock of what is good does not diminish the terrible experiences and the very real worries with which lawyers and their clients are contending. A community’s resilience as a whole, Schlesinger says, is increased when people are allowed to notice the good and the bad, and accept that each of those experiences is valid.
Schlesinger advises that lawyers treat each other with kindness. “When we check-in on each other’s wellbeing; when we experience an equitable work environment; when there’s zero tolerance for racial or sexual harassment; when stigma towards mental health is diminished; and when help seeking is encouraged. With these as components of resilience, we learn to trust ourselves, we learn that when (not if) we experience a challenge, we can navigate our way through it.”
It may be time for many lawyers to reimagine success, and to move past the idea that they are required to fight their way through pain. When people are kind to themselves and to others, they are more likely to find the reserves to get through periods of emotional distress without burning out. “Finding a way to afford myself that kindness is critical,” says Brannagan. She adds, “With some patience, curiosity and a heavy dose of acceptance, I can see that living in the now has its perks.”
Ellen Schlesinger recently spoke as part of the OBA’s Mindful Lawyer Series. With her colleague, Melanie Banka Goela, she is currently offering free access to her course “From Anxiety to Ease” which assists legal professionals in coping with anxiety:
About the author
Rachel Migicovsky is a lawyer at Miller Thomson LLP and a member of the OBA’s Civil Litigation Section Executive.