Legal professionals operate in incredibly demanding and high-pressure work environments that lead many lawyers to struggle with severe stress, burnout and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Research into attorney mental health often reveals grim realities. For example, a recent study sponsored by the California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar found lawyers contemplate suicide at an “exceedingly high rate,” with 8.5% of lawyers surveyed reporting suicidal thoughts, compared to 4.2% of the U.S. population age 18 and over.
Conversations about lawyer wellness and resilience are becoming more commonplace and a growing number of firms are implementing well-being programs and strategies to help their staff navigate the stressors of the industry.
This episode of “Spill the Ink” is a must-listen for legal professionals who are looking for tactics to build resilience into their work lives. Host Michelle Calcote King invites Renee Branson, founder of RB Consulting and co-chair of the Legal Marketing Association’s Well-being Committee, to discuss the industry’s barriers to wellness and share her advice on how firms can support their employees in becoming more resilient.
Here's a glimpse of what you'll learn
Barriers and stigmas affecting mental health and personal well-being in the legal industry
How the industry’s attitude towards mental health has shifted over time
How law firms can incorporate resilience and well-being strategies
The six domains of resilience and why they matter
Tactics for managing stress and burnout as an attorney
About our featured guest
Renee Branson founded RB Consulting with a vision of bringing the power of resiliency into the workplace to help people cultivate mental well-being and help organizations maintain high-performing teams. At RB Consulting, Renee works with lawyers, legal marketers, business professionals, non-profit leaders and others to equip them with immediately usable tools to increase resiliency, well-being and optimism in the workplace. She’s a Certified Resilience Coach with a master's in counseling psychology and over 20 years of experience as a mental health professional, educator and non-profit executive. Renee serves as co-chair on the Legal Marketing Association’s Well-being Committee and is a member of the American Bar Association’s Attorney Well-Being Committee. She also serves as the Executive Director of the Sexual Assult Resource Agency, a non-profit agency working to eliminate sexual violence and its impacts through education, advocacy and support services in Charlottesville, VA, and surrounding counties.
Resources mentioned in this episode
Sponsor for this episode
This episode is brought to you by Reputation Ink.
Founded by Michelle Calcote King, Reputation Ink is a public relations and content marketing agency that serves professional services firms of all shapes and sizes across the United States, including corporate law firms and architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms.
Reputation Ink understands how sophisticated corporate buyers find and select professional services firms. For more than a decade, they have helped firms grow through thought leadership-fueled strategies, including public relations, content marketing, video marketing, social media, podcasting, marketing strategy services and more.
To learn more, visit www.rep-ink.com or email them at email@example.com today.
[00:00:00] Renee Branson: He said, "Hey, I saw that you're a trained therapist," and I said, "That's right," and he said, "I just have to let you know that this profession is killing us."
[00:00:11]: Welcome to “Spill the Ink,” a podcast by Reputation Ink where we feature experts in growth and brand visibility for law firms and architecture, engineering and construction firms. Now, let's get started with the show.
[00:00:29] Michelle Calcote King: Hey everyone, and welcome to “Spill the Ink.” I'm Michelle Calcote King, I'm your podcast host, and I'm also the principal and president of Reputation Ink. We're a public relations and content marketing agency for law firms and other professional services firms. To learn more, go to rep-ink.com.
May is a Mental Health Awareness Month and in recognition, we're going to spend the month focusing on conversations that help law firms prevent and address attorney burnout, stress, and anxiety, and generally support well-being in this demanding industry.
Today, I've got Renee Branson joining me. She's a Certified Resilience Coach — I love that, resilience — with a master's in counseling psychology. She's the founder and principal of RB Consulting where she works to help businesses including law firms establish and fortify their well-being programs. She's delivered several keynote speeches and presentations about the importance of resiliency and well-being, including for the Legal Marketing Association. Thanks for coming on the show.
[00:01:30] Renee Branson: Thanks for having me.
[00:01:32] Michelle Calcote King: I'm excited to talk about this. I definitely want to dig into that concept around resiliency. The older you get, you learn the importance of resiliency in your life.
[00:01:41] Renee: For sure.
[00:01:42] Michelle: Let's talk first about your consulting work just to set the stage and so that everyone understands what you do in this area.
[00:01:52] Renee: My background, as you mentioned, is in counseling psychology and I've spent most of my career in that realm and specifically in the realm of nonprofit work working with survivors of trauma, both childhood and adulthood trauma. From that, I really learned a lot about what it means to foster resilience and when folks do have higher levels of resilience, their ability to move beyond traumatic experiences in their life. It was several years ago, I was having a conversation, actually with an attorney and it was a large law firm, and I was working for a nonprofit and I was meeting him as a potential donor actually in a completely different year of life. He said, "Hey, I saw that you're a trained therapist," and I said, "That's right," and he said, "I just have to let you know that this profession is killing us." It was such a dynamic shift of okay, this is no longer a donor meeting, right?
[00:03:06] Michelle: Yes.
[00:03:08] Renee: It haunted me, stuck with me, and really started to look at what are some of the specific needs in the legal space. Why is it that professionals in the legal space are maybe more vulnerable or lack some of the skills around resilience? And applying what I knew about trauma to the professional space. Trauma can be a lower “t” trauma or the big capital “T” trauma, but we all experience traumas throughout the course of our life. None of us get out of here without that.
[00:03:48] Michelle: Yes. That was actually going to be my next question is what is it about the legal industry that makes it particularly prone to these challenges? What is it about this industry that makes attorneys have less resilience, and the professionals in the firms?
[00:04:10] Renee: I think one of the things that I've noticed is that there's both an external and internal factors that are at play and make this perfect storm. I'm just speaking some generalities here. This is certainly not the case for everybody or every experience, but generally speaking, if you look at what makes a good attorney, you're looking at high levels of perfectionism, high levels of wanting to have autonomy. And then externally, a pressure to not show vulnerability or not to ask for help. Those external pressures and that makes that perfect storm of being able to say, "Oh, I'm supposed to be bulletproof."
Also, we swim in this environment of then a lot of other bad coping mechanisms easily and readily available to us particularly in this industry, whether it's the constant cocktail party social hours, the really late nights of work where now we're chronically sleep-deprived, so we're certainly not functioning. That absolutely lowers our ability to be resilient. There's a reason why people torture people by not letting them sleep.
[00:05:50] Michelle: Right.
[00:05:53] Renee: That is really just that perfect storm that creates that breeding ground.
[00:06:00] Michelle: How have you seen the industry's attitudes change around this topic and what's driven that change?
[00:06:08] Renee: I think what's driven the change is this, we're starting to see not only high-profile deaths by suicide, people are seeing their colleagues suffer really from addictions and just general health issues. I think it started to become more noticeable. I also know that when folks are really struggling and are at the point of burnout, rates of negligence or even malpractice rise because folks aren't on their A game. They're really struggling and so rises in that kind of situation, so there's really a component of ethics. That it's the ethical decision to maintain resilience not only personally but then uphold it as an industry standard.
[00:07:15] Michelle: Yes, it's interesting. I saw that play out. I was a member of the Florida Bar's committee that oversaw when there were complaints by the public of attorneys, and I would say 9 times out of 10 there was a mental health issue or addiction issue involved where then they didn't uphold their duty of service to the client. Absolutely, I can see how it's an ethics issue.
If I'm a law firm leader and I realize this is an important issue and I want to help, what are ways law firm leaders — and I know one of them is hiring someone like you — how can they help? What are some of the things that you help firms put into place to help their attorneys and professionals?
[00:08:02] Renee: That's a great question because I think it's one of the things just like, it would be the same if I were to try to go into a law firm and provide some kind of legal advice, that's the fish out of water. It's really hard for switching that mindset over for those in the legal profession to say, "Okay, what do we need?" I think, first of all, having some good folks around you who really are experts in the field, whether that’s someone you actually fully bring on board, or you're just working with, so they really understand the psychology behind change and the psychology behind that. That's I think a critical point.
I think also looking at it really holistically, it can't be a bolt-on. I always only half-joke about, "Yes, it's great to have a massage chair in the break room and fruit in a fruit bowl and bring someone like me in for once-a-year hour-long talk," that's great. I'll never turn that down but it has to be really that holistic change. Looking at how do we function as a firm, how do our policies reflect. If we say our values are the wellbeing of our attorneys and the legal professionals who work with them, how does that show up in the policy and our process and our procedures of how we do business from day to day?
[00:09:38] Michelle: It's looking at all the structures and processes and how they work and seeing where some of that might be contributing and doing that analysis. I like that.
[00:09:48] Renee: Right.
[00:09:49] Michelle: What are some critical times, I'm sure there are times when you've noticed firms tend to reach out to you more. Are there some critical times when mental health training might be more useful than other times, or when does it trigger in a law firm leader's mind, "Oh, this is an issue."
[00:10:07] Renee: Oftentimes, it is maybe after something's happened. Or there's a lot of either discord going on in the firm and they can feel the heat rising, or there really has been a tragedy happen in their firm, either a suicide or some noticeable addictions where that's become something that— Oftentimes, that's the time when I'll get called. What I always try to let people know is the best time to make yourself personally and your organization really resilient is when the sun is shining. You've got the ability to build that real strong resilient base when you're not already in crisis mode. It's like trying to sell a parachute after you've already been pushed up out of the plane, so really getting that foundational thing and then being able to build on the strength.
[00:11:17] Michelle: Right. I say the same about marketing and PR. Don't come looking for marketing help when your revenue is down and you're desperate for work. You got to do it when things are good because it's such a long-term strategy.
[00:11:35] Renee: Here I am.
[00:11:35] Michelle: Yes, no worries. Oh, technology.
[00:11:40] Renee: I know it.
[00:11:41] Michelle: You alluded to this a minute ago but what are some of the stigmas around mental health and the legal profession? What do you see are the stigmas that create the barriers to getting help?
[00:11:54] Renee: I think the big one is that fear of being or looking vulnerable. Early on when I started working in this space, I realized the disconnect between when I used the word vulnerable and what people would hear were really very different things. It made sense to me. I figured out that we were talking in two different ways. Someone said to me once, "Listen, Renee, we don't do vulnerability. We don't do vulnerability because vulnerability in the legal world means…that's when mistakes happen. That's when there's weaknesses. We do everything we can to shore-up those vulnerabilities. That's our job." That made a lot of sense to me.
There's a reason. Even sometimes when the tools and behaviors that we are doing are unhelpful to us in one realm, they're very helpful to us in another realm. By understanding that, I tried to really help people understand that. If you think about vulnerability, if you think about anything you've ever gotten in life that you've ever wanted whether it's been in your professional career, in your personal life, whatever that might be, there was always an element of vulnerability in that. There was always that moment of risk where I could either get it or not get it. I'm putting myself out there on the line that goes through the relationships that we're in and the jobs that we want.
Seeing vulnerability and that openness to risk actually brings a lot of reward, and so leaning into a vulnerability of saying, "You know what? I need something different for my life. I need to start adding some things onto taking a look at what's not working for me anymore. What tool used to work and isn't anymore?" When I talk about resilience, I talk about the six different domains, I refer to them as books. Six different domains of resilience. Sometimes you might be really high on some areas of resilience and really need to then turn up the dial on some others and so being able to sit back and look at, "Where do I really need to pour some energy into so it's filling my cup back up?"
[00:14:25] Michelle: I'd love to hear what those six different domains are if you don't mind sharing.
[00:14:28] Renee: Yes, absolutely, I would love to. I talk about them in no particular order and that's because, like I said, they're all at different points. Sometimes, we might need one more than the other. When we talk about those six resilience domains, I call them books because I think of this as a library. We'll pull down one of the shelf sometimes when we need it.
One of them is calm. The ability to calm and soothe ourselves in the moment. It's one of our very first skills that we learn as human beings when we think about the ability to self-soothe. We had caregivers who nursed us and rocked us and cared for us and then shortly after, as still in infancy, we learned how to self-soothe. We suck our thumb. Babies hold teddy bears or wrapping blankets, so that ability to self-soothe is critically important.
Now, we don't walk around pacifiers anymore, so then what do we do? Sometimes, we forget that we have that capacity in the moment that can be offline for us, particularly, when we're already at a [sound cut] rate of that kind of chronic stress. I talk about, we all have stress that it spikes and it'll go back down and it'll spike and it'll go back down. When we're in a chronic state of stress and it'll spike and maybe it'll go down a little bit, then it'll spike up again and it'll go down just a little bit or maybe it doesn't and it flatlines. Even in our new baseline, we've got cortisol coursing through our bodies, and so that ability to calm and self-soothe.
We really need to focus on just our health, how we are physically treating our bodies and also what our body is telling us. We know that stress and health are really, really closely related. If we're getting chronic headaches, if we're having constant gut issues, that's a sign of what is our body telling us. Feeding ourselves literally well, getting sleep, all of that is a big component of it.
A third one is, and this is one that folks often don't really think about, but it's staying connected to our values. Values is a huge one. This goes back to what I was saying that if a law firm says that one of their values is the well-being of its people and it says it's on the values that hangs on the walls of every law firm but they're not really living into that. There's an incongruence. We're incongruent with our values and that state of being is stressful in and of itself.
[00:17:25] Michelle: Right. Yes, absolutely.
[00:17:26] Renee: We ask ourselves, "Where are we personally and as an organization? Are we staying aligned in our values? Are we living in the integrity of what we say we value?" Really in a moment then of crisis, challenge or change, we can say, "Okay, what value do we need to make sure that we're really upholding here?" because we know that anytime, both personally and professionally, when there's a moment of crisis challenge or change, those are the times that will also challenge our values the most because we're looking for an easy exit from the discomfort or the stress of it, so staying really, really close to our values.
[00:18:12] Michelle: I like that.
[00:18:17] Renee: Especially with the organization, if any one did have to be top of the list, I really would put that one I think at the top.
Also, our ability to reason. We know that when we are under an enormous amount of stress, our thinking brain, our logic goes offline.
[00:18:40] Michelle: That's so true, yes.
[00:18:43] Renee: Because we've got our little lizard brain which is — I don't know if you've ever heard of the brain is like a hand. We've got that fibula deep down in there that is really messing with us and telling us that we're in danger, and so we've got no blood flowing to the thinking parts of our brain. So keeping those on line, being able to recognize— I always recognize that when I've read something three times and I still haven't comprehended anything I've just read, then I know, "Okay, I just need to push back from the desk."
[00:19:12] Michelle: I need to slow down, stop, take a break. Yes, I hear that.
[00:19:16] Renee: That's right. Recognizing that, not letting it freak us out too much. We're like, "Oh my gosh, I've lost my marbles here," and give ourselves that ability. When we are able to get back online with that, then we're much more easily able to adapt to the challenge or change that we're going through. We're much more likely to be able to learn from it and actually have that, be that. We talk about positive stress, too, that growth-based stress that stretches us and helps us grow. That's something with reason.
We talk about optimism and optimism for me, it can be a bit sticky. Right now, I'm also the executive director of a sexual assault resource agency. I know that bad things happen to good people for no reason. Sometimes when I think about — or at least when I used to think about optimism, it was like the sunny side of the street, don't worry, be happy, good vibes only, which didn't resonate with me.
To learn that optimism really is a more grounded kind of optimism, that means simply that the current crisis, challenge or change isn't permanent. It's not going to last forever, even when we think it is. That it is not pervasive. It doesn't touch every single aspect of our life, so really to take a moment to say, "Okay, what of this problem isn't touching what part of my life and can I lean in and get some relief, some joy, take a breath in that space?
Finally, the third P is that it's not personal. Yes, it impacts, me but it's not because of me. It's not because I'm a bad person or I'm worthless. If I believe those things, I can still feel sad in the moment. I can still feel frustrated in the moment but I still have some optimism because I know it's not permanent, pervasive or personal.
[00:21:22] Michelle: I love that. Yes, it's like a perspective almost.
[00:21:26] Renee: That's right.
[00:21:26] Michelle: It's not just being positive for positive reasons. It's just gaining the perspective so that you don't obsess over the negative and you can put it in the right place almost is what it sounds like you're saying.
[00:21:38] Renee: Yes, that's right. The very last one really quickly is connection. We are hard-wired to be connected with one another, and it matters less about how many people we're connected to. We are so hyper-connected to everyone around the world all the time, 24/7, but that real, authentic, deep connection. Even if we just have a few people in our lives and even better, if we've got even just one person in our place of work where we feel that we can show up authentically, that can be literally life-changing.
[00:22:15] Michelle: Yes, absolutely. I wonder, too, and I know what you were saying there is about deep connections but the advance of remote work and how that impacts mental health, I could see it having both positive and negative impacts, and the negative from the connection side of things.
[00:22:34] Renee: Yes, I think that's right. I think that's one of the things that we will be learning about and studying for decades to come. I think we learned because we needed to. Again, it's about this being adaptive in the midst of a crisis.
Just a personal example, I joined this online book club group at the beginning of the pandemic and there's a core of five of us from all around the country who've only met in person, some of us just once. Actually, I saw one friend in Chicago last week, but really deep connections. We text each other daily and check on each other's lives and ask about our kids. It can happen remotely but we have to be more intentional about it because we don't have those off-the-cuff water cooler moments. Intentionality is really important.
[00:23:34] Michelle: I love that. Yes, I love all your points about resilience. For me, it wasn't something I really understood as a concept. I think a lot of people don't understand it until they go through a few things and they go, "Oh, this is what resilience looks like," and if you can get ahead of that, especially in such a demanding profession where you are expected to be the perfect one with the bulldog kind of persona, it's so incredibly important.
Last thing I wanted to ask was around burnout and stress. Attorneys are expected to bill crazy amount of hours. I don't know if you've seen, there was a big drama the last couple of weeks where a PowerPoint presentation went viral, and it was in one of the big Am Law 100 firms. It was basically saying, "Look, you're at the big leagues. This is how it is. This is your life. You're online 24/7. Don't complain," and it caused this big uproar. In an industry that demands that, how do you help attorneys avoid that burnout and stress, or how can they help themselves?
[00:24:47] Renee: I might have lost you there for just a second.
[00:24:49] Michelle: Oh, that's okay. Sorry. I was just saying, how can attorneys honestly help themselves or what tools do you give them for avoiding that burnout and stress before they get to that point where it becomes a real big problem?
[00:25:02] Renee: Gosh, it's so important to have a firm that is not like the one you were mentioning that really does have that space to say, "You're allowed to be human, and as a matter of fact, we need you to be human," but we don't all have that pleasure or ability at the moment to have that kind of support. I think having some of these resilience skills on board, knowing how to advocate for yourself and advocate some systemic change, I think is really important, but the idea of being able to grind oneself down and then maybe get a week or two weeks of vacation, even if in an ideal world, you really do log off for those two weeks, which I don't know any attorney in my life I've known that's really fully done that.Let's say, even if that's the case, you're already at such a point, you're not getting up to a recovery level at that point.
[00:26:15] Michelle: Right.
[00:26:18] Renee: There's not a magic reset button, just like whether it comes to getting in physical shape, too. We can't just go away kind of on a warrior weekend and all of a sudden, we come back and we're in a marathon after a weekend of a running camp or something. It's that those consistent small changes that we can make, that are within our control, are even more important when we have things that are out of our control.
One of the things, when I talk to law firm leaders, is I'm not always going to be able to get them to see the altruistic benefit of making changes. That's just the reality and that's okay, but we can also make the economic argument for this that it really does cost in real money and in real reputation, which results in real money, when you're just grinding your folks down to a nub. We know that that makes an impact as well. Investing in well-being doesn't have to be for altruistic reasons, it can be for just plain old economic reasons as well, and that's okay with me as long as it gets done.
[00:27:39] Michelle: Yes, nothing wrong with that. Yes, exactly. Nothing wrong with showing the tie to more revenue and a more effective business, so that's great. Well, thank you so much. A really great conversation, really topical for the month of May as we celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month and we're shining a light on some of those issues.
We've been talking to Renee Branson of RB Consulting. Renee, if a law firm leader listening to this right now wants to get in touch and learn more about you, where should they go?
[00:28:12] Renee: They can find me on my website which is simply just reneebranson.blog or my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. That's probably the easiest way to reach out. I'd be delighted to talk to more folks.
[00:28:28] Michelle: Great. Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
[00:28:32] Renee: Thank you so much. Take care.
[00:28:36]: Thanks for listening to “Spill the Ink,” a podcast by Reputation Ink. We'll see you again next time. Be sure to click subscribe to get future episodes.
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