There is no shortage of written information proclaiming the practice of law can be a career choice rife with stress – often having adverse effects on overall health and personal relationships. What doesn’t receive as much attention is the autonomous nature of the work which can leave lawyers feeling isolated, disconnected, and lonely. After reflecting on his experience, one seasoned attorney shared, “Law school transformed (my) academic motivation into a fierce competitive outlook focused on winning and outperforming my classmates.” So, while this shift in mindset largely delivers qualified, hungry lawyers driven to succeed, it doesn’t easily translate into bonds of friendship where high-performers feel accepted and connected to their peers. As one firm’s managing partner observed, “Judgement and amity cannot easily coexist.”
When the topic of feeling disconnected was broached at a YLD meeting last month, numerous heads were nodding as one junior lawyer expressed her surprise that – after being hired as an Associate – she encountered very little camaraderie amongst other Associates. Piggybacking on that sentiment, another attorney in attendance admitted, “Everyone knows that being a first-year Associate is a grind, and since there were at least a dozen of us in the trenches together, I assumed the misery-loves-company thing would cause us to form friendships. I made one lasting friendship there, but otherwise, the group didn’t hang out.”
Differing causes (solo practice, fear of vulnerability, crunch for billable time, perfectionism) have been offered as possible reasons attorneys consistently post some of the highest numbers experiencing poor mental health. Understandably, since the pandemic’s arrival, isolation and lack of face-to-face interaction have exacerbated the situation. According to ALM’s 2021 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey (May 2021, Law.com) that of the 3,200 law firm attorneys and staff who participated, 70.35 % stated that COVID made their mental health worse.
Connection is defined as the state of having something in common. So, rather than just possessing the knowledge of a shared experience, could it actually be that loneliness diminishes only after a conversation about the commonality occurs? Some say that engaging in conversation is the key to feeling a part of…something: a group, a friendship, a team. Whether it be an engaging conversation over a mutual sadness or a lively repartee where laughter is shared, our body’s release of chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin – are the necessary ingredients for connecting…authentically.
Much has been written about serotonin and dopamine. But, what about the third feel-good chemical? Oxytocin is often described as the “touchy-feely” chemical due to its prominent role in childbirth and has gotten quite a bit of press as the chemical released when mothers nurse their babies. But, pigeon-holing it solely in this description fails to take into account what scientists continue to uncover about its other roles, particularly that of influence. If oxytocin could be personified, it would drink Dos Equis.
Studies indicate behaviors that encourage the production of oxytocin result in decreased stress, fear, and anxiety – particularly social anxiety. Additional results from an “oxytocin flood” and its influence on our feelings include increased empathy, bonding, improved mental recall, feelings of loyalty, relaxation, and trust – a sales rep’s dream! It might not come as a shock then that individuals on the autism spectrum, including Asperger Syndrome, appear to have lower oxytocin levels. But, what is surprising is the challenge the medical community has had in administering oxytocin (brand name Pitocin®) in a way that successfully treats issues related to emotions and mental health. Although research is ongoing into the development of alternative medications and drug delivery methods to treat this condition, the best treatment may be our own willingness to take action because as they say, “Right action makes right thinking.”
Here are 25 actions (unrelated to law) in which an attorney (or anyone) can take to unleash their own chemical storm aimed at positive connections:
- Watch Brene Brown’s TED TALK and then break out of your comfort zone. Join a group related to your (non-work) interests.
- Walk the dog. Not the yoyo trick. Actually TAKE your dog (or someone else’s!) for a walk, interacting with neighbors or others along the way. No earbuds. That is a clear social cue that says, “Don’t talk to me.”
- Play Jackbox – This is a seriously fun and funny game to play with others online. Prizes are awarded so you can be competitive and social at the same time.
- Commit to a weekly coffee or lunch date with a group of friends or colleagues. Take this (self-care) commitment as seriously as you would a meeting with a client.
- Sign up for an in-person class to learn a new language.
- Take time out of your day to call the most fun, and uplifting person you know and catch up.
- Take a weekend tour of a historic landmark in your town. There are usually others on the tour and conversation can easily ensue over the many interesting facts learned.
- Ask for help. I KNOW. You HATE asking for help but consider this: how do you feel when someone asks you where you got your shoes or for the score of the big game? Most of us are happy to answer low-commitment questions. So, asking things like, “Where did you get your dog (pet topics almost always grease the wheels of potentially awkward social situations)?” or, “Do you have a favorite pizza place?” are a way of dipping your toe into the pool, assessing someone’s response to determine if they might be someone you could continue the conversation with.
- Dale Carnegie class – Yes, this is still a thing and they are awesome.
- Veterans History Project – Interview and record a military veteran’s story which then is housed in The Library of Congress.
- Nursing Home Bingo – Pop into a Nursing Home and play bingo with the residents.
- Library – Go to your community’s largest library. They are often a beehive of activity including opp for community involvement.
- Kiwanis, Rotary, Toastmasters, etc. – Join and sign up to participate in occasional activities.
- Volunteer to read a book to elementary school students.
- If you attend a church, check out their bulletin. There are many nominal commitment groups in which you can be of service.
- Join a genealogy group and learn what you are made of!
- Enter a chili cook-off.
- If your dog is friendly and social with other dogs, go to the dog park.
- Extra unused space in your home? Consider opening a space in your home to host out-of-town visitors through Airbnb.
- Search Facebook for events in your area. Their Events info has steadily gotten more robust and has pretty good filters to search for things aligned with your interests and schedule.
- If you have kids and frequent their activities, keep your phone in your pocket and set a goal to speak with 3 of the parents also on the sidelines. Who doesn’t love to talk about their children?!
- DIY workshop: Home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s offer short (2 hours) DIY workshops for those who want to build or fix something for the home.
- Is golf your thing or would you like it to be? Go to the driving range and hit some balls. If you have no experience, are terrible, and don’t take yourself too seriously, either someone will offer a tip or will tease you about the ball you hit that saved them a trip to the barber.
- Get out and feed the ducks at your local park.
- Weekly Team Trivia is super popular right now. Gather some friends and attend weekly events at your local pub or restaurant.
Growing beyond your comfort zone is never easy and there is no “perfect” standard. So, give yourself some grace and adjust your expectations accordingly. Quantity is not the win here, quality is. And, just like a best practice in your career, set a goal and write it down – such as trying 1 new behavior or activity geared towards interacting with others. If it feels awkward for a while, consider that the indication you are exactly where you should be. Similarly to starting a new workout where you may feel discomfort until your body adapts and muscles grow stronger, the same holds true for new choices and behaviors. In fact, many people are “out of shape” socially these days because we’ve ALL been cloistered (to varying degrees) for 2 years! Taking the risk and the time to improve mental health and feel a greater sense of belonging is an action you’ll never regret.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent advice from the National Institutes of Health, CDC or other medical entity. The author is not a doctor. Anyone experiencing mental health challenges should seek help from qualified professionals. If you are experiencing a mental health emergency, call 911 or immediately seek medical attention at your closest hospital.)