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November 2021


Well-being is always a work in progress

1121-Wellness-Progress
By Rachell Henning

A career in the legal profession is not for the faint of heart. After working in the field for over 12 years, first in a human resources-administrative capacity and now as an attorney, I can attest that our profession is no walk in the park. Yet if you are like me and the countless attorneys with whom I have had the pleasure to work over the years, you could not imagine doing anything else. So how can we handle the stressors of the job while enjoying the fruits of our hard work? 

Enter the world of wellness. A quick scroll through Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, or any other platform out there will suffice to inundate you with wellness hacks or people pushing supplements, workouts, clothing, etc. The wellness industry is quite lucrative, but attorneys’ well-being should be about more than just our physical state. With our job comes a lot of stress, anxiety, demands on our time, work-life balance challenges, and dare I say, ethical quandaries. I found that when I am not taking care of all elements of my wellness, I am not able to give my all to the different facets of my life. I’m sure many can relate to this predicament and the question, how do I balance it all? My answer to myself has been that I simply cannot do it all and lead a perfectly healthy life of uninterrupted serenity, but I can do what I can. My journey is not a pretty one, but I hope it is one many people can relate to. 

Sleep

During my first year as an associate office administrator handling human resources, staffing, phone systems, and pretty much any other random task that the office administrator wanted to pass off, I rarely got a decent night’s sleep. My husband and I moved into an apartment while we were building our home. We had a perfect almost two-year old daughter, Kenna, who would put herself to sleep each night by the time she was able to walk. She would say, “I go bed now” and grab her blanket and we would follow her into her room and tuck her in. 

This all changed when we moved into the apartment. Around the same time, I discovered I was pregnant with our second child, Isi. What started as a struggle with Kenna’s adjusting to a new place to live transitioned to a colicky little sister and a nearly seven-year struggle with getting a decent night’s rest. During that time we purchased every swing, wrap, bed, comforter, and sleep guide out there. Unfortunately, this also meant that I did not sleep much. Between the constant worries that come with the legal profession and the drive to be perfect and a child who could not sleep, I was definitely not the picture of health and wellness. It was not until my second semester of law school that we were able to get Isi, then almost seven years old, to a sleep specialist who diagnosed her with restless leg syndrome. With the right combination of medications and sessions with a sleep psychologist, she finally became able to sleep through the night without issue. 

Finally, it was my turn to deal with my own sleep, which was so off-kilter after years of neglect that I too sought the assistance of specialists to address sleep apnea and sleep hygiene. I worked with a counselor to learn how to process the events of the day and then let them go so that I could get a decent night’s sleep. The weirdest ritual, and one I use to this day, was to have a specific place on the headboard of my bed that I place my hand each night to leave my worries and stress from the day. This helps me to transition from the day and into rest. 

As law students, parents, and professionals, we have all known the difficulties of functioning after a night (or consecutive nights) of little to no sleep. We like to believe we are invincible and can power through the next day, but eventually it does catch up—with harmful effects on your overall well-being and your ability to perform at your best. Making quality sleep a priority is one of the first steps to achieving physical and mental well-being. 

Work-life balance

One of the biggest challenges I have faced during my time in the legal profession has been disconnecting from work. As an elder law practitioner, this has proven even more challenging, since my practice is very hands-on. I treat my clients as if they were family and try to provide around-the-clock availability to help address crisis situations. This approach has helped me to grow my practice quickly, but it has come at the price of blurring the lines between when I am at work and when I am home. I know this is not an uncommon theme among attorneys. As an office administrator, I worked with many attorneys who had the same tenacity and dedication to their clients. As practitioners, we need to recognize that this level of service is not sustainable if there is not some way to disconnect. 

Disconnecting can take many different forms. For some, it is planning a two-week long annual golfing trip to some exotic destination. For others, it is simply taking a weekend off without going into the office or doing work at home. But in our profession, the reality of taking time off involves a lost income cost-benefit analysis. My experience on the administrative side of a law firm helped me to see how important it is to be able to take a break, relax, and do some self-care. When I tried to run non-stop for days on end, I would get tired and run down and experience health issues. In the long run, it was not worth it to try to keep pushing—I would end up sick and have to take off more time than had I just taken a day off here and there to settle the fight-or-flight reflexes that are ever present in our practice. 

When I went to law school, my first year was beyond stressful between working full-time and attending law school part-time. I was never really disconnected from either world. I missed first days of school for my kids as well as birthdays and other milestones while I was busy either working, studying, or attending class. The hybrid program at Mitchell Hamline allowed me the flexibility to do law school on my own schedule while working full-time to support my family. I was able to be there for basketball games and events, but I always had a textbook or laptop along to help me stay on top of work and school. This approach helped me prepare for practice as well. 

I have worked hard to be more conscientious about the boundary between work and personal life. I advise my clients that I typically review and respond to emails promptly after hours and on weekends, except for when I am at my children’s activities. I have yet to experience clients pushing back against this. It also affords me time to be guilt-free and in the moment with my kids and enjoy them while they are young. 

While I enjoy a level of autonomy and flexibility in the firm where I practice, I know others in the profession are not so lucky. For those whose practices are more demanding or whose firms have high expectations about accessibility for clients and colleagues, I still urge people to try to find a way to get some balance. Even if you are turning off your email notifications when you are on vacation and looking at your work email once every few hours instead, you are creating a boundary. It will help you relax and recharge so you can return to work refreshed. You won’t be as overwhelmed by a slew of emails because you will have kept up with them, but you will also have allowed yourself some time to disconnect. 

Priorities 

Let’s face it: We are torn in multiple directions all day every day in all facets of our lives. I am torn between work, home, kids’ activities, volunteer activities, and trying to grow my practice. At work, I am torn between current client needs, prospective client needs, and administrative responsibilities. Like many of you, there are days I finally get to sit down and breathe at 3 p.m. and realize I have yet to eat lunch or use the bathroom. Continuing at a break-neck pace is not sustainable, and triaging crisis after crisis can take its toll. 

I often rely on advice that I received as a 15-year-old disc jockey at a small radio station in the middle of South Dakota: “What’s up next comes first.” It sounds like the most obvious statement, but all too often we get overwhelmed by the various demands placed on us and may procrastinate or choose to work on easier projects first. Over my career, I have observed firsthand that such tactics rarely result in superior work product or less stress. Instead, they have the exact opposite effect on attorneys and support staff alike. To combat the long nights and last-minute, barely met deadlines, the simple concept of doing what is up first helps to prioritize my time. It helps me when I am facing two clients with emergencies. I need to evaluate the urgency of the matters and prioritize accordingly. For larger projects, breaking them out into smaller parts and assigning intermediate deadlines helps ensure that projects with deadlines far off in the future do not get put off in order to address immediate fires. 

Another helpful tool is to have detailed procedures lists to keep you and your support staff on track with projects. This is easier to develop for some practice areas than others. The time spent developing such tools may be tedious on the front end, but the peace of mind and order they bring are invaluable. It keeps all project team members on the same page concerning the status of the project, next steps, deadlines, etc. This can also be accomplished through task or project management tools. 

When you have tools to manage the workload, managing your priorities outside of work becomes more doable too. Knowing that I can look at my files and see where they stand and what needs to be done allows me the peace of mind to go home at night knowing I have things covered and can switch off. If I need to leave to take kids to appointments or to address personal matters, I can plan so that I have things covered ahead of time instead of trying to work from the sidelines of a basketball game. There will always be those emergencies that develop as I walk out the door, but being organized and prioritizing my to-do list reduces the chaos and allows me to have a better separation between the demands of work and home. 

Support system

Having a solid support system at work and at home has been essential to my ability to cultivate a sense of well-being. Building a solid group of people to whom I can turn when things get chaotic or to bounce ideas off of has been incredibly helpful in maintaining balance. 

Like my colleagues before me, I formed bonds with the law school classmates who were in the trenches with me. As a student in Mitchell Hamline’s hybrid program, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by fellow second-career professionals who were enduring the same challenges of balancing work, school, and family commitments. We learned how to lean on one another and share ideas and frustrations with each other. The core group of classmates with whom I connected regularly were located throughout the United States during law school, so we learned how to stay connected and support one another digitally. Thankfully, that support system has stayed in place even after graduation. 

I have also been fortunate enough to have mentors throughout my journey who helped me learn how to navigate a legal career. From my early days working on the administrative end of the profession to law school, clerkships, and now practice, I have been guided by those who came before me and were willing to be a sounding board for a nervous newbie. By recognizing the limitations of my knowledge and experience, I have been able to learn more in a shorter time. My support system has enabled me to learn more about the practice of law than some of my colleagues and to feel confident in how I practice and how I prioritize work-life balance—to consciously invest in my well-being. 

Conclusion

The practice of law is not easy. In a profession filled with stress and deadlines, it is easy to ignore the fact that our bodies and minds have limitations. Failure to recognize our own humanity can result in consequences both personally and professionally. Conversely, taking time to accomplish some work-life balance and to focus on one’s well-being can help prevent a disastrous burnout or major health issues. Whether it be prioritizing quality sleep, learning to disconnect, or better organizing our workload, little efforts can make a positive difference in our well-being. My journey has not been an easy one, and I have encountered numerous obstacles along the way, but I feel that I have the tools to sustain a successful elder law practice over the long haul. I encourage others to find one or two things they can do for themselves to improve their well-being now, even if it feels too overwhelming to try to do a complete overhaul. Minor changes can have a positive impact. 


RACHELL L. HENNING is an elder law attorney at Henningson & Snoxell, Ltd. in Maple Grove.  She advises elderly individuals and their families on a wide range of issues including guardianships and conservatorships, long-term care planning, and navigating the chaos that comes with aging. 

RHENNING@HENNSNOXLAW.COM

 

 
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