May/June 2023

Wellness: A hidden gem worth finding

By Judith M. Rush

With all we have been through these past few years, it’s no wonder that many of us feel burned out, disconnected, uncertain about how to get back to normal or find a new normal. Which makes this the perfect time to explore how we can transform our practices and our lives in the law. And I know just the source: Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in Legal Life, a 1999 book written by former ABA Assistant Managing Editor Steven Keeva.. 

Since my days as a law student at William Mitchell gathering cast-away binders from Minnesota CLE, I have always gathered books I thought might be helpful. Transforming Practices has had a greater impact on my professional life than any other book on my shelves. I purchased it from the author at an ABA CoLAP conference when it was one of Amazon.com’s 10 best legal books of 2000—long before “lawyer wellness” became a sorely needed cottage industry—and although it’s currently out of print, the ABA still offers for sale a 10th anniversary edition e-book.* (You can also find used paper copies through Amazon.) Keeva, who died too young in 2012, was a national speaker on issues pertaining to law practice and quality of life, a magazine writer, and a teacher of legal affairs reporting at Northwestern. His articles for the ABA Journal were used as instructional materials by law schools and bar associations throughout the country. 

Keeva wasn’t a lawyer, yet he had much to teach us. In his work at the ABA, he interviewed top lawyers around the country about big cases, big deals, and other legal accomplishments. When Keeva would explain that he was not a lawyer, the lawyers said “good for you” often enough that he began to wonder what it was about the practice of law that made these successful attorneys denigrate their profession. 

Keeva, whose insights are a gift to the profession that remains relevant today, identified a central problem deeply rooted in our legal training and offered solutions. He recognized that much of the malaise that grips a significant and expanding segment of the legal profession results from a lack of meaning. Keeva pointed to the work of Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who concluded that the victims of Nazi concentration camps best able to survive the horrors of the camps were the ones who found meaning in their agony.

According to Keeva, failing to find meaning in our roles in the profession (a failure he called “disintegration”) can be devastating. He believed the seeds of disintegration are sown in law school, where the process of studying law redraws life’s map in a way that is at odds with life as students lived it before law school. While law school is “unexcelled in its ability to train the mind to produce airtight, unassailable legal arguments,” he wrote, it marginalizes most of human experience. 

What’s missing from our training is the connection between law and human relationships: “caring, compassion, a sense of something greater than the case at hand, a transcendent purpose that gives meaning to your work.” This disintegration may cause lawyers to feel separated from themselves, their clients, their firms, or their families, or even from their lives, the law, and the profession. 

Keeva believed that the key to a meaningful life in the profession lies in reclaiming our internal sense of direction and “reintegrating” by recognizing that we exist in a web of relationships—and that we can take steps to feel more whole and heal the splits that separate us from our deepest wellsprings of meaning.

Keeva detailed seven approaches to legal practice that lawyers have used to forge meaning in their work. 

  • The service practice: Strive to use your skills and the law to serve others. 
  • The listening practice: Learn to be an active, caring listener. 
  • The healing practice: Return to law’s roots as a profession that healed social rifts, by preventing our roles as zealous advocates from overshadowing other roles we can play—advisor, problem solver, peacemaker. 
  • The balanced practice: Live a more balanced life in which every day is planned to include rewarding activities. 
  • The contemplative practice: Spend time just “being” to counteract the seemingly constant need to “do.” 
  • The time-out practice: Take some time out of each day for yourself. 
  • The mindful practice: Live moment to moment without judgment, allowing things to unfold in their own way, and exercising power over how you respond to what comes your way. 

These practice paradigms share an integrative or holistic approach to law practice “that shuns the rancor and bloodletting of litigation whenever possible; seeks to identify the roots of conflict without assigning blame; encourages clients to accept responsibility for their problems and recognize their opponents’ humanity; and sees in every conflict an opportunity for both client and lawyer to let go of judgment, anger, and bias and to grow as human beings.” 

Ultimately, Keeva’s message was that we have the ability to transform ourselves, our clients, and our practices. We can take a broad view, try not to hurt people, and acknowledge our connections to others and the connection between our inner and outer lives. 

Keeva urged us to choose clients carefully, treat people in ways that improve interaction, seek joy in the craft of lawyering, open ourselves to options beyond coping or quitting, find a mentor, and strive to express who we are in what we do. And, if we realize that our own sense of what really matters in life is relevant to our practices, we can begin to make choices that will bring satisfaction, and perhaps even joy. 

* The price is $23.95 for ABA members, $29.95 for nonmembers. Visit https://www.americanbar.org/products/ecd/ebk/217166/

JUDITH RUSH is the outreach manager at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (www.mnlcl.org), which offers programming, resources, help, and hope to support the legal profession in taking proactive steps toward well-being and to offer assistance when more is needed because of mental health and other challenges. She is also a former chair of the MSBA Life and the Law (now Well-Being) Committee.

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