If you want to supercharge your Law Life, here are three little words that can make all the difference.
“I need help.”
They are not always easy to say. Lawyers tend to be self-starters and overachievers.
And yet, over the course of my 40 years in the profession, I can say without exception that the very best lawyers I’ve met – the men and women whose Law Lives were filled with purpose, profits and peace of mind – knew when and how to ask for help.
It takes intention. It takes courage. And sometimes, I’m sad to report, it takes crashing into a wall, though I’d strongly recommend a kinder, less painful path.
All of which brings to mind a lawyer I once represented whose career was skyrocketing until one day she found herself in the parking lot outside my office saying it’s over, it’s all over, how in the world has this happened, and why me?
Life in the Fast Lane
This was back when I was in private practice, defending lawyers in State Bar ethics and disciplinary cases. Lawyers were mostly Blue Chip clients. By that I mean they were usually feeling blue and had a chip on their shoulder when they came to see me.
But occasionally I’d get a call from one who would utter the three magic words that could summon the rainbow from the gloom.
“I need help,” said the voice on the other end of the line.
This particular client had been a rock star since elementary school, where she won a statewide oratory contest in fifth grade and showed flashes of the athletic prowess that would soon have colleges recruiting her for both softball and swimming. She breezed through law school and landed a job at a good firm, where she became a top producer and made partner in record time.
“It all happened so fast,” she said. “One day I was a new associate and the next day I was on the management committee.”
“It’s not by accident,” I said. “You work hard. You’re a good lawyer. Your firm is lucky to have you.”
“Yeah, right,” she said, and glumly picked up a piece of paper from the conference table where we sat. “Real lucky.”
The document was why she was here. It was a Notice of Grievance from the State Bar, alleging she had neglected a case and failed to communicate with her client.
The Sweet Victory of Surrender
She thought this paper – which she waved in the air like a white flag of surrender – could be the end of her career. When I suggested it could be a beginning instead, she looked at me like I was nuts.
And before I could explain, she glanced at her watch and hopped up – saying she was late for a meeting – and rushed out of my office. I stooped to pick something up from the floor and followed her outside.
“Now what?” she said, as I approached her car.
“You dropped your glasses,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said, taking them. “I’d be lost without these.”
For a while, she just looked down at her eyeglasses. And then – as if suddenly she could see more clearly just by holding them in her hand – it all came tumbling out:
The crushing pressure she felt almost every waking hour of her life, the deadlines and drama and demands at work, the busyness at home with her husband and young children, the never-ending stress. How she’d never wanted to be on the management committee, too busy already, but of course she’d said yes because it was such an honor. Not to mention the insomnia and no time for exercise, and worst of all she’d had a panic attack in District Court, the humiliation of having the judge stop the proceedings and everyone rushing over in concern.
A Still, Small Voice
This was in the spring, which in Chapel Hill is the loveliest season. There in the parking lot, with the dogwoods ablaze and the scent of clover in the air, I scribbled the phone number for the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) on the back of an envelope, which I gave to my client.
“Call them,” I said. “They can help.”
She did, and they did. Because we all have our cracked places. And the cracks are how the light comes in.
Those words are from Leonard Cohen. And while I don’t think the sole purpose of life is to go around gabbing about how cracked we are, I believe growth can’t happen if we aren’t honest with ourselves, and healing won’t begin until we ask for help.
The good news is that we’re surrounded by people – friends, family, colleagues, co-workers – who want to do just that.
Asked and Answered
My client was a success story. Her grievance was resolved. Her career blossomed even brighter than before. She was fortunate to work at a firm that recognized her intrinsic worth and wanted her to be healthy and happy.
Through the LAP, she joined a peer support group. She saw a counselor for coping with anxiety and setting boundaries. And she began swimming again, which she said was a type of meditation.
The last time I saw her was at a local bar meeting, where she was being installed as an officer. Addressing the group, she said her priority was wellness for every lawyer in the district.
“If you need help,” she said, strong and centered, a terrific lawyer. “Just ask.”
Jay Reeves is author of the recently published book The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. Now he runs Your Law Life LLC, a coaching and consulting company that helps lawyers add purpose, profits and peace of mind to their practices. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-619-2441. This story also appeared in the ABA Law Practice Today Magazine.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.