Lawyers Share Personal Experiences with Stress, Burnout, and Making a Rebound

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During Fordham Law’s first-ever Wellness Week, the Office of Professionalism held an important discussion focusing on stress, burnout, and coping strategies, and the importance of reducing the stigma surrounding mental health in the legal profession. The Oct. 7. webinar, “Recognizing Stress and Burnout, Rebounding, and Managing the Road to Recovery: A Conversation with Attorneys Who’ve Made it to the Other Side,” featured a panel of lawyers who openly shared their personal experiences navigating and overcoming mental health challenges.

Lacy Durham, senior manager in global employer services at Deloitte Tax LLP, served as the moderator of the discussion. The panelists included Anita Barksdale, director at KPMG Cyber Security Services, and Sara Giddings, tax, estate, and probate attorney at Trent Nichols, PLLC.

Being Upfront

Prior to leading the American Bar Association (ABA)’s Young Lawyers Division in 2015 and 2016, Durham served as secretary, where she and her colleagues made a commitment to helping young lawyers who were noticeably struggling. Young lawyers and law students, she said, sometimes face guilt, academic pressures, and heavy expectations to be the best in the field.

“We were seeing in our conferences and amongst our friends that lawyers weren’t getting enough sleep; eating all the wrong things; drinking way too much,” she explained, noting that part of the problem could be traced to drinking at social functions, including happy hours and networking events. One of the first initiatives the division did was eliminate open bars at major conferences.

Durham continued: “A young lawyer out of Philadelphia gave me a call and said, ‘Lacy, I want to thank you so much. This was the first legal meeting that I had ever been to where the bar cut off at a certain time … it made me feel very in control to be around other lawyers and network.’ She confided in me and said, ‘I’m an alcoholic and I didn’t know it until you cut that.'”

Thereafter, Durham heard from more young lawyers and law students across the country, asking her to speak about the stress, depression, and anxiety that many often face. So, she advocated for mental health well-being and brought these tough topics to light when later becoming commissioner to the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. Durham hosted ABA’s first Twitter townhall on suicide awareness in 2017which, she said, is the ABA’s most viewed and mentioned program to date.

Seeking Support

Giddings disclosed that she had been depressed, suicidal, and tried to take her life during her second year of law school. However, it was that same year that she found a purpose in life—taking care of her cousin’s baby—and met with a doctor who helped her get medication. These factors, Giddings said, saved her life.

“I work hard on my mental health, and I do all the steps to make sure that I keep myself in check. But it’s been a journey and a struggle,” she continued. “Through that, I’ve gained so much strength and insight because we have to talk about it. We have to break the silence. We have to break the stigma that is associated with mental illness. If we don’t talk about it, don’t have Twitter town halls, don’t have these conversations, then somebody else is going to go through my exact journey and not get the help they needand maybe be more successful at trying to kill themselves.”

Barksdale endured multiple traumas while in school and during her post-graduate life, which involved her parents’ health and grandparents’ passings. Those stressors, in addition to being in a work environment that was not compassionate, were a heavy burden for her.

By the age of 33, Barksdale experienced episodes of mania and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She sought help by going to a therapist, being prescribed medication, and ultimately deciding to leave traditional law firm life. These changes helped Barksdale be in a better frame of mind and lead a happier life when returning to KPMG.

“Realize when you are being stressed out and traumatized. Because we like to call it stress, but sometimes you are really taking in trauma,” she said. “You may not need medication, but you definitely need the tools of ‘Let me do yoga, work out, do other things’ to help with that stress, in order for you to manage going into law.”

Managing Stress

Durham suggested having a group of trusted mentorswith those inside and outside the legal fieldwho can provide candid feedback regarding career growth and personal guidance. She also recommended creating a “brag book” that lists positive moments and great accomplishments.

“There is going to be so much going on as you continue to matriculate through law school and get into profession. You’re going to take some hits, so you need to be able to look back and reflect over the things that you have done right in your career,” Durham said. “Don’t be limited to what you know. Ask your partners, whoever you’re working with, your professors, ‘How am I doing?’ and get them to write it down. Copy it and put it in your brag book.”

Barksdale also recommended books that deal specifically with mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral techniques, and mental healthThoughts and Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your Life, by Dr. Matthew McKay, Dr. Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning, as well as Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, by Dr. Alex Korb.

Giddings emphasized the importance of advocating for yourself. “I’m a better lawyer when I’m taking care of myself. If we can’t advocate for ourselves, we’re not going to be able to advocate as well for others,” she said.

“If you’re in law school and struggling mentally, take what you need to get that in order. Maybe you have to take off a semester or you have to talk to your professors and get an accommodation. Don’t be ashamed of that because I guarantee when you’re in a better mental place, you are going to be a better student, better candidate for a job, better associate, better person.”

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