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    10 Questions: Bouncing Back

    A key to achieving satisfaction in practice is having the tools to maintain a personal equilibrium – what is “balance” to one lawyer is “imbalance” to another. Wisconsin Lawyer has invited Paula Davis-Laack to be a regular contributor to a new column called “On Balance.” Using her background as a practicing lawyer and training as a stress management and resilience expert, Davis-Laack brings her personal experiences to help readers heighten their enjoyment of practice and life. Watch for her first column in the March issue.

    Paula Davis-Laack

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    Paula Davis-LaackYou are a lawyer, and before law school you majored in psychology. Where did you practice law? What prompted your return to psychology?

    I practiced commercial real estate law mainly at a large law firm, then as in-house counsel for a large company. My decision to stop practicing law was not an easy one, because there are aspects of lawyering that I love. What I discovered is that I was on an unsustainable pace that really started back in high school. I failed to take the necessary steps to protect my health, and I burned out. That prompted me to return to school and start my own business.

    What did your burnout look like? How did it affect your life?

    Physically, I landed in the emergency room three times in one year with crippling stomach aches and digestive issues. I had been running on stress and adrenaline, and whenever those things were removed (after I closed a real estate deal, for example), I’d get sick. Emotionally, I was overly cynical, disengaged, frustrated, and stuck, which is the exact opposite of my normal personality. I was also experiencing frequent panic attacks that made me scared to leave the house. Spiritually, I was left wondering how in the world I was going to re-craft a meaningful life for myself.

    What helped you recover from your burnout?

    Going outside to walk Sadie, our golden retriever, helped tremendously because our walks eased not only my panic attacks but also the stomach and digestive issues I had been experiencing. Once I started to feel better, I added running (which I both love and hate!) and other types of exercise. Figuring out the next phase of my career was harder. I decided to go back to school because I wanted to gain a better understanding of the tools that could help a person manage chronic stress and prevent burnout. My mission became helping other busy professionals, especially lawyers, manage their stress in a more productive way.

    What do you do now?

    I teach and train stress management and resilience skills to soldiers in the U.S. Army, to educators in Australia, and to law students, lawyers, and legal professionals. I will be publishing an online magazine this spring for smart, strong, goal-oriented professionals to find the latest tools, tips, and information about how to manage stress and build more happiness and resilience in four key areas – relationships, money, career, and health.

    I do a great deal of writing. In addition to writing for Wisconsin Lawyer, I blog for Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, and Sharecare (a website co-founded by Dr. Mehmet Oz). I speak regularly on the topics of stress, work/life balance, positive psychology, and resilience. I also maintain a small coaching practice for attorneys who want to work with me one-on-one regarding stress management and work/life balance.

    Happily, my work takes me all over the world, and I get to work with some pretty amazing folks!

    In your work, you use the term, “positive psychology.” What is that?

    Positive psychology is the scientific study of what causes businesses, people, and communities to thrive and flourish. Research in this area discusses what enables achievement, resilience, strength, happiness, and optimism. The term “positive psychology” emerged when Dr. Martin Seligman, then-president of the American Psychological Association, challenged psychologists and researchers to study not only mental illness but also mental health. Since his call to action, researchers around the world have been producing groundbreaking findings that have important implications for businesses and individuals.

    We’ve all seen articles saying we need to get more exercise, take better control of our time, learn to say “no” … yet we still talk about work/life balance. So how can positive psychology help with work/life balance?

    Positive psychology research and tools help to inform people about different pathways to increasing happiness and well-being, health, resilience, and overall coping strategies, but I have a problem with the term “work/life balance” because I don’t think it really exists. I’ll talk about this in the March “On Balance” column.

    Why focus on stress and resilience?

    Stress affects everyone, yet we’re not taught effective stress management strategies at any point during our schooling and careers. In addition, a great deal of research shows that many lawyers have a difficult time managing this stress appropriately. The result is a great deal of depression, anxiety, divorce, and other counterproductive coping strategies. Resilience, the ability to bounce back and grow and thrive during stress, challenge, and adversity, is a skill set that provides people with the tools they need to manage stress in a more productive way.

    You travel a great deal. How many air miles did you put on in 2012? How do you keep your cool when traveling?

    I actually didn’t keep track of the exact number, but it was enough to give me Premier Access status on United. I think that requires traveling at least 25,000 miles in one year. I traveled to South Korea, the Middle East, and all points in between.

    I have incorporated the skills I teach into my own life, which has helped me tremendously when it comes to traveling. While I still can’t stand much about the whole airport process, I focus on where I have control. I can’t control the weather, delays, sick crew members, or cranky people, but I can control my own emotions, whether I have enough to eat, and how I spend my time. I’ve met some phenomenal people during flight delays, and a glass of wine never hurts!

    You seem to be pretty active. Were you like that as a kid, too?

    With the exception of a few particularly busy years practicing law, I’ve always been a pretty active person. I love sports, and one thing few people know about me is that I pitched a no-hitter playing softball during my senior year of high school. I also spent a summer and a half working at a canoe outfitter in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Once people get to know me, this fact becomes perplexing because I’m not a huge fan of camping. I also spent several months drag racing at Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove with my dad and some friends.

    What is your favorite quotation?

    I love quotes; in fact, I collect them, so if you have good ones, send them my way. I read this one frequently to remind myself to live a life with as few regrets as possible: “If you do something that turns out wrong, you can almost always put it right, get over it, learn from it, or at least deny it. But once you’ve missed out on something, it’s gone. There will be the [person] you never got to say the right words to, the band you never got to cheer on, the brilliant retiring professor whose class you never took, the relative you never got very close with. It’s a long list no matter what. Try to keep it as short as possible.” It’s by Gordon Drizschilo.

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