You’re on an airplane and ready to take off (yes, we know, it’s been awhile). Now, think of the flight attendant’s instruction: “In the event the cabin loses pressure, put your oxygen mask on first before you help anyone else.”
“It’s a cliché, but it points out that, if you run out of oxygen yourself, you can’t help anyone else,” says Jason Magill, coordinator of the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP), which is offered through the State Bar of Wisconsin. “Since lawyers are in a helping profession, there’s a need to take care of yourself first, so you can take care of others to the best of your ability.”
Lawyers are, by definition, counselors, says Madison attorney Riley Leonard of Gingras, Thomsen & Wachs. “As counselors, we guide people through some of the most challenging times in their lives. Clients, friends, and family rely on us to problem solve and offer sound advice.”
Whether you are solving legal challenges or acting as support for friends and family, it is vital to approach your role as counselor from a grounded and strong personal foundation, says Leonard, who graduated from the U.W. Law School in 2018.
“A lawyer who practices self-care and builds a strong personal foundation can more effectively problem solve for others, because we can focus on the issue at hand without outside distractions.”
Charles Polk of Milwaukee loves playing basketball, but it’s hard to play defense when you can’t get within six feet of the nearest shooter. So, he found a new way to stay active. Hiking, he says, can put the treadmill at your local gym to shame. Here he tries out the Ice Age Trail in Hartland.
Self-care: It Starts by Taking Small Steps
But how do you build that strong foundation, when your calendar is chock-full of the never-ending demands of career, family, and home?
It can start with a small step, taking that bit of space for yourself.
“It doesn’t matter what you do or how much time you take,” says Mary Spranger, WisLAP manager. “It just matters that you take it.”
Self-care isn’t just pampering yourself every so often. Self-care refers to the steps you can take to create a life for yourself that you don’t need to escape from. “For lawyers, there will clearly be times when work needs to come first. What I’d like you to consider, though, is that a lawyer’s needs can’t always come last,” Spranger said.
“Being at the stable or show grounds helps me shift into another world where I do not think about the work week or other (non-horse) stress,” says Laura Gillespie, Madison. She’s been riding since she was 5 years old. Here Gillespie is pictured with Jerry, a Belgium Warmblood.
Give Yourself a Break
“Well-being isn’t just for so-called troubled lawyers,” according to Spranger. “It has relevance to all legal professionals. Being an advocate is hard work and can have detrimental effects on your mind, body, and spirit.”
“It’s not necessarily a workout at the gym,” says Magill. “Not everyone feels like they have time for that, or to sit down and read a book. But, you might have time to watch a short video or listen to a podcast while you’re on the way home or take 10 seconds before that meeting or hearing to take a few deep breaths.”
“What brings you joy? What helps you feel grounded and calm, that isn’t harmful to you? Do those things,” Magill said.
We asked several Wisconsin lawyers how they find their joy, how they unwind and restore – and what the legal profession needs to do to prioritize lawyer well-being.
“Honestly, I try to get outside anytime I can! I run, bike, hike, camp, canoe, ski, snowshoe,” says Riley Leonard, Madison. Here, Leonard takes a mountain biking trip last October to Rabbit Valley, which borders Colorado and Utah.
What’s your favorite thing to do on the weekend to unwind?
Leakhena Au: I love to walk. My best stress reliever is to be outside, immersed in nature, and listening to the birds and frogs calling to one another. It has been shown that being out in nature, even just sitting under a tree, can measurably reduce stress. So, when I can, I like to walk for hours in the prairies and woods to shed as much stress from the work week as I can.
Cierra Chesir: My favorite thing to do on the weekend to unwind is to travel. I recently booked a hotel room and drove to Madison for the weekend and had the best time. I didn’t do much of anything, but a change of scenery is always nice, even if it’s not far from home. I love finding new adventures and trying out different restaurants. I do that in Milwaukee as well.
Laura Gillespie: My favorite way to unwind on the weekend is to spend time at the stable and horse shows riding, watching my niece and other riders train, and even just moving around jump poles or cleaning my saddle. Being at the stable or show grounds helps me shift into another world where I do not think about the work week or other (non-horse) stress.
James Scoptur: My favorite thing to do on the weekend (and weekdays) is cycling. Cycling allows me to exercise, explore different areas, and let go of stress. It also helps me to not focus on work, which ironically helps with work because ideas for cases will randomly pop into my head — like when I used to blankly stare at those 3D paintings and the less you try, the easier the image pops out at you.
I have come up with some of my best arguments or creative ways to help clients while just riding my bike and enjoying nature.
Shanna Yanke: I enjoy golfing with my significant other, Kevin. It’s an opportunity to spend quality time together, while enjoying fresh air, sunshine, and a beautiful walk.
“I love to walk,” says Leakhena Au of Green Bay. “My best stress reliever is to be outside, immersed in nature, and listening to the birds and frogs calling to one another,” she says. Here she is birdwatching at Goose Pond Sanctuary in Waterloo. Au speaks four languages, including Italian, Russian, and Spanish.
How does taking time for yourself make you a better lawyer, parent, friend?
Nicole Larsen: Taking time for myself is a necessary investment in my physical and mental health and well-being. Lawyers can be great at taking care of others, and terrible at taking care of ourselves. After lawyering, momming, and spousing, I make sure I spend some of my free time running, which my family knows is non-negotiable “me time.”
Total honesty here: I do not enjoy the time leading up to my run, I go over every excuse not to do it in my head, and the first mile is absolutely miserable for me. But once I find my flow, I find my strength, and it’s beautiful. Afterwards, the runner’s high cannot be beat. My mood is lifted, and I feel more calm and capable of taking on the personal and professional obligations of the day.
Having a race as a goal is a great motivator to keep getting out there and keep moving, and to not skip a run when it’s too [fill in your excuse here]. The regular movement is the best way I have found to keep my head and body healthy, so I can be there for my family and friends and do the best job I can for my clients.
“I come up with some of my best arguments or creative
ways to help clients while just riding my bike and enjoying
nature,” says James Scoptur of Brookfield. Scoptur
records his cycling rides on the app Strava, allowing him
to compete with friends while not being able to ride with
them during the pandemic. Photo: Tati Photography
What is your advice to other lawyers who want to improve their well-being?
Leakhena Au: I think one thing that many have struggled with during COVID, even introverts like me, is maintaining connection with friends and loved ones. It is important to make a little effort to maintain those connections for our mental and emotional health, and it literally takes seconds in a day to do it. Make a point of texting or calling a friend at least a couple of times a week. Your friend will appreciate it, and you’ll feel better as well.
Catarina A. Colón: Treat your self-care like an appointment that you cannot miss. I actually block off time in my calendar for workouts and treat them like any other appointment. If nothing else, it will serve as a reminder that you need to get up and moving!
T.R. Edwards: I don’t know about you, but I just feel better when I am getting things done. This pandemic, and frankly the times we are living in, can make us feel like we are stuck in crisis and not moving. I had to crack that feeling. I had to find a way to move forward.
My mind needed checklists. Weird, I know, but hear me out.
During the pandemic, I have grown addicted to just notching the box and completing tasks. Not only is this great for focus and self-confidence, but there’s a sense of peace and pride in moving forward when the rest of the world feels in perpetual crisis and tumult. During the pandemic I’ve worked on language learning, home remodel projects, set new personal bests at the golf range and in the gym, I’ve made plans and investments that I pray will benefit my family far into the future. All of this, or at least most of this, was done with the benefit and guidance of checklists.
My advice to you, any of you who were frustrated like me early in the pandemic, is to set goals, write them out, and do the work. You are brilliant and capable, knock them down and move forward. Never stop moving forward. You may fail, you may lose control, but just keep moving forward.
As the saying goes, “no one can pour from an empty cup.” Ashley Smith of Milwaukee is adamant about the importance
of taking care of herself. And, when she does take that time to decompress, “I allow the best version of myself to show
up for the things and people that I care about.” Photo: Tati Photography
Nicole Larsen: Find an activity you enjoy and do it. One small step at a time is still a step, and no steps are too small. As a runner, I often hear “I’m not fast enough” or “I won’t be able to keep up” from people who are hesitant to try it. I tell those people this: It doesn’t matter. Everyone starts somewhere.
When I started running, I walked most of the time. It took me a long time to overcome my insecurities and finally call myself a runner. I don’t beat myself up over results anymore, and I try to stay in the moment and enjoy the process. Similarly, when you find something you enjoy, acknowledge that urge to be the best at whatever your activity is, and set it aside. Focus on being present and finding beauty in the moment.
Riley Leonard: There is always more work to be done – we simply cannot escape it. This has never been truer than during the pandemic when the line between work time and home time dissolved.
Put down the phone, put down the email, and take time for yourself. Take a break to exercise, cook, listen to music or a podcast, or talk with friends or family. Truly disconnecting for a few hours will make us more efficient and effective when we return to work. A refreshed and rested lawyer will bring a new perspective and energy.
Shanna Yonke: Reframe challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. It takes time to strengthen the neural pathways that allow you to adopt this viewpoint, but doing so is well worth the journey.
Catarina Colón of Milwaukee took up a couple new challenges during the pandemic: taking cello lessons and learning sign language. “Picking up these hobbies has forced me to take time away from work to focus on something fun and new,” she said. Photo: Tati Photography
What new challenge have you’ve taken up during the pandemic?
Catarina A. Colón: I began taking cello lessons and learning sign language. Picking up these hobbies has forced me to take time away from work to focus on something fun and new! It has worked wonders for my emotional well-being.
T.R. Edwards: The pandemic has given me an opportunity to reconnect with a few things that I love. During the initial phase, when our contact with others had been reduced to nil, I decided to get back to golf. It’s cliché, I know, a lawyer that golfs. But truthfully, you’d be hard pressed to find a more peaceful space than a pristine course, especially during the pandemic. The crack of a well-struck ball moving hundreds of yards down the course does wonders for your confidence as well!
I did not grow up with the game, nor did I grow up in neighborhoods where it was played. This affinity and bond with the game came later, much later, and it has been a godsend during the pandemic.
Charles E. Polk III: I’ve always loved playing basketball, but it was hard to play defense when I couldn’t get within six feet of the nearest shooter. So I figured I’d find a new way to stay active that didn’t put others (or myself) at risk. Luckily, I was able to stay on the hardwood. The difference this time though, was that the hardwood was joined by rocks, dirt, leaves, and an incline that puts the treadmill at your local gym to shame.
That’s right – I had decided to take on hiking. While pre-pandemic I looked at hiking as rather boring, I now find it to be fantastic exercise and a great way to explore the breathtaking nature in and around our home. I would encourage all those who have not tried hiking to give it a chance on their own, or with their significant other, and see where the trail (literally) takes you.
“Seeing a colleague struggling poses a difficult challenge in balancing wanting to help with not wanting to appear nosy or intrusive,” says WisLAP volunteer Jennifer Lee Edmondson, Appleton. She suggests approaching individuals privately. “They might not want to talk about it at the moment, but, at least, they know you care and are concerned.” Photo: Tati Photography
WisLAP is Confidential, Here to Help
“We State Bar of Wisconsin members are fortunate to have this fantastic, free, and confidential assistance program, whose staff members are experienced, professional, and compassionate,” said Appleton attorney Jennifer Lee Edmondson, a WisLAP volunteer.
The Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) is a State Bar member benefit that provides free confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, law students, and their families coping with substance use disorder, mental health challenges, or other stressors that negatively impact the quality of life and the practice of law. The program helps members and their families build on their strengths and provide support through services that promote physical, mental, and emotional health.
“The important thing is to remember that we have the ability to observe and to help, and that there are resources available to us,” says Edmondson.
Here are some resources to get you started:
WisLAP 24-hour helpline: (800) 543-2625
Institute for Well-being in Law lawyerwellbeing.net
The Path to Well-being in Law (12-episode podcast, lawyerwellbeing.net)
WisLAP Manager: Mary Spranger, (800) 444-9404, ext. 6159
WisLAP Coordinator: Jason Magill, (800) 444-9404, ext. 6151
What’s your idea for a quick wellness break?
Jennifer Lee Edmondson: When I was undergoing chemo and radiation for metastatic breast cancer, my integrative medicine specialist suggested a number of techniques, including guided imagery and a very simple breathing exercise that can be done anywhere and anytime – in the car while driving or waiting in traffic, at your desk, or while watching television. It’s the 4-7-8 breathing exercise – breathe in through your nose for four counts; hold your breath for seven counts; exhale for eight counts. It helps relieve stress and clear one’s mind and can help one get up and going in the morning.
Laura Gillespie: The most important thing I do every day is meditate for at least five minutes, though ideally for longer and with some movement like yoga. The restorative nature of meditation helps me show up better at work and for my family, friends, and myself during this time of significant change and loss. It’s my wellspring of stress management, healthy physical, emotional, and spiritual practices and remaining centered in who I am.
Bradley Yanke: The New York Times mini crossword puzzle. I have a daily competition with my wife to see who can do it the fastest (I usually lose).
Milwaukee attorney Nicole Larsen ran her second 50K Ultramarathon last year and is preparing for a third this fall. “I do not enjoy the time leading up to my run,” she admits. “I go over every excuse not to do it in my head, and the first mile is absolutely miserable for me. But once I find my flow, I find my strength, and it’s beautiful.” Photo: Tati Photography
What small, incremental change has made a difference for you?
Jessica Butler: I downloaded an app that focuses on developing or rebuilding good habits and a daily routine. It starts small with something as simple as having a glass of water every morning. Eventually showering, exercise, and taking 10-minute breaks to clean your home become part of your daily routine. As you develop good habits that you check off daily, there is a narrator that will encourage you to keep going and give you a little story and tell you to check back for the next day.
As a single mother of two children who are both involved in sports, I often have to restructure everything I want to do in a day around their needs or the needs of clients. So a lot of these things most people might take for granted often are missed in my day. However, this app is really encouraging, even if I am not perfect each day, and it has helped me to develop a new daily routine and even develop good habits like eating healthier, exercising, and reading for fun.
Tatiana Shirasaki: Every day when I arrive home I am greeted by the cutest little “ball of fur”! Like many families, we adopted a pet since COVID started and brought Meinard to join our home. I sit with her on the couch and just enjoy her company.
I never really had an unwind process before. The cat makes me slow down. Enjoy the moment. I love feeling her warmth and listening to her purring. Her company has brought a lot of joy to the whole family. Believe it or not, my husband taught her how to fetch a ball. After seeing my kids with the cat on Zoom, my sister in Brazil also got a cat and now we have Zoom cat meetings! Little Meinard is a calming presence that balances my busy days at the office.
What’s Wausau attorney Shanna Yonke’s favorite way to unwind over the weekend? “I enjoy golfing with my significant other,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to spend quality time together, while enjoying fresh air, sunshine, and a beautiful walk.” Here she enjoys a picnic last summer at the Wausau Country Club.
Have you found a creative way to connect with others during the pandemic?
Cierra Chesir: Platforms like Zoom and House Party have been extremely helpful in connecting with friends and family during the pandemic. I have a group of friends who regularly hop on a Zoom call, and we “watch” various events together like TV shows, movies, or special musical events.
It’s like we’re together when we’re not actually together. This has made a significant difference for me because I’m very outgoing and sociable. I love being around people because it brings me energy and keeps me going. Not being able to do that during the pandemic was very tough, but being able to see everyone at once helped tremendously.
Charles E. Polk III: HBO Max subscription: $14.99. Act II Butter Lovers Popcorn: $2.78. Watching my mom scream and jump out of her seat in fright: Priceless.
It’s been over a year since I’ve been able to hug, sit on the couch, or spend that in-person, quality time with my family – most of whom live right next door in Chicago. Luckily, through Zoom, we have been able to watch movies together and share in the same joy and entertainment that we once took for granted. Whether it’s watching Winnie the Pooh with my nephews, or watching Coming to America (for better or for worse, ha ha) with my cousins, it has been a fantastic way to stay connected and see those I love.
Seeing my family curl over in laughter, smile as Pooh goes head-first into a honey pot, and yes, screaming out in fright, has been a great way for me to recharge my batteries after a long work week, as well as turn a terrible situation into something positive. I think even after the pandemic is over, in the times we can’t get together on the same couch, my family and I will still make sure to sit down in the virtual theater and have a great time.
Bradley Yanke of Stevens Point unwinds each day
after work, weather permitting, with a walk with his
wife and 10-month-old around the neighborhood. “We
decompress and share our day with each other while
saying ‘hi’ to our neighbors.”
James Scoptur: I record my cycling rides on the app Strava, and this allows me to compete with my friends while not being able to ride with them during the pandemic.
For me, one silver lining to the pandemic was that my family slowed down — we ate more meals together, took more time to explore outdoor, took naps, and played more board games. When we return to “normal,” I plan on keeping those activities as top priorities.
Sir Williams: I’ve taken a deep dive into family genealogy research. It’s provided an amazing way to use stories from our shared ancestral past to presently engage for the benefit of future generations. The experience has brought my family closer despite the isolating experiences of the pandemic.
Bradley Yanke: Each day after work, weather permitting, my wife, our 10 month old, and I go for a walk around the neighborhood. We decompress and share our day with each other while saying “hi” to our neighbors.
What can the legal profession do to reduce the stigma of mental health treatment, prioritize lawyer well-being?
Cierra Chesir of Milwaukee loves to travel. “Being around people brings me energy and keeps me going,” she says.
Platforms like Zoom and House Party have helped her connect with friends and family during the pandemic. Here, Chesir
vacations in Tulum, México, for a recent birthday getaway. “It was so beautiful and such an amazing vacation.”
Jessica Butler: As lawyers, I think we should be more open about how we have dealt with the stresses of our jobs and even the balancing of our careers and family, and we should be more supportive of our colleagues who are going through a period in their life when they may be experiencing additional stress or feelings of being overwhelmed.
I can’t think of one lawyer who hasn’t had a day where they want to pull their hair out. Many of us have dealt with stress, or maybe even a period of anxiety or depression, and all of us deal with it differently.
As a legal profession, we have to guard against punishment or consequences for revealing a mental health condition. We have to provide attorneys with resources and assistance to help them manage their tasks. Open and honest dialogue between an employer and an employee, or colleagues, and development of a plan for accommodations, if necessary, will ideally help the work environment feel more supportive.
James Scoptur: Mental health is important, and I think the pandemic has highlighted the needs many have for mental health help.
After my dad died, I struggled quite a bit. Not only was he my father, but he was a coworker and mentor in my legal career. I was fortunate to have the support of my family and found a good therapist to talk with, and still do. I think something as simple as acknowledging that, and saying it in this post, is just one small step to reduce the stigma and encourage others to seek help, too.
But with all that support, I still need time to myself, and I encourage everyone to find a time that is just yours. I have cycling and running, and video games can be an incredible distraction and good stress relief (Call of Duty anyone!?). I get to decompress with alone time, and whether that is for five minutes or four hours, it is a way to reset, find my balance, and remind myself that when you boil it down, being a lawyer is just a job. There are numerous other things that make me happy and are much more important than work.
During the pandemic, T.R. Edwards of Milwaukee worked on language learning and home remodel projects, set new personal bests at the golf range and in the gym, and made financial plans that he “prays” will benefit his family far in the future. “I don’t know about you, but I just feel better when I’m getting things done,” he says. Edwards is pictured with his son and nephew at the Iron Horse Hotel before the pandemic.
You see a colleague struggling. How can we help them?
Jennifer Lee Edmondson: Seeing a colleague struggling poses a difficult challenge in balancing wanting to help with not wanting to appear nosy or intrusive. I think it’s appropriate to approach the person privately and ask them, “Hey, are you okay?” or “What’s happening?” They might not want to talk about it at that moment, but, at least, they will know you care and are concerned.
If they do not want to talk about it, or if they say that everything is okay, consider saying something like, “Well, if you ever want to talk, I’m here for you, okay?” Then perhaps check with this person sometime in the future, just to let them know you care and are still available to listen.
Like many families, Tatiana Shirasaki of Mayville adopted a pet during the pandemic. “I never really had an unwind process before,” she says. “Every day when I arrive home, I am greeted by the cutest little ‘ball of fur.’ The cat makes me slow down, is a calming presence that balances my busy days at the office.”
Lawyers Photographing Lawyers
Thank you to Tatiana Shirasaki of Tati Photography in Mayville for going on the road with her “assistant” Vanessa Avila of the Community Immigration Law Center, Madison, to photograph some of our contributors. “I enjoy photographing people, finding their beauty and registering life moments.”
» Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 14-22 (May 2021).