What brings Vanessa Avila (center) joy? Food, she said. “It is my favorite blessing in life. I believe the meaning of life is delicious food, preferably in good company.” And, she says, “There’s always room for dessert!” Here, she’s in good company with Nicole Larsen (left) and Ashley Smith. By the time we were finished with the photo shoot, “I felt like I had known Ashley and Vanessa forever,” says Larsen. “They are fantastic!” Photo: Tati Photography
“An easy and balanced lifestyle is not possible in law.” – M.B.
“So much of attorney life is putting the work first. If you don’t, you are a salmon swimming upstream.” – D.M.
“I’m the sole breadwinner and can’t change the way I work for fear of losing my job.” – S.S.
These are just a few of the comments I hear from accomplished lawyers on a regular basis.
Many Lawyers Struggle
Some people believe that to be successful in law, you must be dedicated exclusively to the profession 100 percent of your time, for most of your life. This is the prerequisite, with no space for anything else. And this looks to be true for many.1 So, it is no surprise that the report on lawyer well-being issued in 2017 by the ABA shows lawyers are suffering. This does not appear to be a sustainable life model. Yet, lawyers tell me that those who cannot keep up the pace are not “cut out” for this. And one only need read the ABA’s 2017 report to see that this is true. Most people are not.
Julie Bonasso, Temple 1995, is a consultant and coach specializing in lawyer well-being. An experienced corporate lawyer and Master Certified Coach, she helps clients reinvent their practices to achieve more balance and more profit. She is the founder and CEO of RYP Global LLC. Learn more about our contributor.
As a profession, much of lawyers’ work culture typically dictates “if you work hard, you get to the top.” And once you get to the top, you work harder. If you take a break, you may lose out on opportunities. There does not seem to be a middle ground.
And then there are those who might be thinking the following:
“I know I need to work harder, but I’m exhausted. But if I say I’m tired, I might be viewed as a failure. I’ve dedicated 15-plus years of my life only to find out now that I’m not the right type; that I’m not a fit for this work; that I’m not good enough? No way! I will do what it takes even if it kills me!
“Wait, I don’t want it to kill me. I chose this profession because I wanted a good life. I chose it because I thought status, career, and money meant I have freedom. I chose law to help others! Why can’t I help myself? Is there really not a way to be a healthy lawyer and a successful one?”
Numerous lawyers I speak with say, “Once I retire, I can enjoy life.” Yet, they start to wonder if it is worth it, consistently pushing life enjoyment into the future. They feel conflicted because while they make a great salary and provide for their family members, they say they are missing out on the most important moments in their lives. Some confide they are scared about the constant stress slowly eroding their health.
Many others are incredibly frustrated, feeling they have always been able to solve their clients’ biggest and most complicated challenges, yet they cannot solve this one. Deep down, they sense something is wrong with this equation, but do not dare say it out loud for fear of judgment or the risk of possibly losing their job.
The truth is human beings are not designed to sit at a desk for 12-15 hours per day.2 We are not intended to be in a perpetual state of heightened stress.3 We are not meant to be severed from connections with people or our sense of purpose in the world.4 Having a law degree does not exempt us from having the right or desire to live a life of ease, joy, and profit. Why do those fighting for the freedom of others trap themselves in their own system? How can self-sacrifice be the definition of success?
Many of us operate in accordance with someone else’s definition of success. To be successful and earn a six-figure salary, we must work 12-hour days and every weekend, sacrificing our health and relationships to advance. Often that characterization of success strikes a dissonant chord with our values. Chronic stress has a unique signature for each person. For some people, chronic stress affects health; for others, productivity, emotional stability, family relationships, or cognitive performance – in a nutshell, quality of life. Yet, we may not even realize what is happening.
24 Character Strengths
Dr. Christopher Peterson and Dr. Martin Seligman, and other pioneers in positive psychology, developed the classification of 24 character strengths that each of us possess in different degrees.
Jump to sidebar below
At this point in the article, you may be searching for the three easy takeaways and expecting me to say:
drink a green smoothie;
eliminate caffeine; and
do more yoga.
If it were that easy, we would already have the life we want. These measures, while they might promote good health and provide relief, are not the long-term solutions to the crux of the problem. The ABA’s 2017 report is clear: “[T]he current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.”5
“Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.” – Margaret Wheatley, management consultant
What if there were a sustainable way to work differently? What if you could still make a great living, enhance your professional influence, and improve your health daily? Would this be interesting to you?
For many of us, balance is elusive or feels impossible. What if we let go of the word “balance” and think more about the concept of “aligned integration”? Could this be the key to lawyer well-being in 2021?
Take my client Candace, for example. Candace is a lawyer who is an executive vice president at a global financial services firm. She has an MBA and decades of experience as a lawyer and business professional. Even though outwardly she appeared to be thriving, inside she had lost her confidence and was “hanging by a thread.” While she knew all the “right” things to do to get her health back, the situation was not consistent or workable. Nor did she know how to regain faith in herself or her work.
I asked her:
What excites you?
What are you saying “yes” to that you’re not really committed to?
What are the three biggest reasons your life, business, or impact isn’t where you want it to be?6
Her answers were just the initial catalyst to rethinking how she works. Once she began making daily choices aligned with her values and strengths, she discovered the necessary energy to courageously make changes. Her attention to detail and efficiency improved. Her leadership accomplishments became more significant. She had more time for activities such as exercise, family, travel, and rest. She received a promotion, instituted a permanent remote-employment arrangement, and made herself an invaluable deputy to her CEO.
Some Answers Are Within Ourselves
“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the ‘atomic age’ – as in being able to remake ourselves.” – Mahatma Gandhi, lawyer, politician, and social activist.
Yes, my client enjoyed yoga, drank green smoothies, and gave up caffeine. While these strategies were helpful and effective instruments for her personal growth, the benefits did not extinguish the haunting sensation that her daily work was not aligned with her personal values. If we, like Candace, first do an honest inner examination of what fulfills us, we can then figure out the external tools required to reach our goals.
Still, we might not even be in touch with what motivates us because we do not have the time for reflection. One way to learn whether you are living in alignment with your values is to assess your character strengths. Character strengths can be defined as a “broad and complex family of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are recognized and encouraged across cultures for the values they cultivate in people and society.”7
Dr. Christopher Peterson and Dr. Martin Seligman, and other pioneers in positive psychology, developed the classification of 24 character strengths.8 (See the accompanying sidebar.) And “each of us possesses all of them in different degrees…. Research shows that understanding and applying these strengths can help to boost confidence, reduce stress, and improve work performance,” to name just a few of the benefits.9
A good first step to improve self-awareness and help sharpen your view of where you derive joy and energy is to take a character-strengths survey.10 Then ask yourself:
Are you using your strengths in your daily work?
If not, what can you do to increase the use of your top strengths?
Even in the presence of fear and insecurity, examination and self-reflection can illuminate our values and desires. This process often results in increasing motivation to evaluate pros and cons, create action plans, and reaffirm personal beliefs and thoughts of gratitude. As we develop clarity in these areas, it becomes easier to commit resources (energy, time, and money) to a future that is aligned and integrated with who we are on the inside. Perhaps it is time to consider this different approach for health and happiness and see that the secret to lawyer well-being lies within each of us.
24 Character Strengths
Dr. Christopher Peterson and Dr. Martin Seligman, and other pioneers in positive psychology, developed the classification of 24 character strengths that each of us possess in different degrees. Understanding and applying these strengths can help to boost confidence, reduce stress, and improve work performance, to name just a few of the benefits.
- Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence
- Love of Learning
- Social Intelligence
» Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 45-47 (May 2021).
Meet Our Contributors
What do you do in your free time?
The number one thing I love to do is be outside. Nature brings me a sense of peace, and it can be a very spiritual experience as well.
My husband and I have begun to work through the book 50 Hikes in Wisconsin. There are some hidden gems like the Dells of Eau Claire, which boasts a beautiful mélange of rushing waters, ancient rocks, and quiet forest. You feel like you are transported to a different time and place. I also enjoy paddling, kayaking, and canoeing on Lake DuBay and “up north” on the crystal-clear and gleaming Minocqua-area lakes.
And we have a Labrador puppy, Izzy, who takes up a lot of my free time! She loves the new smells and adventures of a hike in the woods. We taught her to sit in our canoe, so she can join us on the water this summer!
Julie Bonasso, Reveal Your Power, Junction City.
Become a contributor! Are you working on an interesting case? Have a practice tip to share? There are several ways to contribute to Wisconsin Lawyer. To discuss a topic idea, contact Managing Editor Karlé Lester at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6127, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out our writing and submission guidelines.
1 Ioana Lupu et al., Role Distancing and the Persistence of Long Work Hours in Professional Service Firms, Organization Studies (2020).
2 Benjamin Baddeley et al., Sitting is the New Smoking: Where do We Stand?British J. Gen. Prac.: J. Royal Coll. Gen. Practitioners646 (2016).
3 Harvard Health Publishing, Understanding the Stress Response, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response (last visited April 2, 2021).
4 Julianne Holt-Lunstad et al., Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-Analytic Review, PLoS Med. 1-20 (July 2010); see also Martin E.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness 250-60 (The Free Press, 2002).
5 Nat’l Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being & ABA, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (Aug. 14, 2017), www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportRevFINAL.pdf (emphasis added).
6 Questions adapted from one of my coach mentors, Rich Litvin.
7 The Positivity Project, Character Strengths, www.posproject.org/character-strengths/ (last visited April 2, 2021).
8 Christopher Peterson & Martin E.P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004).
9 VIA Institute on Character. Applying your strengths can also help increase happiness, strengthen relationships, manage problems, accomplish goals, and build meaning and purpose. www.viacharacter.org/.
10 The VIA Character Strengths Survey, www.viacharacter.org/survey/account/register.