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by Vault Law Editors | October 06, 2020

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This Saturday, October 10, is Law School Mental Health Day. The importance of mental health and wellness was already a topic on the rise in the legal industry, but this year, it’s truly been at the forefront as we all strive to navigate a global pandemic. Whether you’re a 1L taking classes remotely or an attorney trying to bill hours while homeschooling your kids, this year has been full of challenges when it comes to maintaining a sense of well-being.  

In light of this, Vault is taking the week to recognize the importance of mental health and well-being in the legal industry. On Thursday, October 8, right here on the Vault blog, we’ll be highlighting our new 2021 Law Firm Wellness Rankings. You’ll have the opportunity to hear directly from some of the firms who ranked for wellness and learn about what initiatives they have in place to support their attorneys.

Also this Thursday, at 12:00 p.m. ET, we are hosting a webinar for law students about well-being, mindfulness, productivity, and more. We’ll be speaking with Jonathan Beitner, an attorney, certified coach, and speaker on topics related to attorney development and mindfulness. Jonathan is a co-creator of the American Bar Association’s Well-Being Pledge, a lead organizer for the first annual Lawyer Well-Being Week, and Chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs' Well-Being Committee. Earlier this year, Vault interviewed Jonathan for our guidebook Navigating Your Legal Career in the Time of Coronavirus, and he shared tips on how to maintain optimism, stay productive, and practice mindfulness. Below is an excerpt of this interview— be sure to join us for the webinar this Thursday by registering here!

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Vault: How can students and lawyers maintain a sense of optimism during these difficult times?

Jonathan: Fostering optimism is always an important part of well-being (especially in the legal field which tends to be a pessimistic environment), but this is even more true nowadays. When you hold onto too much negativity, it can build and compound on itself until it surfaces as things like anxiety and depression.

Ways to promote optimism include: taking the time to express gratitude; recognizing positive events; practicing mindfulness; appreciating “capital-B Beauty” (things like art, music, and nature); or doing a good deed. When it comes to expressing gratitude and recognizing positive events, there is research that shows it’s helpful to share these things with friends or family members or write them down. When doing this, it’s important to be specific. For example, when expressing gratitude, think beyond general statements like “I am grateful for my friends and family.” Instead, come up with a detailed message like, “I am thankful my wife got up early today to walk the dog so I could sleep in a bit.” Consistently engaging in this more specific form of expressing gratitude can help rewire your way of thinking through a process called neuroplasticity, and ultimately build a more optimistic mindset.

Another important tool is cognitive reframing, or thinking about a situation in multiple ways. Challenge yourself to reframe negative events by finding a silver lining, a lesson you learned, or opportunity to grow from adversity. Finally, during this crisis, get outside when you can (practicing social distancing, of course), and take advantage of uplifting online resources like virtual museum tours.

Vault: Law students and lawyers tend to set big goals for themselves—do you think the definition of what it means to be “productive” is different nowadays? Any tips for continuing to work toward goals?

Jonathan: What it means to be productive is going to be unique for every individual, but it is important to make sure that your goals are broken down into small, digestible pieces that you can achieve without becoming overwhelmed or discouraged. For example, an architect doesn’t say, “Today I’m going to build a house,” and a writer doesn’t open their laptop and say, “Time to write a book.” Those are clear examples of what a to-do list shouldn’t look like. Instead, it’s important to set manageable, well-defined goals. The acronym “SMART” can help you do this. For a goal to be “SMART,” it should be: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Related to broader goals, and Time-based. (A second bonus “A” is can also be added: Accountability. This is where a coach or a journal to track progress can come in handy.)

To be sure, the definition of “productive”—and what achievable goals look like—is different now, with everyone in our newly reordered society experiencing different levels of stress, sickness, isolation, family needs, technology challenges, and cancellations. When thinking about productivity these days, it is important to be gracious and compassionate with yourself and others. For whatever reason you may not have as much bandwidth as you usually do, and the same goes for your classmates and colleagues. It’s especially important to remember this in a team setting, because your teammates are dealing with a number of uncontrollable factors just like you.

Another important thing to remember: Now is not the time to be a perfectionist. Yes, this can be hard for type-A law students and lawyers. But in our current climate, there simply isn’t going to be perfection, and you won’t make much progress if you hold onto that standard. More so now than ever, it’s important to focus on “controlling what you can control.” The parts of your life you can’t control are bigger than ever. If you get wrapped up in trying to be in control or achieving perfection, you’ll only end up discouraged.

Vault: Can you explain what mindfulness entails, and is mindfulness a concept that law students and lawyers can embrace during these extremely stressful times?

Jonathan: Mindfulness is a buzzword with varying definitions, but one of the most prominent ones is from John Kabat-Zinn, who said mindfulness is “the state of awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose to the present moment non-judgmentally.” Many people think of “meditation” when they hear the term “mindfulness”—and while meditation can certainly be a way to practice mindfulness, mindfulness is a much broader concept.

Mindfulness can take on many forms, but the key is thinking about the present moment intentionally and non-judgmentally. This means having self-awareness about what is currently happening in the moment you find yourself, without ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. That present moment can be what you are seeing, tasting, feeling, thinking, or any other action.

Trying to think this way can be uncomfortable at first, but it becomes second nature over time. And you don’t have to start any certain way—just focus on the present moment, whatever it may be. Mindfulness is a very helpful tool during these times. It helps with focus, productivity, and optimism—and breaks the cycle of rumination. Further, the non-judgmental nature of thinking can help foster positivity and allows us to practice compassion—including with ourselves. We are often so critical with ourselves and don’t show the same compassion we would show to our friends in the same situations. Practicing mindfulness is a way to increase self-compassion by turning judgmental thoughts into neutral ones.

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