I am so pleased to announce our newest monthly columnist, Karen Caffrey. Why is she particularly important to all of you? She is a Big Law lawyer-turned-psychotherapist who has spent the past 20 years counseling lawyers in every professional iteration. Those who have touched her most are solo/small firm attorneys. Starting today she is going to be sharing with you thoughts and ideas to help you deal with the unique issues surrounding being a solo/small firm practitioner to help you get through the tough times. Solo Practice University has always taken lawyer depression, substance abuse and related issues to heart. We’ve tried to shine a light on this very devastating and lonely experience that gets chronically ignored. We hope you benefit.
We live in a culture which powerfully idolizes the solitary, strong hero (and increasingly, the heroine.) We value independence, self-reliance and “making a go of it” on your own. Think John Wayne. Superman. Superwoman. The Lone Ranger. All standing tall, staring off into the distance with the wind blowing through their hair (and capes) as they proudly follow their solo paths.
As solo practitioners, lawyers have an opportunity to embody this ideal. No more practicing law the way the partners say you should. No more kowtowing to another’s authority or structure or schedule. No more billable hours to meet someone else’s expectations or financial goals. You’re your own woman! You’re a man on his (own) mission! What could possibly go wrong?
Raised with the cultural ideal of the solitary hero it can be very easy for solo practitioners to overlook one of the most significant health problems for which they are at risk, as documented by extensive studies and research.
Can you guess what it is?
What do many, if not most, solo practitioners do every day? They go to an office where they are isolated.
Now, this does not mean solos are in solitary confinement like inmates in a prison (though it would not shock me to hear that some feel that way.) But it is true that solos, particularly those without any staff, can literally be all alone the entire work day.
Of course, some solos do have staff, especially if they practice in an area of the law such as real estate where paraprofessionals are routinely used. But your staff reports to you. No matter how congenial and wonderful a boss you may be, the hierarchical structure of that relationship will always place limits on just how open you can be with them.
Who are your “peeps”? Can you really let your hair down with your employees? Share your worries about the practice’s financial stresses? Confide that you may have made a mistake in Mr. Smith’s pleadings, or (ack!) may have committed malpractice in the Jones matter? Wonder out loud if you should have struck out on your own? (And that your second career as a bartender remains frighteningly appealing some days…)
It’s true that most solos leave the office and practice law in places where they interact with others. But by definition, a solo practitioner is practicing law without other lawyers. This builds a structure of isolation, or potential isolation, into to the work life of the solo practitioner far more so than for lawyers who practice in other environments.
So what, you say?
Isolation creates both physical and mental health risks. Isolation has been shown to increase stress and contribute to anxiety and depression. (Lawyers already experience a higher than average rate of depression compared to other professionals, something I’ll be discussing more in a future post.) Isolation can lower self-esteem and confidence. It can even contribute to insomnia, inflammation, heart disease and other physical maladies.
One of the most important things I take note of when I meet with a new client is how much contact they have with people during their day. I pay particularly close attention to whether they live alone. But I also notice whether and how much interaction they have with others in their work environment.
Professional or workplace isolation increases health risks. As stressed out as most lawyers are who walk through my door, I find that solos carry an extra burden from lack of supportive contact with their peers.
So what’s a lawyer to do?
Here are some steps to take to reduce your level of professional isolation:
- Stay aware of the risks of isolation. Do a daily or weekly check in with yourself.
- Decide to prioritize action to reduce your isolation. It’s as important as client development, billing, professional education and brushing your teeth. ☺
- Develop a specific plan to counter isolation and increase supportive professional contact on a daily/weekly/monthly basis.
- Join online lawyer support communities (such as Solo Practice University).
- Network with other solos in your community, and/or other attorneys who practice in your area of specialization.
- Find a mentor. Consider becoming a mentor to another lawyer.
- Increase you non-work connections with supportive family, friends, and your religious, spiritual and/or social communities.
- Explore resources at your statewide lawyer’s assistance program, and local bar association.
I’ll talk more about how you can implement these suggestions in future columns!
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.