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Pro Bono Partnership Luncheon Puts Spotlight on Value of Self-Care

October 29, 2020

By Jeremy Conrad

Dr. Larry Richard

Pro bono attorneys do a great job dealing with the problems faced by their clients, but maybe not so much their own. At this year’s Pro Bono Partnership Luncheon, organized by the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center and held virtually on October 27 because of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, Dr. Larry Richard, a leading expert on the psychology of lawyer behavior, explained why lawyers can be particularly vulnerable to stress.

Richard has spent decades examining lawyers’ psychology and developing strategies to help them contend with stress and other mental health issues. A former trial attorney himself, Richard pursued a degree in psychology after spending a decade in practice and has subsequently focused on improving lawyer performance through personality science.

Richard began his discussion with a simple proposition — “Pro bono thrives when we reach for our best self” — explaining that “best self” is deeply impacted by one’s ability to manage stress. Cognitive capacity, ability to concentrate, decision-making ability, and one’s immune system can all be negatively impacted by stress, Richard said, and those looking to succeed as pro bono attorneys should focus on restoring their best self by addressing stress and mental health issues. This doesn’t mean putting off pro bono work to contend with stress, since pro bono work itself can help address some of the sources of stress, he added.

Although there is a panoply of stress-generating events taking place — the pandemic, economic downturn, social justice issues, and a contentious election — Richard said all stress arises from three basic human needs: predictability, control or agency, and human connection. All three have been deeply impacted by the various crises confronting everyone today.

Richard also identified three aggravating factors that can trigger a heightened threat reaction: sudden or unexpected change, threats arising outside of one’s control, and threats that involve a possibility of serious harm or death. Once again, each of the aggravating factors is implicated by current conditions, he said. While our body’s threat reaction mechanism was designed to respond to immediate, short-term threats, Richard said the threats we face today are “unending, vague, amorphous, ambiguous threats that seem to be outside of our control, and we don’t have any way of guessing when they’re going to be over. That is frying our circuitry. It’s putting it on high alert all the time.”

Richard’s extensive research into lawyer personality has revealed several factors that exacerbate the risk. Attorneys score high against the general population in autonomy, which has been severely limited during the pandemic, and in abstract reasoning, which brings with it a propensity to argue and disagree, making it difficult to contend with the many voices of authority during a time of crisis. Attorneys are impatient, Richard said, and this can also produce stress in circumstances where quick action isn’t possible. Finally, lawyers have low resilience — they respond poorly to criticism and tend to approach issues pessimistically, Richard said. Their eagle eye for problems can help them protect their clients, but it can also aggravate the impacts of stress.

So, what can attorneys do to restore their best selves and, in so doing, help pro bono thrive? Richard offered a short list of practices to help recapture predictability, control, and connection that relieve stress.

Restoring Predictability

  • Make clear, well-formed goals.
  • Set clear expectations for others you work with.
  • Establish routines and rituals.

Recapturing Control

  • Pay attention to the things that you do control.
  • Frame decisions as choices. Doing so helps you understand the degree of control you have.
  • Take time to engage in deep breathing exercises, which trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, making you feel relaxed, calm, and centered.

Strengthening Social Connection

  • Do something selfless. That’s right, doing pro bono work can help you reduce stress. Volunteering, giving, and helping others reduce the risk of depression and depressive thinking. They give you a sense of purpose and keep you physically and mentally active.
  • Practice gratitude. Being grateful helps lowers blood pressure, improves immune function, and results in better sleep. It is also a powerful way to enhance social connection.
  • Train yourself on positivity. Ask what’s working instead of what’s broken. Positive emotions help enable positive social connections.
  • Be present in your exchanges. Multitasking is tempting, but it reduces social connection. Take the time to give undivided attention to those you interact with.

But lawyers need not face their problems alone. The D.C. Bar has resources to help lawyers, judges, and law students experiencing stress, depression, and anxiety, or to help contend with relationship or substance abuse issues.

In his introductory comments, D.C. Bar President Geoffrey Klineberg drew attention to the Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program, urging attendees to avail themselves of its confidential consultations by phone. “In our times, under the COVID pandemic, LAP has responded extraordinarily by setting up a full range of virtual services, including confidential telephone lines to reach licensed counselors, assessment and referral services to treatment programs, and secure short-term video counseling,” Klineberg said.

The Pro Bono Partnership Luncheon, which drew 119 attendees, is traditionally part of a series of events in the D.C. legal community celebrating Pro Bono Week, said Rebecca K. Troth, executive director of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center. “But because this year is unlike any other we have experienced, we are not, unsurprisingly, addressing a topic typical for this event. Rather, we are focusing on how to continue to serve our clients while dealing with all the challenges the pandemic presents to both our personal and our work lives,” Troth said.

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