Focusing on a new aspect of attorney mental health, On Balance Podcast hosts Tish Vincent and JoAnn Hathaway are joined by Olivia Ash and Jeff Zapor to discuss the prevalence of loneliness in the profession and its effect on lawyers. Olivia shares her research on loneliness in legal professionals and describes the drivers behind their sense of isolation. Jeff talks about his personal experience with loneliness and addiction during law school and as a young lawyer and shares his story of recovery. Together, they offer insight into this issue and the need to promote healthy, connected relationships in the profession.
Olivia Ash is an ERISA compliance consultant at Compliancedashboard, LLC and is adjunct faculty at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
Jeff Zapor is an attorney and licensed professional counselor and a clinical case manager at the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program at the State Bar of Michigan.
State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast
How Loneliness Impacts the Practice of Law
Intro: Welcome to State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management and lawyer wellness for a thriving law practice with your hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent, here on Legal Talk Network.
Take it away, ladies.
Tish Vincent: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I am Tish Vincent.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I am JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Olivia Ash, a Health Consultant at the Indiana University School of Health and Human Services and recent law school graduate. We also have Jeff Zapor, an attorney and licensed professional counselor who is a Clinical Case Manager at the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program at the State Bar of Michigan.
So, Olivia, would you share some information about yourself with our listeners?
Olivia Ash: Absolutely. First, thank you for having me. And so the most important thing about me is I have a lot of energy and that has led me throughout my career to be in different careers. So as you mentioned I recently graduated from the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and that was my third career.
I have been in wellness as a professional and management of wellness programming and I’m also a teacher. And as you mentioned, I am adjunct faculty at IUPUI. So I like to stay busy and I find many things interesting. That’s pretty much the most important things about me at the moment.
JoAnn Hathaway: And Jeff, would you share some information about yourself with our listeners as well?
Jeff Zapor: Certainly. Thank You JoAnn. I am as was mentioned a clinical case manager here at the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program. I’m a licensed professional counselor and graduated from Wayne State University in 2016 with my master’s degree in Counseling.
Prior to that, I had a small private practice. I graduated from Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio in 2005 and had a small private practice that focused on probate law. I since relocated to Michigan and really enjoy living and working here now.
Tish Vincent: Thank you. Thank you. Well, let’s get on to our discussion about loneliness as an issue and how it impacts attorneys in the practice of law. Olivia, could you share with us what exactly is loneliness and how does it differ from being alone?
Olivia Ash: Loneliness is when it boils down to one’s self-perception of their relationships and the quality of those relationships in their own mind versus being alone is quite literally a quantitative measure. So that’s I have five friends, I am surrounded by people, but yet internally, my subjective value of my relationships with those people, they are good but maybe they’re not as good as they could be.
So I could be socially not isolated and be around friends but inside be quite lonely because the friendships and relationships and my perception of them are not what I wish they would be for my life at the present moment.
So that’s really the big difference between loneliness as a subjective qualitative measure and social isolation as a quantitative measure and just the number of contacts that you have in your day to day life.
JoAnn Hathaway: Okay, and you did research on loneliness and attorneys, can you tell our listeners a little bit about that research and what you were looking for in studying?
Olivia Ash: Yes, absolutely. It is a new thing to research and I’m very excited about it because as I was doing in my preparation for the research I conducted, I realized there was no official research on measuring loneliness in the legal field.
And so briefly it came about in my last year of law school, we have a writing requirement and with my background as a health professional I wanted to do my thesis on something that mattered and I wanted to have something to contribute to the legal profession and maybe starting sort of platform for others to work from including myself.
So I decided to research loneliness because I had read an article in the Harvard Business Review that in an employment workforce situation, lawyers measured as the loneliest of professionals behind physicians. And I thought that was interesting being right there in my last year of law school and I wanted to do a little bit more.
So I developed and created a survey and administered it to my colleagues at the school and I was able to contribute just a little bit to get the ball rolling on it because I think it’s a very important mental health aspect for law students especially and then lawyers in the profession moving forward.
JoAnn Hathaway: So, Olivia, can you share with us what factors drive loneliness?
Olivia Ash: Yes, yes and as you might imagine and as there used to saying in the legal field it depends, but what research has been done is and again the research about loneliness is all over the place and the only research we have to look at is in the general population, so when we look at lawyers we’re looking at a specific subset of that population.
But generally speaking, loneliness because it’s a subjective measure it’s really about someone’s self-esteem and their self-perception and their self-efficacy, and those are all actually distinct health terms.
Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself and your worth and self-efficacy is the ability that you think that you have to change your environment. And so, what we’re seeing with the research is that those persons who self-report as moderate to high loneliness tend to have lower levels of self-esteem, self-efficacy and then also from an outside perspective, they’re not engaging with individuals and talking about how they’re feeling, so they may have a smaller social network. They may not have a good self-perception, but they may also be fearful, shy, anxious and not normally predisposed to talk to others about how they’re feeling especially.
So that’s what we’re seeing that’s driving this loneliness is this internal storm if you’ll have it within someone’s thinking. It’s really about how they think and then it comes out how they feel and how they act or don’t act.
JoAnn Hathaway: So it’s something that’s happening in the lawyer’s own mind.
Olivia Ash: It is exactly, yes, it is, and it’s happening whether you’re a lawyer, a physician, but what we’re also finding, what I also discovered in doing my research is that the more isolated an individual becomes or in this case a law student and showing in my research the longer they’re in law school, the higher their loneliness score was to the point where the average loneliness score for this cohort that I tested and who responded was 43, and the highest level of loneliness measures at 44.
So by the time they’re graduating, they’re experiencing high levels of loneliness and that’s a concern because as lawyers, the goal is to be able to use our brains and use our minds and function and advise others and over feeling such emptiness and loneliness inside that can be a very good seed so to speak for other mental health conditions and physical health issues to sprout.
JoAnn Hathaway: Okay, Jeff, could you speak a little bit about your experience as you transition from being a law student to practicing in a smaller solo practice setting, can you relate to the way Olivia is thinking about these issues through a loneliness lens?
Jeff Zapor: Absolutely, so yes, as I was listening to her talk what came to mind was this idea of loneliness stemming from unmet emotional needs. And I think there’s a complication to it, so these emotional needs are met through connection and so loneliness can be a way, a reason why these emotional needs are not being met which is I kind of image that more as like social isolation.
But then it also can be the outcome of the unmet needs which is perhaps more emotional loneliness. And so, it’s something that I definitely experienced as I transition through my career. So as I reflect back on my time in law school, I really think of it in fond terms.
In law school I found an environment that I really enjoyed. It was people that were go-getters that succeeded and were ambitious and I certainly fit that those criteria as well and so I found a group of people that I could connect with and I went part-time at night so I was on a four-year track as opposed to the traditional three-year track and so I worked full-time during the day and then went to school at night.
And so just some observations from that time was that there was separation among people so the night students and the day students didn’t mix at all. And certainly within the night students, we had our own little cliques, and so as I went through school, I certainly had a lot of kind of superficial relationships but I had three or four pretty tight ones as well.
And then one of the work experiences I had while in law school was to clerk for a probate judge, and so I was able to really develop some more friendships in that arena as well.
But as I sit back and reflect on it, another piece to my story which is just personal to me is I’m in recovery and so I’m at right now ten years sober from alcohol and from gambling but when I was in law school was a time of active drinking and gambling for me.
And so, I think for me anyway having these issues with addiction is a very isolating thing too. So I had these relationships, some of them superficial, some of them not so superficial, but there always was this kind of feeling of being isolated. People wouldn’t quite understand exactly what I was going through.
So as I transitioned into private practice and literally happened, my clerkship ended on a Friday and I opened my office on the following Monday, right away I had a full caseload. I was able to get a lot of referrals from court. So I was very busy at first and then — but all of a sudden the social supports that I had were lessened.
So I was no longer around the people that I went to school with and I was still around some people but not as many. So there were a lot of things going on with me at that time, it was kind of this imposter syndrome like am I good enough to do this? There was the addiction about which helped me to stay away from other people and just engage in these activities that I was doing, and then just the sheer number of people that I was around decreased.
So as I went through the first few years of my practice, it became lonelier and lonelier to the point where I ended my practice just three years into it, so.
JoAnn Hathaway: So it became overwhelming. I mean, as I sit and listen to that and I know you well, it sounds like you got more lonely once you got into the practice of law than you even were in law school. So I don’t know how that fits with what Olivia’s view of it is and I’d be interested in hearing and is that accurate, Jeff, that it seemed more lonely?
Jeff Zapor: It is accurate and I guess the way that I kind of conceptualize it now looking back, for me, loneliness really comes down to, not only the number of connections that you have, but the number of quality connections that you have.
And so I kind of think about it in terms of like a two-way street, you could know somebody, and I guess these are more when I talk about like superficial relationships, those are probably more one-way street of people and you may be pleasant with them if you see them.
But there is not this shared experience, this meaning that you two share, and so the number of relationships that I had that were these quality two-way street relationships dwindled. So I had a lot of acquaintances, but there wasn’t a group of friends that I had that we really shared this common meaning, and I really feel like that’s something that you are taught in law school is that you are the problem solver and people come to you to fix issues that they are having.
And not to mention, you are in competition with your colleagues and so it is kind of ingrained in this legal education that these quality two-way street relationships can be dangerous.
Tish Vincent: Olivia, how does loneliness interplay with lawyer well-being and actually what factors did you find in your research that would drive loneliness and lawyers?
Olivia Ash: So as I was listening to Jeff talk, I picked up on a couple of words about, shared experience was one of them and meaning. The word meaning is quite — a lot of gravitas on that one. So what we are finding here, loneliness, there has not been much research at all with lawyers and loneliness.
Probably because as the health research shows, and just in general, Jeena Cho wrote an article and the things about being a lawyer make it very difficult to actually find meaning and cultivate it, because competition, heavy workload, the fear of failing, the illusion of control, the way that we are trained in law school, thinking like a lawyer, which could cause a disconnection from oneself.
And so internally our thoughts affect how we respond emotionally and therefore our actions or behaviors. And so this competition, this criticalness, this analysis can kind of become out of control — get out of control.
So my goal was to really look at okay, as a health professional coming into law school at the age of 35, teaching others about health, I was in an unique position to experience what law school was like, what it was like, the levels of internal competition, but also to try, by nature I was — I am a relator, I want to cultivate relationships, and so that balance is tough, but there is some, as Jeff said, there is some benefit in knowing there is somebody there with you going through that, because it’s difficult for people to understand what it’s like.
But what we are finding here is that — so my research on my group showed that loneliness increased as you got closer to graduating, and then Jeff just talked about how being a solo practitioner especially, you have now removed those relationships, even though they may have had elements of competition, there were still people with shared meaning, who knew what the emotions were like and that has now been removed.
And then you add on top of that, going into a profession where you have a lot of debt generally, and you have high expectations, you have a high workload, all of that can really wreak havoc on your mind, and with lawyers, we see them beginning to experience the same types of physical symptoms as posttraumatic stress disorder and what they call a hypervigilance response.
There is a researcher named John Cacioppo and his wife and he has done neuroendocrinology research, so he looks at it from a behavioral standpoint, and your body has a response to being afraid and fearing things and like hey, this is painful. I don’t have anybody to talk to. This relationship is not how I want it.
So then you respond by trying to reach out, but you also have elevated heart rate, you have high blood pressure, you may have sleepless nights. So you add that to being a new lawyer, to losing relationships, to having the stress of learning how to think and analyze and being critical and it can really, if it’s not — if there is not an intervening factor, so to speak, it can really wreak havoc and therefore drive individuals, especially lawyers, and we see this in the research that has been done, to begin using substance use disorders.
Alcohol, gambling, as was mentioned, depression, suicide rates, all of those are higher than the general population for the same measures. And I personally think that loneliness is the bedrock or seed from which many mental disorders and emotional challenges spring from.
Jeff Zapor: To me, I think it’s a really great question, and as I was preparing for this, one thing that kind of came to my mind was what exactly is loneliness, and I thought of the metaphor of the four blind people feeling different parts of an elephant and how they are all describing different things, but it really is an elephant. Is that kind of what we are talking about? Is loneliness kind of its own standalone malady or is it really part of something else? And I don’t know the answer and I am excited hopefully there will be more research on what the answer to that question really is.
But to me, it makes a lot of sense, kind of what Olivia is saying, is that it is the seed from which other things sprout. If you are building a house, that foundational stuff, if the house is your mental health and it’s easy to think about maybe foundational blocks like depression or anxiety or perhaps loneliness is another foundational block, which this mental health house is built upon.
And I really kind of think in terms of systems, and if loneliness both amplifies the stress that we feel and then also amplifies the impact of that stress, it’s affecting not just isolated parts of ourselves, but it’s acting on the system and that’s certainly — there is systems within the body, but also culturally too.
Olivia Ash: Oh, I totally agree Jeff, totally agree. And the systems metaphor, both the elephant metaphor and the systems metaphor, and as a health professional I teach health curriculum to students wanting to be teachers and I teach principles of wellness at Indiana University and I try to tell my students, you have got to be balanced, and I try to work on it myself.
And law school was difficult for me and it took me a good year-and-a-half to two years to sort of deal with that, and I am a trained professional when it comes to health. So I saw challenges in my classmates on how their health was affected with the stress based upon how they were looking, how they were talking, and if I might, there are a couple of things I am going to pull from my paper that sort of tie into the metaphor on the systems and the elephant.
So loneliness is a bedrock, it’s the elephant, and you will see depression, you will see anxiety. Our bodies, our systems, they are made to work together. The emotional center is not supposed to be isolated from your insulin response or how your heart works, or if you are completely horribly lonely, you are having lower serotonin in your neurotransmitters.
There is a statement. Douglas Litowitz said that — he said that law school breaks people and that he felt that nobody comes out of law school feeling better about themselves although many come out feeling caustic, paranoid, and overly competitive.
And then in 2010, Jennifer Jolly-Ryan talked about law school and she said that students enter law school with unique gifts, and then she goes on to say that at the end law school teaches many students to put aside their personal life and health and accept persistent discomfort, angst, isolation, even depression as the cost of becoming a lawyer.
And I find that to be tragic, because as a person when I teach health, it’s about the wellness wheel, it’s about the six dimensions of health, it’s a pie and it has to be even. And to be in an environment — and Steven Cole is a UCLA researcher and he said that he feels that loneliness is one of the most toxic environmental conditions we can possibly encounter. It disassociates yourself.
And I truly believe that as research continues, we will see that — we will start to see loneliness correlate with some of these rates of alcohol use and substance use disorders in our profession, but we have to talk about it, and that’s a challenge.
JoAnn Hathaway: It is, it definitely is, and I think it is compelling. Your work is compelling and I think it will be the start of other research that brings more solutions.
I would like to ask about what people can do to reduce feelings of loneliness, but I think our time is beginning to disappear, so maybe we should try to schedule another conversation and another time and explore that together.
Olivia Ash: Absolutely, I would be happy to do so.
Jeff Zapor: Certainly.
Olivia Ash: Talk, talk about how you feel.
JoAnn Hathaway: Yes, exactly.
Olivia Ash: Find someone. It’s okay to talk about how you feel.
JoAnn Hathaway: Yes.
Jeff Zapor: I mean I will just very quickly interject a personal story. So being in sobriety I attend community support groups and one of the most compelling things about it for me is that there is this group of people that know me and that I don’t have to fill in the back story every time, I can pick up right where I am and talk about what’s going on with myself, and just to have that group of people is so invaluable and has led me into this life of recovery.
So I mean I just know firsthand that this is real and that it works.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, it looks like we have come to the end of our show. We would like to thank our guests today, Olivia Ash and Jeff Zapor for a wonderful program.
Tish Vincent: If our guests would like to follow up with either of you, I am going to ask each of you to share some contact information so they can find you.
Olivia, would you go first with some contact information, how our guests could find you.
Olivia Ash: Absolutely. I can be reached by email at [email protected], or I am on LinkedIn under Olivia Ash and you will be able to send me a message through LinkedIn if that’s a preferred method.
Tish Vincent: Thank you. And Jeff, how about you, how can our listeners reach you if they want to reach out?
Jeff Zapor: Sure. You can reach me by email and that is [email protected], or by telephone, which is 517-346-6376.
Tish Vincent: Thanks to Olivia and Jeff for joining us today.
Olivia Ash: You are welcome. Thank you.
Jeff Zapor: Thank you.
Tish Vincent: This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan On Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I am JoAnn Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I am Tish Vincent. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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