JoAnn Hathaway welcomes brand new co-host Molly Ranns to the On Balance podcast. The new duo send their best wishes to veteran co-host Tish Vincent as she embarks on the new adventure of retirement! Jumping right in, JoAnn and Molly welcome new guest Alexis Robertson to talk about the connection between diversity and inclusion and overall wellbeing. Alexis shares insights on how properly prioritizing mental and physical health through mindfulness, self-compassion, and personal boundaries helps us naturally be more inclusive toward those around us.
Alexis Robertson is the director of diversity & inclusion for Foley & Lardner LLP.
State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast
Diversity and Inclusion How Lawyer Wellbeing Promotes Inclusivity
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 Vinson here on Legal Talk Network. Take it away, ladies.
JoAnn Hathaway: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I’m JoAnn Hathaway, and I’m very pleased to introduce my new co-host for the On Balance Podcast, Molly Ranns, who is the Director of the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program at the State Bar of Michigan. Hi, Molly!
Molly Ranns: Hi, JoAnn. I’m so pleased to be here.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, we’re very pleased to have you, and I’m excited to kick off 2021. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my previous co-host, Tish Vincent, who launched this program with me several years ago. Tish has recently retired and we wish her well, and we’re very happy to have Molly join us in her place. Molly, could you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Molly Ranns: Absolutely. Like JoAnn mentioned, I’m the Program Director for the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program at the State Bar of Michigan. I’m a fully licensed professional counselor and a board-certified addictions therapist. And I have been with LJAP for the past almost a decade.
JoAnn Hathaway: Thank you, Molly. We’re very pleased to have Alexis Robertson, Director of Diversity & Inclusion at Foley & Lardner and a lawyer well-being enthusiast join us today as our podcast guest to talk about the connection between diversity and inclusion and overall well-being. So Alexis, would you share some information about yourself with our listeners?
Alexis Robertson: I’d be happy to. And Molly and JoAnn, thank you so much for having me on your show. As you mentioned, my name is Alexis Robertson. I’m the Director of Diversity & Inclusion at Foley & Lardner, and I am what I sometimes refer to as a recovering lawyer. So, I spent just short of eight years as a litigation attorney as well as a labor employment attorney before leaving practice to focus on diversity and inclusion.
Molly Ranns: Thanks so much for being here, Alexis. As JoAnn mentioned, can you talk about the connection between diversity and inclusion and overall well-being?
Alexis Robertson: Sure, and it’s something that I’m really passionate about. And I do appreciate how JoAnn characterized me as a wellness enthusiast and that, you know, sitting here, I do have a JD and I’m an actively licensed attorney, but I do not bear any specific credentials in, you know, health or well-being. But, the topic is foundational and fundamental to the D&I work that I do because when you’re trying to create organizational change and to make an organization more suited and to further embrace groups that are historically or traditionally underrepresented.
Wellness is a baseline, and this may sound maybe a little too direct or foolish. But, when people aren’t feeling good, they are not as good about being inclusive, and you can even look to, for example, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So, not only do I want people to feel good and feel their best that you’re better at really examining yourself, your biases, your self-aware, you’re better at including others because your baseline needs are set. But also, as human beings, inclusion and belonging are hardwired into what we need. So, when you look at that triangle of needs at the base, you see the food, the shelter. The next is things like belonging and inclusion. So, it’s related to I’d say both sides of the equation as we need to be well in order to then focus on the need to be included. But also, organizationally, I need every individual ideally to feel their best so that we can do the work we need to do to promote inclusion because when you are not feeling good, you are going to be stuck on your default settings and simply less inclusive of others.
JoAnn Hathaway: Alexis, in the past, I’ve heard you liken lawyers to professional athletes. Why is that?
Alexis Robertson: That is something that I started thinking about a few years ago. I actually had the opportunity to be on — I think it’s Gina Cho’s podcast and I think it’s something like — I was master podcast. I want to call it the mindful lawyer. That’s not right. We started talking about attorney health and I said after hearing an interview with LeBron James where he was with his trainer talking about all the things he does so that he can perform, and this is LeBron James. So to us, of course, he practices constantly. He’s focused on his nutrition because he has to physically perform. But, what you don’t hear him saying is I’m too busy to practice, right? And I think there are similarities with an attorney and that most lawyers, if you listed all the demands you have in your life, they’re extraordinary. Arguably, they are different. You’re not LeBron James, but there are things that if you really want to be able to accomplish all of them, you have to be at your best.
You have to be seeking to optimize, and I think that mitigates in favor of really taking your health and your well-being seriously, treating it as if it is a part and parcel to your job because you cannot perform all the things that are required of you if you don’t take it seriously. But instead, I think we too often see the flip side, which is because I’m so busy. I don’t have time to take care of myself where I think you need to treat yourself like LeBron James, and if you want the energy to do all the client matters, the family stuff, the business development, the billing, you know, the list could go on. You have to take your health very seriously.
Molly Ranns: Alexis, as a clinician, I certainly understand the importance of mindfulness and meditation and that’s so much a part of the work that I do. Can you help me understand and help our listeners understand how mindfulness and meditation could play into attorney well-being or even how that has played into your own life?
Alexis Robertson: Absolutely. I’m going to take that in reverse. I’ll share a little bit about my relationship with mindfulness and meditation, and then we’ll talk about the implications I think that has for lawyers. But so, I have been I guess a Vedic meditator. It would be the specific type of meditation for the past two-and-a-half years. And about a year before that, I started trying to kind of meditate on my own with no formal instruction, occasionally using an app, which I also found to be tremendously valuable. But, for those that are familiar, Vedic meditation is actually a type of — or very similar to transcendental meditation. As far as I know, they are actually the same thing. They just kind of split off. And so, it is mantra-based meditation, and the mantra is essentially a sound that is a settling sound to help settle the mind. Ideally, you do this for 20 minutes twice a day. I will admit I’m not so great with getting to that afternoon meditation. But, there’s a couple of things that have been tremendously valuable to me and some things that, you know, because I’m not an expert in neuroscience, and I haven’t read all the research, but that I can just say anecdotally in my experience have been very impactful. But, one is that this particular form of meditation and I think many forms of meditation. And note, I’m talking meditation right now, not mindfulness.
And then the second, we can distinguish the difference, but they’re tremendously restful. They allow you to recharge and to get deep rest in a short period of time in a way that you really can’t in other ways. And I actually think there is some research out there that shows how minute for minute certain types of meditation are more rejuvenative than sleep. And so, not to say you should meditate instead of sleep. That is not what I mean, but when you have a busy day and you are going to have a long day to take a moment and to get some sort of deep rest so that you can continue your day is extremely powerful for anyone, but I would say particularly lawyers. But also, for me, my experience with meditation has been in one of — I would call it self-awareness and it starts to sound a little bit cliché.
But, I have seen myself really improve at cultivating the ability to respond instead of react, and this is where you might hear someone quote that famous Viktor Frankl quote from the book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ where he talks about making sure that we’re getting to the point where you are able to differentiate between stimulus and response. Between stimulus and response, there is a space. I have more of that space. Am I perfect? Am I never reactive particularly with my children? No, no. I’m not a monk. I’m not a saint. But, I have seen myself cultivate the ability to pause in a situation and to choose my response, choose who I want to be, which is very powerful and I think is very powerful for lawyers.
But, I think ultimately when it comes to mindfulness and I think — and you know, Molly, you may have sort of your go-to definition. But, I think generally of mindfulness as the ability to be in the present moment, right to be where you are because it’s only by being where you are that you can actually intentionally respond to what is in front of you and that is really, really powerful because as attorneys, I think we can often be on autopilot. We are reacting throughout the day. We are not choosing who we want to be, and you can use meditation. It’s not the only tool, but it is a wonderful tool and a type of mindfulness that can allow you to cultivate that space between stimulus and response. It’s tremendously valuable to the work I do within D&I, which is getting people to have self-awareness about their unconscious patterns, behaviors and stories.
But also, just as a lawyer, if there is something that you are seeking to change whether it be in your practice or in your life, the first thing you need to do is to become aware of it. You have to make the unconscious conscious so that you can then work to change or dismantle that behavior and mindfulness generally as a concept and meditation as a tool to reach mindfulness I think is a really powerful way to cultivate that. And so and frankly, it comes down to a matter I think of self-awareness, may be a term that people are more familiar with.
JoAnn Hathaway: What’s the role of self-compassion to lawyer well-being?
Alexis Robertson: Yes. And this is — I’m glad you asked this. This isn’t in the correct order because — so, I have a theory that lawyers are not the most self-compassionate bunch. I think most adults struggle with self-compassion. I think we are very nice to other people, but when it comes time to be nice to ourselves, that voice in our head is not so nice. And so, through mindfulness, hopefully you can raise self-awareness and start thinking, how do I talk to myself? Do I talk to myself the way I would talk to a friend? Or is everything that comes from — and maybe, there are some people I’ve learned who apparently don’t have this ongoing narrative in their head and, if so, maybe that’s something else. But most of us, I do think we have a narrative. We have a voice. We take an action and that voice is often like you could have done that better. Oh, why is that common the wrong place in that email? It’s because you’re just not very smart. You just need to — and so, what is that voice sound like? Is it a nice voice? Is it a mean voice? I would humbly submit that it is beneficial for everyone to work to cultivate a very self-compassionate internal voice. One that treats you as a friend because that I think is really — you know, for life a better word, the healthiest way to achieve our goals. We can do a lot by beating ourselves up. We can do a lot by telling ourselves we’re not good enough and we not have to work harder.
But, I was recently listening to an interesting interview. It’s actually on Dan Harris’ Ten Percent Happier Podcast with — I think he’s a Ph.D. out of Harvard who done a lot of research on self-compassion. And, ultimately, how that really was the tool for personal change and how so, for example, we started a New Year recently and a lot of us have had New Year’s resolutions and a lot of those resolutions will actually come from a place of personal critique, maybe personal resentment, maybe personal hatred of. I want to lose five more pounds or I should do this more because deep down I’m not good enough in some way. I’m critical of myself. But, what if that resolution was coming from a place of self-compassion, coming from a place of I want to lose 10 pounds because I really value my health, because I really care about myself? I want to have certain habits because they are better for me. And, ultimately, what I think the research has found and trust this other person who I’m loosely citing. No, but it is found that people are actually more successful in habit change when it comes from a place of self-compassion. And so, I really see self-compassion as one of those sort of like Uber or higher order attributes to try and cultivate in order to be able to achieve a lot of those day-to-day goals that we often find ourselves making.
JoAnn Hathaway: Alexis, this lends itself to something I just actually experienced myself. I held a 90-minute webinar and I was happy with the delivery, except for about two minutes when I felt I hadn’t responded well to a question from the audience. After the webinar, a peer asked how it went and I answered that I was bothered by what I thought was my inadequate response. So, rather than focus on 88 minutes of good content, I focused on the less than optimal two minutes. Are there steps we can take to help change our information processing so we have more self-compassion?
Alexis Robertson: Absolutely. And I will say a few things that I’m, of course, going to also defer to Molly who has, you know, look at the credentials and this sort of thing. But, I think the first step really is awareness, like you just have to start with getting curious about what does that voice sound like and not putting a ton of pressure on yourself. It is not something that you are going to notice one minute, flip a switch, and now for the rest of your life, you just have this really kind compassionate internal dialogue with yourself. No, but just get curious the next time. You might miss it the next time. But, the next time that you’re aware of it, think about how did I respond to myself?
So, for you JoAnn, the fact that you just said right now and said, “Wow! I’m realizing that.” I recently did this exact thing. I don’t know if you thought that 30 minutes after you were beating yourself up, I’m guessing you didn’t. You’re realizing it now and that’s powerful. So, start to notice and that goes back to you’re going to — it’s basically a form of mindfulness. Start to be mindful about the way you speak to yourself. And once you’ve gained some awareness of it, okay start to change it just a little. Maybe, you tell yourself when I notice myself engaging in negative self-talk, I also have to give myself something positive. So, my default setting may be, “Wow! I did not do well on that question.” And there are people out there who would be like, “Wow! I was great for 88 minutes,” right? And then, they would think about the last two. But for many of us, we focus on the two minutes where we weren’t great. So, the work is and noticing that you’re doing that that is currently how you and many of us are wired, you know. Don’t shame yourself. Don’t blame yourself for having that wiring. But then say, “Wait. Okay. What is something that I did well?” And so, I think that can be sort of a little crack that lets like the light of self-compassion in.
And then, ultimately, this is going to take some work for many of us depending on how old you are. You know, we have 30, 40, 50, 60 years that we are working to address and, frankly, you have to be compassionate to yourself in the work that you’re doing on this. But for me, the baseline is just try to notice and then question is there something that’s kind I can point out about myself. But also, ask yourself, “Would I say that to a friend? Is that about the same thing I would say to a friend?”
Molly Ranns: Such great advice. Alexis, what role do you think personal boundaries play in lawyer well-being?
Alexis Robertson: Wow! In some ways, I think they may be all of it and I hesitate to say that because I think there is a tremendous amount of work that we can do as a profession that individual organizations can do to really help people promote well-being, right? So, just to be super clear, I’m not saying that there is not an institutional — there’s not a role of an institutional fix with this. But, I think in the immediate moment because the profession and organizations will be slow to change, ultimately, what you’re left with are your personal boundaries and how much of yourself are you giving or are you sacrificing so that you don’t have time to take care of yourself in the way that you really need to be able to thrive personally and professionally.
And so, for a lot of us, what that looks like is when we are planning our week. Have we planned times where we are going to work out? You know, if that’s something you value or have we built in time for adequate sleep, have we built in time to eat. And the thing is I am literally outlining the basic human needs, but so many of us do not have the time to meet them and what it will take is action. You know, if you want this to start changing tomorrow, it’s going to take action on your part because what’s not going to happen is your team or your boss or your employer or the legal profession are not going to call you up tomorrow and say, “Hey, we noticed you need more sleep. Here’s what we are going to do to get you more sleep.” No, it’s going to take you and I will — you know, my shorthand for that is having personal boundaries, having boundaries around certain activities that I actually think in many ways should be held as sacred. No, of course, it’s okay if you skip lunch here or there, if you eat lunch a little bit late. But, generally speaking, finding the time to feed yourself should be considered very high priority to you during the day. And so, whether it be because you are able to be more present when your stomach isn’t grumbling or because if you have that time and that planning, you’re picking better choices, which makes you feel better and you’re nicer to your family when you get home.
The bottom line is that, at the end of the day, we are all personally responsible for our care. And as much as we would like or that we wish, nobody else is going to swoop in and do that for us. And the thing is I will absolutely say this is so easy for me to say. It’s incredibly easy for me to say, but it is not as easy for us to do. I think for myself I will say and I think for many, building certain habits and certain boundaries can take years. But, it is something that I definitely think is worth reflecting on. You know, what little change could I make? What do I really value? Why do I feel like I’m missing out on? What little tweak could I make starting tomorrow or next week or whenever that could help me build the boundaries and build out the time that I need to cover the basic things for me to take care of myself.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, it looks like we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guest today, Alexis Robertson, for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: Alexis, if our guests would like to follow up with you, how can they best reach you?
Alexis Robertson: The best way to find me is on LinkedIn. I am very active on LinkedIn. And I will once again add, remember I am a wellness enthusiast, but if you follow me on LinkedIn a lot, my content will also be diversity and inclusion and law firms and the legal profession. But, I would welcome anyone who wants to reach out.
Molly Ranns: Thank you so much, Alexis. I know I’ve learned a lot today. This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan On Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I’m JoAnn Hathaway.
Molly Ranns: And I’m Molly Ranns. Until next time, thank you for listening.
Outro: Thank you for listening to the State Bar of Michigan On Balance Podcast brought to you by the State Bar of Michigan and produced by the broadcast professionals at Legal Talk Network. If you’d like more information about today’s show, please visit legaltalknetwork.com. Subscribe via Apple podcasts and RSS. Find the State Bar of Michigan and Legal Talk Network on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn or download Legal Talk Network’s free app in Google Play and iTunes.
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