With ongoing concerns about COVID-19 and new uncertainty arising from the Delta variant, many attorneys are feeling stuck, unsure how and when to move forward in both their personal and professional lives. So, how can lawyers and law firms alike start recovering from these months of added stress? Molly Ranns and JoAnn Hathaway talk with Laura Mahr about her tips for increasing personal resilience and supporting mental health for law firm staff.
Laura Mahr is a lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, which provides mindfulness-based wellness training, coaching, and consulting for lawyers and law offices nationwide.
Molly Ranns: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan on Balance podcast on Legal Talk Network. I’m Molly Ranns.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I’m JoAnn Hathaway. We’re very pleased to have Laura Mahr, Esquire, Founder and Principal Consultant with Conscious Legal Minds out of Asheville North Carolina join us today as our podcast guest to talk about the mental health factor accounting for the emotional toll of the pandemic. Laura will focus on how to develop a successful return to the office plan while incorporating flexible choices, robust resourcing and resilience training all while keeping an eye on mental health. So, Laura would you share some information about yourselves with our listeners.
Laura Mahr: Yes, thank you so much for having me here. I started my business, Conscious Legal Minds in 2015 after spending about 12 years practicing law. I was just a civil sexual assault lawyer and I found myself tethering on the edge of burnout and not knowing what was happening to myself. I took a year off and really delved into everything that I could get my hands on that related to resilience building. And then, started offering training and consulting and coaching for lawyers and support staff, law school students and judges around the country to help them understand their own experience of practicing law and how to keep themselves resilient and prevent burnout and compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma while practicing law.
Molly Ranns: Thank you so much Laura. As a therapist, I am particularly interested in this first question. I’m wondering if you could talk about how you’ve been working with lawyers and supporting their mental health during the pandemic?
Laura Mahr: Yes, I have found that the request for training in the past year and half has greatly increased. As I said I’ve been doing trainings virtually in person for the last six years but I would say, I think I counted recently that in the last 18 months, I’ve trained over 20 thousand lawyers and support staff virtually during the pandemic and I kind of joked to some of my colleagues, I was like, “well, you know lawyer well-being is topic that is gaining more and more interest but it really took a pandemic for us to realize that we need some help in supporting our mental health and staying resilient in challenging times.”
JoAnn Hathaway: Laura, how might lawyers mental health in particular have been affected in the last 18 months?
Laura Mahr: Well, we know from the 2016 ABA study on lawyer well-being that we as a profession have high levels of anxiety and depression, suicidality and substance use and abuse. And so, a lot of us have experienced in the pandemic an exacerbation of those pre-existing conditions specially because we’ve been going through so much unknown and so many overwhelming situations that coupled with the unknowns has created increased anxiety, increased depression and for some people, a free state where they are not sure whether they should mobilize toward the problem and try to fix it or just collapsed and hope that the problem goes away. And I’ve been doing a lot of resilience coaching one on one with lawyers both in my private practice and also in-house at some law firms and really getting to hear daily from lawyers that their concerns about their own mental health are increasing the longer the pandemic goes on.
Molly Ranns: Laura, while things are opening up and starting to look more like normal, so they speak in the external world, are things back to normal in our internal experience?
Laura Mahr: I think that’s a really good question. And what I’m hearing from a lot of lawyers in the coaching that I do and also in the training is that most of us went through the pandemic with a great deal of disorientation. Meaning, we as lawyers generally spend a lot of time studying law and getting really good at our craft. We generally don’t spend a lot of time understanding mental health or studying it, or really even spending much time in therapy or on podcast to talk about mental health. We generally spend our time thinking about law and how to practice law well. And that has left us, sort of naked if you would, if you will in terms of our ability to address what’s going on internally for us. And so many of us have gone through the pandemic a little bit disoriented about what is that feeling of anxiety I have, why is it so increased now, or why am I usually mobilized and now I feel like I want to collapse and that’s disorienting. And so, for most of us, we have this internal experience going on that is a bit confusing to us, we don’t have words for it, we don’t necessarily have resources or support around it, most of us feel like we’re alone in our experience.
And so we’re carrying this forward as we are going into this next phase of the pandemic which is perhaps into an opening up phase, though with the new Delta of variant, there’s been a halt or not in some places. And so now people are saying, I’m actually in limbo, like I don’t know if I should move forward, I don’t know if I should think about, “oh my gosh, we’re going to have to go back into kind of where we were at the beginning of the pandemic and I’m not exactly sure what to do.” And so, while – yes in some places, things might start looking like normal, restaurants and concerts and things like that. Most of our internal experience is still trying to reckon with the massive changes that we were going through in the last 18 months and trying to figure out how to move forward with unprocessed trauma, unprocessed anxiety, unprocessed mental health issues that might have been exacerbated or increased during this last 18 months or so.
JoAnn Hathaway: Laura, I’ve heard the term surge capacity previously, can you help us understand what surge capacity is?
Laura Mahr: Yeah, our surge capacity is our ability to adapt in order to survive a short-term intensely stressful situation. And I think that as lawyers, we really get surge capacity because those of us that are trial lawyers use our surge capacity in order to get us in zone, get us prepared for trial, we put all of our energy into that trial and we literally have neurobiological experience of dumping cortisol and adrenaline stress hormones into our body to get us to stay up long hours, to keep us hyper focused when we’re trying a case or litigating. But at the end of that, there is generally kind of a return to normal, a rebuilding of our surge capacity, a replenishing of our energy and then going into whatever the next crisis is or the next intense situation is. What’s happened however during the pandemic. So, at the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of us were like “oh, we are problem solving kind of people,” we take on issues, we figure them out, we have used creative problem solving to move us forward. So, a lot of us used that surge capacity that we have, that sort of ingrained surge capacity that we have as lawyers, to move us through the first month or two of the pandemic. We might have mobilized to get ourselves at home and set up and get a printer and figure out Zoom, and figure out how to meet with clients and take care of our children from home. But at a certain point, that surge capacity as surge capacity, it depletes unless we’ve taken a break and done practices to replenish the surge capacity. But because the pandemic went on and on and on and in fact it is still going on, many of us have depleted our surge capacity and now we’re moving around in the world from a place of lowered resilience, depleted surge capacity and feeling more overwhelmed than energized.
Molly Ranns: Laura, in your experience as resilience coach while being a trainer for lawyers, you’re talking about what lawyers’ surge capacity has look like through the pandemic, what about their surge capacity right now with the pandemic still ongoing?
Laura Mahr: Well, I think that there’s a couple different things that are happening for people and again because I’m training so many lawyers and asking when I’m doing trainings, I always have the chat box open because I want to learn from the hundreds and thousands of lawyers that I’m teaching, what is actually going on and I’m also hearing from my one-on-one clients that I coach about what’s happening for them. And so, while I’m speaking now, I’m not speaking for all lawyers, so this may not be the experience for all lawyers. I think that some lawyers are experiencing a replenish surge capacity. So some lawyers actually have enjoyed being at home, they have enjoyed reconnecting with their families, they have enjoyed eating more regular meals, going on more regular walks, getting more regular exercise maybe even connecting with people, even in their neighborhood, maybe connecting with family and friends remotely that didn’t have time to connect with before. So some people actually might feel like their surge capacity is replenished and they might be like, “hey, yeah, bring it, I’m ready, I’m ready for this next phase even thought it’s a limbo stage, we don’t know what’s going on, I’m okay.” Other people I’m hearing from are saying, “you know what before the pandemic, I was already exhausted, I was already at a place of feeling like I was burning out, I was already having a lot of anxiety or I was already just feeling like collapsing.”
And now the pandemic came and overlaid all of its unknowns and new stressors on top that and I literally feel like I am just under an avalanche of physical stress symptoms, emotional stressors, mental stress and even a feeling of like spiritual overwhelmed which I recall like a feeling of disconnection from understanding my purpose in life or hopefulness about life. And so, people in that situation might feel like their surge capacity is at an all-time low. They have no resources, they have very little energy, they’re looking around and they’re saying, I don’t know what to do, I’m really at my wit end here because they’re under resourced, meaning they might not have the information that they need about how to rebuild their surge capacity or they don’t have people around them that can support them in taking the time to rebuild their searched capacity and build their resilience back.
Molly Ranns: So the million dollar question that many are asking is how can firms best support their attorneys and staff as they transition back to in-office work?
Laura Mahr: I think that is the million dollar question and I have some answers, I don’t have their million dollar answers but I do have some answers and one of the things that I have found as I’m doing one-on-one coaching with especially associates, is there’s so much anxiety about returning to the office. People are not — don’t have any information about returning and so what I’m advising firm management is, when you have some information about returning back, let people know where your plan is, at the same time communicate “here’s what we don’t know” so that people generally feel better when they have some kind of control over their lives and so if you have a general date and you can say as a firm, “we don’t know when we’re going back but we are thinking at this point about returning to the office in the fall” so the people can be like, “oh, that means I’m going to have to get child care set up, I’m going have to get animal care set up, I’m going to have to get whatever set up” so that they can start getting the ball rolling to get their lives set up. It’s also helpful to name the unknowns and say, “we don’t really know.” Nobody actually knows the trajectory of the pandemic at this point so there’s some things we don’t know but we’ll keep you posted as we know. I think the other thing, another thing that firms can start to do is start to bolster their in-house resilience resources. So, this may mean, looking at their EAP programs and saying, “is there some way that we can bolster the offerings of our EAP programs.” So some firms are beginning to offer financial counseling through their EAP program, mental healthcare counseling, career counseling through their EAP programs and then letting associates and partners know about that and other firms are saying, “you know what, we really don’t have any trainings, we don’t have anything in place, we really need to get some things in place that can help transition people back to the office and especially, this is something I think is very important is destigmatizing our mental health. So most of us lawyers like to talk about our cases and maybe what we did on the weekends but we really don’t like to talk about our mental health because it makes us feel vulnerable and like maybe we don’t have all the answers or maybe that there’s something wrong with us, and so, I think that firm management, firm leadership can start talking about mental health and can even get trained in how to spot if someone, a team member or someone that they’re managing is actually having mental health issues. What does anxiety look like in the workplace? What does depression look like in the workplace? What does overwhelm look like. And once you’ve spotted it, how do you address it? Because most of us don’t have language for mental health in the workplace, getting management and key leaders trained in how to talk about mental health after they’ve spotted it and then how to help people get their way to the resources can be really helpful. So just a recap, I would say, getting educated about mental health, bolstering your resources and starting to think about ways that you can bring training in so that there’s a firm wide vocabulary around talking about mental health. So that is not a stigma and it’s just something normal like when we talk about case plans, we also talk about mental health plans.
Molly Ranns: I love that, thank you. Laura, speaking of resources, in your article you talked about building a surge capacity toolkit, can you tell us more about what a surge capacity toolkit might look like on an individual level but also on a firm wide level?
Laura Mahr: Yeah. When I’m talking about the searched capacity toolkit, it’s really talking about, how can I address stress and mitigate the damage of stress and how can I build my resilience knowing that I’m going to be and continue to be in a stressful situation whether it’s pandemic-related stress or just law practice-related stress or life living as a human being on this planet kind of stress. And when I’m looking at an individual surge capacity toolkit, I like to think about three different things. One is tools that you can use in the moment as stressor arises. I’ll come back once I’ve listed these three things and give some examples. The second thing is tools that you can use to recover at the end of a crisis like, at the end of your day, on the weekend, after your thru trial or after that particular stressor comes and goes. And then the third thing I think about when we’re talking about building a surge capacity toolkit is tools that you can use to build your resilience when you’re not in a crisis. So things that you can do to sort of, fill your well up such that when you have to draw the water from that well, that it can be full so that you’re not bumping along the bottom of that wall when the crisis comes. And if it would be helpful, I could talk a little bit about what some of those tools are.
Molly Ranns: That would be great.
Laura Mahr: Yeah. So when we’re looking at tools that we can use in the moment as stressor arises, I am a neuroscience geek, I realized that when I started burning out, I didn’t have the resources that I needed, I didn’t have the neurobiological research or understanding of what was happening to my nobody literally, why was I tired all the time and so I really geeked out on neurobiology and I specifically use polyvagal theory as a framework for understanding, not only burnout and diminished surge capacity but also resilience in how to build it. And so, the tools that I teach and use myself are tools that can be used literally in a minute or a minute and a half when we identify that we are experiencing stress. So this might be tools such as five long exhales which we know and research has shown, will switch an anxious nervous system into a more relaxed nervous system by literally neuro-hacking, so hacking our brains that hack our nervous systems that say, when I exhale, my body actually instead of feeling like there’s danger around gets the message its safe enough to relax and be calm. And when it’s safe enough, the body, the mind, the nervous system is safe enough to relax, then our cognitive functioning comes back online. Literally, what we use to lawyer every day, so, our cognitive function remember thinking about that we’re thinking about problem solving, memory, the ability to speak and we want to get our cognitive functioning back online because that’s what we need to lawyer and so five long exhales. So the exhalation being just a little bit longer than inhalation can switch an anxious nervous system into a parasympathetic state which is a relaxed state which can then allow us to move through that stressor with as much cognitive functioning and mental capacity as possible, so that’s for an example, just an example of a tool that you could use in the moment when the stress arises. There’s other tools that you can use at the end of the day or at the end of the crisis and these are also tools you can use when the stressor arises but most often when the stressor arises we’re in the middle of our work day, we don’t have a whole hour to do something, we may just have a minute to kind of take that breath, get up and move around and come back. But we want to do regularly what is called completing the stress cycle. So, when we are stressing, there are, as I mentioned, stress hormones moving to our body in which includes cortisol and adrenaline and we want to be able to move those stress hormones out of our system so they don’t create high blood pressure and irritable bowel syndrome and any other numbers of chronic stress-related disease or disease in our bodies and so, having a physical movement practice whether that is running or cycling or dancing or yoga or even just progressive muscle relaxation, just tensing and releasing your muscles at the end of a stressful situation is very helpful in building our surge capacity by moving those stress hormones out of our body.
And then thirdly, when I think about building a resilience toolkit that when we’re not in a moment of incredibly intense stress, things that just having something that we regularly do that reminds us that the world is a good place to live in it and that we enjoy being alive and so that can be creating a habit of having flowers on your desk, it can be creating a habit of connecting with someone that you really care about every other day. It can be doing something that really matters to you like, cooking or reading or traveling. Doing things that fill your cup up instead of deplete your cup. So, maybe listening to podcast that inspire you versus chronically listening to news that can you put in what we call a dysregulated nervous system state which is either like that moving toward the anxious state or the depressive state.
JoAnn Hathaway: Wonderful. Well, this has been a great program, Laura. We truly appreciate it. It does look like we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guest today, Laura Mahr for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: Laura, if our guests want to follow up with you, how can we reach you?
Laura Mahr: The best way to reach me is through my website which is consciouslegalminds.com. The hardest thing about that is the spelling off the word conscious. It’s C-O-N-S-C-I-O-U-S-L-E-G-A-L-M-I-N-D-S.com and if you just go to the contact page there, you can just email me directly through my website.
Molly Ranns: Thank you so much, Laura. 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.
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