dealing with burnout
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On Balance

Ethics Case for Attorney Retreats

By Megan Zavieh

Our own Merrilyn Astin Tarlton recently wrote here about five ways solos can find time for law firm retreats. And on that score, recently I became involved in a lengthy conversation with a large group of solos at TBD Law about both work and personal retreats (including the heavenly-sounding “annual personal retreat” designed around your personal definition of downtime, whether long solo mountain hikes or weekends at an ashram).

While there are many reasons why retreats are important, I want to make the case for why solo and small firm lawyers should seriously consider the idea for ethics reasons.

Common Causes of Ethics Violations: Addiction, Burnout and Disorganization

When an attorney fails to fulfill his duties to clients or the courts, it is a common story to find he is suffering from an underlying condition that made basic functioning and compliance difficult or impossible. Often, that “condition” is a substance abuse problem; even more frequently, you can point to some level of burnout.

Bar complaints frequently stem from attorneys failing to return phone calls or otherwise communicate with clients, missing deadlines, and substantively dropping the ball in their work. These things happen when lawyers are overwhelmed, overworked, addicted, depressed and otherwise compromised. Even worse, they are compounding problems. Once a deadline is missed, or a court appearance bungled, the offending lawyer tends to repeat the problematic behavior.

Substance abuse is so prevalent among lawyers that the American Bar Association recently joined with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation to fund a study to see just how bad it is — and it is worse than most of us realized. The study, “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” undertaken by Hazelden and the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program, was published in February 2016 in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

In a sample of nearly 13,000 lawyers, the study found that:

  • Over 20 percent engaged in “hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking”
  • 28 percent suffered from depression
  • 19 percent suffered from anxiety
  • 23 percent suffered from stress

Most state bars have assistance programs for addicted lawyers, but they have varying levels of participation and success.

Burnout has become so recognized as an issue for lawyers that continuing legal education classes are offered on the subject, and it even qualifies as a “competence” credit under California’s specialty credits.

Disorganized and overwhelmed? For lawyers who aren’t addicted or burned out, ethics violations frequently stem from a total lack of organization. Miss a deadline? Forget a court appearance? Especially for a solo lawyer operating alone or on a shoestring, you may simply lack the infrastructure and organization necessary to successfully practice law without running afoul of basic obligations.

What to Do?

Recognizing that ethics violations stem from addiction, burnout and disorganization is a great first step. To avoid becoming a statistic, though, you need to actively seek preventive measures. A retreat is a great idea, whether for personal downtime and introspection or professional planning.

Personal retreats can be as creative as you’d like. Some lawyers go outside of all cell service and take to the Appalachian Trail, or head to a mountain cabin, monastery or ashram. Family vacations are wonderful, but aren’t really retreats; retreats allow for quiet, uninterrupted time with your own thoughts, your own breath, and at times a completely blank mind.

Work-focused retreats may look similar. Turn off the phone, don’t tell anyone where you are, and bring a sketch pad. Think about your practice — where you want it to go and how it could be improved.

  • Identify your biggest problems and brainstorm some solutions (if you don’t know of any, that’s okay, too).
  • Pretend you are just starting your practice and none of its current limitations (space, cost, technology) exist. How would you set it up? What do you need to be successful?
  • Identify your biggest ethics vulnerabilities, and set out to close the gaps that leave you exposed.

Whatever you do, focus your attention for the time you set aside on how to improve your work life.

When Retreats Meet Real Life — How to Make the Good Vibes Last

Even if you take a retreat, once you get back into the real world, it is difficult to prevent old habits from coming back. Here are my five tips and resources for keeping the benefits of a retreat going after re-entry:

1. Practice mindfulness in your everyday work life. A great resource on this topic is Jeena Cho’s “The Anxious Lawyer” (ABA, 2016). (Related: “Five Ways Mindfulness Can Benefit Lawyers.“)

2. Make time to focus on getting into the right mindset. For this, you have to examine your life, your schedule and your personal rhythm, but find that time. Life coach Melanie Sengers teaches that taking a mere five minutes in the morning, before the rest of your life wakes up, to sit in quiet reflection of your upcoming day can bring many of a retreat’s benefits into your everyday.

3. Put a reminder where you can see it. During your retreat, you will likely make notes, draw pictures or otherwise create some item that is meaningful, related to the time you’re spending on you. Back at work, put that reminder where you will see it every day. It will automatically bring you back into a frame of mind reflective of the retreat.

4. Practice turning off.  Recently I was given the tip to shut down at the end of each workday — whatever time that is, and whatever “shut down” means to you. Today we rarely stop taking calls or checking emails during waking hours. Try to break this habit by creating a shutting down moment each day, when you truly switch off from work. You will be more productive and more on-task the next day when you’re not so burned out from never quitting.

5. Embrace help. Finally, embrace the idea that even as a solo, you could use help getting your work life and work-life balance in order. There are so many resources out there, some of which I have discussed here at Attorney at Work, that not getting help is foolish. Recruiting assistance will help you maintain the Zen achieved on your retreat.

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Megan Zavieh Megan Zavieh

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of “The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide.” At Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action and guidance on questions of legal ethics. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Her latest book, “The Modern Lawyer: Ethics and Technology in an Evolving World,” (ABA 2021 ) covers how to run a modern practice while staying in line with current ethics rules. She podcasts on Lawyers Gone Ethical, blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.

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