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Survival Skill No. 4 for Lawyers: Compassionate Professionalism

Keeping it professional at the office doesn’t mean you can’t be human.

By Link Christin

Not everything comes down to the bottom-line. A culture of compassionate professionalism is increasingly important to legal talent.

compassionate professionalism

So far in this survival skills series, we’ve discussed developing emotional resilience, beating long-term stress, and staying grounded during difficult, emotional cases. Today, we cover balancing professionalism and compassion. It’s important to present a sharp, professional image in our work, but our professionalism should allow people to be authentically human.

Does the Pursuit of Billable Hours Leave Time for Compassion?

Associates at big law firms may sometimes feel they are just cogs in an unfeeling machine. The firm expects them to bill 2,000-plus hours annually, year after year. Yet the partners may not even know their names. It sometimes seems as if it doesn’t matter when associates have a health or personal issue. The work must get done and billed.

The managing partner is often rightly focused on the numbers: How are we doing in terms of profit per partner? Where are we compared with last year? Without careful attention to these issues, the firm could be at risk. But at the same time, it’s important to understand that not everything comes down to a bottom-line reckoning of quantitative performance.

Law Firms Are Made Up of People, Not Robots

Law firms are starting to pay the price for creating uncompromising work environments, as turnover among younger, up-and-coming lawyers has been on the rise. People no longer want to work in a place that demands unceasing productivity and availability, especially if the job’s unrelenting pressures affect their ability to address sometimes dire health or personal issues.

One way firms can change this dynamic is to develop a culture of compassion, one that shows kindness to those who need or ask for help. In fact, this type of culture is increasingly the primary quality that young lawyers seek in a prospective employer. This is underscored by the exponential growth of law firm promotional materials highlighting the firm’s emphasis on work-life balance and sensitivity to the pressures of the practice. Unlike their older counterparts, this generation does not value the almighty dollar above their well-being, which makes traditional law firms incompatible with their employment needs.

That, in turn, is affecting change in firms that aim to remain competitive. It starts at the top, and the attitude trickles down throughout the firm as people feel more comfortable asking for help, or at least, letting others know what’s going on in their life. Historically, compassion and kindness have been viewed as weaknesses in law firms. There’s a Darwinist feel that requires lawyers to be tough and always ready to step up to the plate, regardless of the reality of their situations. As this changes and firms adopt a compassionate outlook to their employees, colleagues may step up with acts of kindness if they know somebody’s in pain or needs help.

Working as I do with lawyers struggling with addiction, I can tell you that keeping your problems secret is a hallmark of the disease. The No. 1 reason lawyers don’t ask for help is they don’t want anybody to know there is anything wrong or that they’re even seeking help. The mentality has demanded that lawyers keep their issues to themselves. Nobody should be shocked that we’re the most highly addicted profession.

What Is Compassion?

Compassion is not sympathy: Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. Nor is it empathy: Empathy means identifying with another’s feelings and emotions.

Compassion involves action. Compassion motivates us to recognize somebody is in pain or has a problem and to take concrete steps to help. It turns sympathy and empathy into action.

In a law firm, compassion might involve noticing the lawyer in the next office has been working all night. He’s exhausted and wearing the same clothes as yesterday. Asked what is wrong, he might say he has one big case right now, even while he’s juggling three others, and he can’t get it all done. Compassion could drive an offer to take on one of the cases or help create a solution to manage the workload.

Even if the culture in your firm isn’t remotely compassionate, it’s important to bring compassion to your work life. If you’ve read my previous columns about building emotional resilience, beating stress and remaining grounded, it should make sense that taking care of yourself and approaching colleagues with empathy can boost your overall wellness. That is, treating yourself with compassion.

I think often lawyers’ biggest problem is they do not treat themselves with compassion. They’re hard on themselves, demanding unending perfection.

As an example, I was an associate in a traditional law firm with around 30 lawyers including 14 associates. Every week, the firm held a partners’ lunch. The associates started holding a separate associates’ lunch, with an emphasis on having fun. We went to a park when the weather was nice. We held a sham-formal “mock meeting,” like the partners would have, only it was more relaxed and involved a lot of humor. We’d talk about issues at the firm that frustrated us, or challenges we faced with our own practice, and ways we could help one another. But we also got to know one another. We knew if someone was going to have a baby or had a parent who was ill. We created our own culture as associates. We became very close, supporting each other tremendously.

Traditionally, lawyers feel they had to keep vulnerabilities hidden. They play the role of stoic decision-maker. They need to always be strong. Anything less than that, they feel would compromise their professional credibility or road to partnership. That model isn’t working anymore. In this world of 24/7 workdays, combined with a new generation of lawyer, professionalism requires compassion.

There are signs that law firms understand a major cultural shift needs to take place, to build a better work-life balance. Numerous firms have created the position of director of well-being to address lawyer burnout and turnover among associates. However, it is ultimately incumbent on everyone in the legal profession to cultivate a compassionate approach to life no matter what sort of environment we are in.

Disclosure: Caron Treatment Centers offers recovery programs for legal professionals that address the unique pressures and demands lawyers and their families face.

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Link Christin Link Christin

Link Christin practiced law for more than 25 years and was a civil trial lawyer and a partner in two Pittsburgh firms. After serving as the Administrator of the National Trial Advocacy College at the University of Virginia School of Law, he transitioned to a second career, obtaining his Master’s in Addiction Counseling from the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. An attorney, licensed and board-certified drug and addiction counselor, therapist, speaker, and author, in the last 10 years of his life he focused exclusively on the treatment of impaired legal professionals, serving as Executive Director of the Legal Professionals Program at Caron Treatment Centers. Link passed away in 2020.

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