Who out there knows that lawyers and wellness go together? Don’t all raise your hands at once. Okay, I agree. Peanut butter and jelly have nothing to fear. However, I am here to tell you that we are on the cusp of creating a healthier legal community. More lawyers are talking about it thanks to the new Illinois CLE requirement, which requires a one hour diversity and inclusion CLE and one hour mental health and substance use CLE. If you don’t want to fall behind, I suggest you pick up a copy of The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. This book provides guidance on how to transform your overall well-being.
We as lawyers laugh and sometimes shake our heads in agreement about the impression of lawyers as obnoxious, arrogant, “sharks,” stressed out, etc. Cue the lawyer jokes. Yet, we rarely take any time to look at ourselves and evaluate how/if we are contributing to this general perception.
As Socrates once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” If you are up for a little examination, let’s take a closer look at The Four Agreements. It may just be the best gift to give yourself, your clients, and even opposing counsel this year.
Agreement One of The Four Agreements: Be Impeccable with Your Word
The first of the four agreements is to speak with integrity and say only what you mean. Can I simply “drop the mic” with that? In all seriousness, take a minute to think about how many times you have not been as clear as you could have been with clients or opposing counsel. It can be as simple as not wanting to give your client bad news. Did this lack of clarity lead to misunderstandings and time wasted? Most likely, it did.
You can also apply this agreement to yourself. How many times have you taken on more work than you can handle? You told yourself that you could deal with it, but in reality, you made yourself sick working too many hours and compromised time with family and friends.
Practicing this agreement has the potential to achieve better outcomes with your cases, reach those outcomes more quickly saving time and money, and be healthier while doing it.
Agreement Two of The Four Agreements: Don’t Take Things Personally
The key nugget of this second of the four agreements is that nothing others say or do is because of you. When opposing counsel argues with you, it may seem like you both are filing for divorce instead of your clients. However, when this happens, take a deep breath instead of reacting. In their book, The Anxious Lawyer, Jeena Cho and Karen Gifford provide guidance on how to do this through mindfulness and meditation. Taking a breath allows you to remember that it is not about you. Opposing counsel has as much stress as you do and yelling back is not useful and you ultimately lose sight of the work on behalf of your client.
As lawyers, it can also be useful to connect this agreement to your daily work. The legal workplace is not known for regularly praising its employees. This can be particularly challenging for a new lawyer right out of law school. However, this too is not personal.
Putting this agreement into action creates more time and space. You are less likely to get caught in the stories and drama caused by taking things personally.
Agreement Three of The Four Agreements: Don’t Make Assumptions
This third of the four agreements can completely transform your life. How many misunderstandings in your work stem from thinking you know something instead of asking a question to clarify? For example, you assume your client is being vague with you because she is embarrassed by her actions. Instead of asking her, you think this and miss out on knowing that she is being vague because she does not understand the question. This later presents a major problem in your case.
Lawyers are well-educated, but that does not mean we know it all or what is best. Even if you have seen similar behavior from a previous client, it is important to treat each client and case individually, listen, and avoid filling in the gaps without asking questions.
Some questions will not be easy to ask, but if you have the courage to ask them until you are clear, the resolution to most issues will present itself quickly.
Agreement Four of The Four Agreements: Always Do Your Best
The final of the four agreements is about taking action on the first three. The goal is to do your best to make the first three agreements a reality in your life. That said, it is important to remember that your best is never going to be the same from day to day and even moment to moment because of the various circumstances in your world.
The pressures of being a lawyer are real as recently reported by the ABA National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. You are not always going to win every case or deal. Your clients, coworkers, and boss are not always going to be happy. So, if you do your best, you can relieve yourself of the “what ifs” and the “I could have done more.” You can instead focus on learning from what happened and making the necessary changes going forward instead of beating up on yourself.
Lawyers have a tendency to overdo. The purpose of this agreement is not to deplete yourself. Rather, find freedom in knowing that your best is good enough.
Time to Examine
The above only slightly touches on how The Four Agreements can improve your legal career and the legal profession. Read the book and see for yourself. Let the self-examination commence!