Category Archives: Law Practice

Give Me Rest

Businesswoman doing yoga“Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”- Matthew 11:28

I have always been a “good worker.”  My mother often bragged about how she loved to work, crediting her father as the role model of a strong work ethic.  My mother never rested, and neither did her father. Interestingly when they both retired they spent most of their time sitting in a chair,  not doing much of anything.

As I grew up, I also became a hard worker.  I was always accomplishing things, taking on projects, raising my hand to lead a task. As a lawyer, overwork is a badge of honor. Billing hours, staying late at the office and coming in on weekends often garners you a partnership. When I entered the practice in the 1980’s it was particularly important to work hard and show up often because  women were just starting to be accepted into the previously male dominated profession.

Where is the line between hard work, perseverance and being a “workaholic?” One source suggests that if you answer “often” or “always” to the following you might be in danger of being a workaholic:

1. You think of how you can free up more time to work.

2. You spend much more time working than initially intended.

3. You work in order to reduce feelings of guilt, anxiety, helplessness and/or depression.

4. You have been told by others to cut down on work without listening to them.

5. You become stressed if you are prohibited from working.

6. You deprioritize hobbies, leisure activities, and/or exercise because of your work.

7. You work so much that it has negatively influenced your health.

Unfortunately, after examining this list,  it’s clear I may struggle with  workaholism.

One of the anecdotes for overworking is rest.  Without it we can suffer burnout.  Even God rested on the seventh day.  Rest may not come easy for those of us who are constantly working.  As lawyers even when we are “off the clock” we carry our client’s burdens in our heads, and we may be worrying about the next court deadline in the back of our mind. Even when we are with family, we may have our mind back at the office. We may not even know how to rest.

I love the Scripture verse at the top of the page. When God says “come to me” what might that look like for this weary lawyer?

I’ve noticed it doesn’t take a vast amount of time to make me feel refreshed. When I have even a bit of solitude (preferably with God, reading my bible, journaling prayers to him, or just taking a walk in nature talking to him ) I feel instantly restored. And the power of that rest endures for hours.  Even during the day at the office when I close my door and read a scripture or a page from a Christian devotional, the break restores me.

For those without a spiritual practice, even  taking short breaks away from the desk or computer throughout the day can bring relief. A friend of mine sets her computer at the office to go off every few hours as a reminder to just breathe, pause, look away from work and dream for a minute.

One of the best steps I have taken is to remove my work email from my phone, so I am not constantly being pulled back into work during leisure time. I set limits on times to return emails and while I thought it would be stressful to let go of constant connection it has actually been freeing.

I’ve also blocked time on my calendar for a lunch break every day, and also for time to write at a local coffee shop on Friday mornings.  It’s tempting to fill the time when I see it blocked off but the more I actually take the time the better I feel. Even if I don’t take the whole lunch break I know it is “downtime” without clients coming in or other expectations.I’ve also been experimenting with setting a firm stop time for work, no matter what.

Like all boundaries, the ones I am setting are easy to set but not easy to hold.  It takes real commitment, and it’s important to enlist the others in the office to help you stay accountable. I meet a friend for the Friday writing who also holds me accountable. My law partner is supportive of my goals to stop overwork and is quick to remind me it’s time to leave if I am lingering.

I’ve also found it helpful to take a Sabbath.   Many Christians feel that Sunday is the Sabbath but this is just our Western tradition because we go to church then.  Christians don’t go to church on Sunday because it’s the Sabbath, it’s because Christ rose from the dead on Sunday and we are celebrating the resurrection.

The true Sabbath is Saturday, just as it was when Christ was alive. In the Jewish tradition the day begins at Sundown, so Friday night at sundown begins the Sabbath which then ends on Saturday at nightfall. The Jews still keep this tradition called “Shabbat.”

In Greek Orthodox tradition we have Vespers service on Saturday night just after sundown, as the beginning of the liturgical day.  It is my very favorite Orthodox service, and even now if I don’t attend Vespers I love going to Protestant church on Saturday night because I am in such a rhythm of beginning a day dedicated to God at sundown.  It makes me let down from the week, focus on God and relax, and I sleep like a baby.

There are many who would argue that to be “true” to the Bible and God’s commandment we have to honor the Sabbath on Saturday. I like to think that God doesn’t want us to be legalistic, particularly when we have taken the time to dedicate a Sabbath, and that he is just grateful to have our attention and to have us rest on any day we choose.

Taking these steps has helped me begin to pay attention to what I feel is an unhealthy pattern of prioritizing work. As I continue to explore this tendency I have self compassion,  remembering my overwork has been a coping mechanism in the past for me in some way. I want to choose a healthier  lifestyle and know that letting go of overwork, like all self improvement endeavors, is a journey.

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A Divorce Lawyer’s Caution to Stay at Home Parents

Super Hero Mom

After more than 30 years as a family law attorney, I still worry about some clients as they leave my office with their divorce decrees in hand. Some are still swimming in emotion. Some have tragedy on the horizon as they walk into new relationships before they are fully healed. The clients I worry most about are those who have been stay at home parents for long periods of time during the marriage. Those clients often face the most difficult emotional and financial “hits.”

No family expects divorce, but if one parent is planning to be a stay –at-home parent there are important things to consider to avoid devastating consequences if it does happen. (Although I am beginning to see men as the stay at home in recent years, I am using “her” as the gender for the stay at home parent).

I cant’ tell you the number of times I hear, “I told her to get a job and she wouldn’t,” while the other parent responds, “He may have mentioned my going back to work but he also liked not having to deal with the house and children as well as his job. Plus there was the high cost of child care.”

To avoid crisis if divorce erupts here’s what I recommend to stay-at-home parents:

  1. Have a detailed plan. Develop a plan that includes how long a parent will stay out of the workforce before one parent moves forward with staying home with children. Smart couples have a deadline for the stay at home to return to the workforce that is re-evaluated in a focused discussion each year. Discussions about all aspects of the stay at home arrangement should take place in person, at designated times and not just in passing when emotions are running high. I like to say that all discussions should be “kitchen table” discussions when the kids are not around.
  1. Enlist a third party to assist you with the plan. Get help from a family lawyer, financial planner, counselor or family mediator at the outset, and also when tensions erupt. Difficult conversations are easy to avoid. A calm third party can facilitate a discussion that results in a clear understanding and agreement. These experienced professionals also know the impact of staying home with the children and can assist with a list of things to consider that couples overlook.
  1. Prioritize finances for both parents. Despite our fluid roles, I still see that one spouse typically handles the finances. The other spouse often delegates that task and then never pays attention.  Smart couples meet monthly to review detailed family finances. I encounter numerous divorces where one party thought there was plenty of money when it turns out the family was living on credit cards. “I tried to tell him/her we were spending too much,” is a phrase heard often in my office.
  1. Be clear that alimony won’t support your lifestyle. Stay- at- home parents often believe if they divorce the income earner will absolutely be obligated to support the parent who stayed home. This is simply false. Alimony laws are in a state of flux in many states. In the vast majority of cases the stay at home will have a short time to receive a small amount of “rehabilitative” alimony and then they are expected to get to work. There is only so much money to go around and in most families it is impossible to support two separate households on one income.
  1. Keep your skills and contacts sharp. Don’t completely unplug from the work world while staying home. Take an online course or courses, and keep your skills current. When I took time off from my law practice while my children were small I hired a sitter for a few hours and attended bar association meetings and seminars. I never said I was “offline” in my work; I simply didn’t discuss my caseload (which was virtually non-existent for a time). Once I re-entered nobody knew that I hadn’t been practicing law all along and I was able to get up to speed quickly.
  2. Fund retirements for both parents. A good financial planner can advise on how the stay  at home can save for retirement. Although all retirement earned during the marriage is usually divisible to both parties in divorce, the emotional attachment to retirement accounts by the working spouse causes conflict in many cases. Retirement funds set up for each party help diffuse emotion at the negotiation table if divorce ever comes up.
  3. Stay connected in your marriage. Child rearing years are difficult on even the strongest marriages. One spouse in the business world and one at home all day can create a gap in interests and experiences that over time can erode connection. Prioritize time as a couple and take fights seriously as a warning sign. Working on your marriage may seem like the last thing you want to do amidst the exhaustion of all your obligations, but it will be the greatest investment you will ever make.
  4. If you do face divorce, explore collaborative law.  If you have to divorce there are respectful processes that work to move both parties forward in a dignified manner.  Consult with a family lawyer  to see if you and your spouse are candidates for collaborative divorce.

Kimberly Stamatelos is a mediator and family law attorney in West Des Moines, Iowa with Stamatelos & Tollakson. She is the author of the book “The Compassionate Lawyer” available on Amazon.

 

 

Our Lawyer Legacy, What Gets In The Way?

“ All external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure-these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”- Steve Jobs

It’s a long day as I take my brother to cancer treatment. I sit with him as he surrenders to chemotherapy dripping into his veins, hoping that he’ll be cured.

Across town in hospice, a fellow lawyer is saying goodbye. He’s practiced law for over 40 years.

Not surprisingly, I begin to reflect on my own mortality and significance. Does my life really matter? Am I doing what I was meant to do? What will I be remembered for?

In Living Forward  the authors define legacy as “the spiritual, intellectual, relational, vocational and social capital we pass on.” As a lawyer, what gets in the way of leaving a lasting legacy ?

  1. Ego. Much of our identity is tied up in our label as “lawyer.” We joke about the reputation of lawyers but deep down we feel our title brings prestige and worthiness. My dad used to say, “People say they hate lawyers but they usually love their own lawyer.”

When we tie up our entire identity in the work we do, it limits our impact and influence in other areas of our lives. Can we let down from the public lawyer persona to be authentic? Do we keep aspects of ourselves “on the down low” because we worry if people really knew us it could be bad for business?

Question: Are you doing things that look good on paper, on the bottom line or at the firm, but that are draining you emotionally? Is there something that your heart yearns to do, but your are too afraid to undertake?

  1. Scarcity Mentality. Lawyers live in the constant shadow of the billable hour. From the moment you hit the door in the morning every minute literally counts. Time spent outside your billable events leaves more time to make up in the office. When we plan vacation we frontload hours so we aren’t so far behind when we get back, and field emails on vacation before our family awakens to go to the beach. A part of us is never far away from a timesheet.

We may believe if we don’t take every client that comes our way now, cases might not come tomorrow. We take cases without discernment and end up doing unpaid work as a result of retainers running out or a judge who won’t let us withdraw. Then we become self deprecating and frustrated for having taken the case in the first place.

Question: Do you leave your dreams at the doorstep because you feel it’s about survival instead of destiny?

  1. Constant immersion in toxicity. Every day we deal with clients with grave wounds, both physical and emotional. We handle the circumstances around life’s most devastating events. We are expected to “rescue” our clients from disasters they have often created themselves, so we think about these negative fact patterns over and over even on our supposed “off” time.

This constant immersion into the darkness of life leaves us little time to dream, reflect or connect with our interior life. A life’s desire can be lost in the fog, recast in our mind as nothing more than a whim, or tucked away as “too risky.” The failure to unplug for even short periods from the office, returning email or calls and churning cases in our heads means we are never fully present for our loved ones and the beauty of life.

Question: When is the last time you unplugged, and spent time totally away from work, for even a short period time? Are you exercising self care?

  1. Personal and financial insecurity. When we have been successful lawyers we risk prestige and prosperity by branching out. What will everyone think? How can we give up the golden handcuffs? A lawyer friend chucked his law practice and opened a gourmet spice store in a trendy part of my hometown. Lawyers flocked to his store because it was extraordinary, but also to study him as an example of uncommon courage and authenticity. Sadly, the lawyer died unexpectedly at age 46, only a short time after the store had opened.

Lawyers are often the caretakers of less productive friends or family members, sometimes even supporting others who have not made good choices with their lives or finances. They look to us as “having it all” and don’t hesitate to ask for handouts or help.

Question: What would it take to set boundaries with your money? Are the things that you acquire from wealth blocking you from taking risks to fulfill your heart’s desire? Are there people you are enabling by “helping” financially?

  1. Lack of transition planning. In my first law firm job over thirty years ago the partners took me by the macabre office of the named senior partner pointing to a dusty wooden desk telling me that is where he had dropped dead. Was that supposed to inspire me?

New lawyers claim the older lawyers aren’t moving over to make room. I recently suggested that a young lawyer ask an older lawyer to coffee, to get hints on how that lawyer had built the type of practice the young lawyer aspired to create. The older lawyer did not offer any advice and the impression was that the older lawyer was “hoarding” the work for himself.

It can be a blow to our ego when clients we introduce to younger lawyers decide to transition their work to that younger lawyer excluding us. Thoughtful transition and passing the baton can play in to insecurities and make us question our relevance.

Question: Are you sharing your wisdom and experience with younger lawyers? Are you encouraging a younger lawyer who is struggling?

As lawyers we owe it to ourselves to ask these questions at all stages of the practice, not just as we move into the final chapters of our professional careers.

Are you on target for your legacy?

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I love to coach lawyers! If you are interested in hiring me as a coach contact me: kim@compassionlegal.com

 

Lawyer Creativity: Have we buried it?

“The legal field doesn’t constrain people’s potential, but it does tend to constrain people’s way of thinking about potential.”- Michael F. Melcher lawyer/author of  The Creative Lawyer 

 One of my most devastating events of law school was my first legal writing grade.  I received it at the hand of a bright teaching assistant. (You know, a law school super star with power and privilege because of his grades and class rank.)  It was the lowest grade I had ever received in my life.

My writing style was judged too “flowy” and “creative” and not befitting of a lawyer. I was admonished to immediately and totally change my writing style or my GPA would be impacted.

 My inner perfectionist heard loud and clear and I rallied to learn legal writing but also took the message as a wound to my heart. I had loved writing my entire life, but minimized and criticized by my fellow law student I labeled my writing, along with many things I felt in law school, “unworthy.”

 Fast forward and in 2012 I launched a blog and in 2014 I self published my book, The Compassionate Lawyer.  Years of personal work had  given me the courage to reclaim lost parts of my life, including my creativity.

 Re-connecting with “creative Kim” gave me a wellspring of life. I went writing crazy, writing both spiritual and personal autobiographies,  numerous articles for professional publications, heartfelt eulogies for friends’ funerals, juicy journal entries, fun poems, and  prayers written from my soul. I have solid drafts started for two new books. The writing is pouring out, having been bottled up inside for over 30 years. By healing my creative wound I found one of the greatest joys of my life and it’s leading to a substantial contribution to my legacy.

 I am not the only one who may have suffered a blow to creativity in law school.

 I frequently train lawyers in various aspects of legal practice, and teach mediation as an adjunct at Drake Law School. I have experimented with  creative exercises in my courses and workshops with lawyers and law students.  Some creative exercises are met with success and others have flopped.  I start trainings by playing music and inviting trainees to make their name tag at an art table I’ve set up in front of the room. The table is laden with glitter glue, pinking shears, bright stickers, markers, construction paper and other assorted supplies from aisles at Michael’s.

 Panic ensues as the lawyers look around to see the quality of the art being created by others.  Self deprecating comments fly. “I’m not good at art,” and some just write their name on an index card and refuse to risk  humiliation. Recently I saw a compassionate lawyer alleviate the anxiety of  a frazzled colleague at the art table by saying, “I will help you make your name tag.”

 My own first nametag was a round circle made of pink construction paper with my name in colored marker, and five paper punch holes with some pieces of yarn woven nametagthrough it to serve as a neck tie. Pathetic.

 Since I made that tag at a wonderful training in the circle process led by Kay Pranis,  (and then borrowed her exercise for my own trainings) my creations have evolved  such that  my favorite Diane Von Furstenberg wrap sweater is now permanently affixed with purple glitter glue.

 After dancing with our eyes closed shaking colored egg maracas at a yoga conference, I purchased the eggs online and incorporated that routine into a closing circle at one of my recent collaborative law trainings.  One brave lawyer and one fun loving therapist embraced the idea and the rest of the intimidated crowd shook a flimsy wristed egg counting the minutes until the exercise was over.

 I was inspired recently to assign specific ethics rules to teams, giving them  free reign to teach the group about the rule in any manner they desired.  This exercise was embraced and teams did skits and creative dances and one group even made a rap about disclosing confidences in mediation.  The sessions resulted in lighthearted feedback and brought up great questions about the rules.

 When lawyers are encouraged to be creative the byproduct is that it spills over to their work as problem solvers for clients. When I have cases with colleagues who have embraced their creativity we end up thinking big about solutions for clients’ problems.

 Writing and designing creative workshops  energizes me and I’m sure makes me a better lawyer.  I regret letting a comment made thirty years ago from a fellow law student (who I thought must surely  be smarter than me,) derail me from finding my joy sooner.  In my work as a personal coach for lawyers,   I find many lawyers have also lost their sense of creativity. One lawyer I coach now has a plan to record some songs he wrote and he also developed a small greenhouse.

 I also look for ways to help wounded clients use creativity to heal themselves. In fact, I  recently encouraged a client to journal about the life she wants to create for herself post divorce. She’s sharing her journal with me today.

Then as her lawyer, I will help her create that life.

 

If you are interested in a no cost consultation to discuss personal coaching, contact kim@compassionlegal.com

 

The Poetry of Practice- Guest Blog

John Hardy is a recent graduate of Drake University Law School, and he just finished taking the Iowa Bar Examination.  He is joining Stamatelos & Tollakson once admitted to the bar. This is his first blog, and we are honored to have a lawyer of his caliber in our firm. Welcome John!

 

JEH Portrait
A lawyer is a poet. Language is the medium of the law, and word choice matters. It matters when legislators draft the law, it matters in front of a factfinder, and it matters when a lawyer is counseling a client. Legal writing has a tradition and history, just like poetry, with technical formal requirements and stylistic conventions. A good attorney, like a good poet, is a master of the language and knows what to say and what not to say. But linguistics are only part of the job. As with poetry, being an excellent attorney also requires a deep understanding of the human condition. A good lawyer has a focused mind and an open heart, and when the two work in tandem, the practice can be a work of art.

The Human Element

The human element is the intangible needs of the parties to a legal matter and other people who are affected by it. For the most part, clients call on a lawyer when their lives are in crisis, sometimes they may even be at their rock-bottom. In order to truly serve their clients, lawyers must recognize the emotional and relational needs of their client, which means they must look beyond the facts and the law. Clients may be unable to wholly engage in the process or articulate their ultimate goals until they believe that their lawyer has invested the time and attention required to know who they are, what they’re dealing with, and, sometimes, how they are feeling. The best lawyers know that some fights are not worth fighting, even if they are winnable. A client may prefer to move on with their life and save their money.

Nuts and Bolts

It goes without saying that a successful attorney will cross every “t.” If a statute of limitations runs or the attorney fails to preserve an error, it will be of little solace that the attorney is a good listener. The primary function of the attorney is often to serve as the voice of the client within the system. In this role, attorneys’ primary function is to know the law and play by the rules on behalf of their clients. When people need a professional shoulder to cry on, they hire a therapist, not a lawyer. Of course, the lawyer may end up wearing both hats, but there is no substitute for diligent attention to the legal details. If the lawyer is an architect, designing solutions for the client, the legal nuts and bolts are the bedrock and foundation. Empathy is the interior design. If the house collapses, instantly the color scheme does not matter. Solid legal work sets the table for the client to thrive in the future.

The Poetry of Practice

The work of the best lawyers combines diligent legal work with a genuine concern for the well-being of the client. Here, everyone’s needs are met. Even the best lawyers with the best arguments can lose a case, or fall short of their client’s desired outcome. In a poetic practice, a skillful lawyer weaves together high-quality legal work, attention to the human element of the matter, and the lawyer’s own personal touch. Different attorneys can have vastly different life experiences, and their undergraduate studies can cover the spectrum from history and politics to music, art, and religion. Good lawyers draw upon their whole life experience to relate with the client as a human, and provide customized legal services to their client with wisdom.

Clients may come to the initial consultation thinking that they want to take the other party to the cleaners. The best lawyers will dig around underneath that to find out if the client understands the implications of that position, including the budget, and whether the client really wants that. Clients may have been coached by friends, family members, or anyone else, and they may have lost sight of what they really want. In a divorce with kids, for example, they may believe they want the house and six nights a week with the kids. But, in reality, maybe the mortgage payment is not affordable once the client is flying solo, and the spouse is a great parent. Maybe the client truly wants the kids to have a great relationship with both parents, and it isn’t worth fighting to reduce the spouse’s time.

Good lawyers can draw from their own experience, both as an individual and as an attorney who has been down the road before with other clients. Good lawyers can help a client to zoom out and take a holistic view of their situation and their family. Maybe the health and well-being of their children depends on having good access to both parents. And maybe there is enough money to go around and set up both parties for success, post-divorce. And maybe the long-term well-being of the children depends on seeing their parents setting a good example of mature, compassionate conflict resolution that the children can follow as they grow up.

These thoughts were inspired by a recent presentation to the Compassionate Lawyer Society at Drake University Law School by District Associate Judge Colin Witt. He opened with the reading of a poem: The House by the Side of the Road by Sam Walter Foss. The poem itself was the touchstone for concepts within his presentation, but also the choice to open with a poem, at all, served as a meaningful glimpse into who Judge Witt is, as a person. He emphasized the importance of focusing on human element in his role on the bench. This can serve as a reminder to the practicing attorney that providing excellent service to the client requires a keen understanding of the human condition. This, in turn, requires intentional and zealous self-care, so that the attorney is well-rested, healthy, and available to fully commit to listening to the client and advising and advocating for the client with integrity.

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