Category Archives: resiliency

Finishing Well

I was asked to contribute a lesson for the book “50 Lessons for Women Lawyers-From Women Lawyers,” by Nora Riva Bergman, which is available soon on Amazon.  Here is my contribution:

In a few  months I’ll be 62 years old. Actress Jane Fonda recently announced she is in her “last act” and although I hopefully have many more years of life, the finish line in my life as a lawyer is more clearly in view.

I want to chart an intentional path for my last act, living mindfully and finishing strong. As I begin the process, I’m struck with paralysis. Where do I want to go? A good starting point might be to reflect on where I’ve been.

I was the youngest in my law school class of 1981, graduating at age 23 and entering full time law practice at age 24.  I’ve had many legal jobs: in-house counsel, associate at firms of varying sizes, solo practitioner and even senior partner at small law firms I’ve formed.  I’d gone to law school to “help people.”  I was a kind and compassionate problem solver, a good listener, and a lover of people from the time I was a little girl.

I launched from law school in one of the early waves of females deployed into the profession. Our role was clear; act like a man.  After all we’d been told that we were taking a spot rightfully belonging to a man with a family to support.

“Mr. Durant died right here at his desk,” I was told by an associate at my first law firm job as he pointed to an office with an empty desk. It was as though Mr. Durant was a warrior who died in battle saving the world.  I got the message.

I dove in as the only female in the firm’s litigation section, charting my course as a workaholic, billing hours like a trooper. I silenced my inner voice and went full speed ahead, learning to be tough. Law school and the lawyers mentoring me convinced me that compassion was a weakness and aggression was a strength.

In my private life I paired with a man also constrained by his job, traveling for business  five days a week. We married and had three children. What was wrong with me? I loved my babies but I was obsessed with being a lawyer.  I heard a new term called “work-life balance” so  I joined the part time work committee of the local bar association. The all -female committee soon disbanded with the summary finding that for women lawyers,”part time” meant shoving all your full -time work into fewer hours and getting paid less.

I navigated as best I could with no women mentors to guide me.  I’d race to little league baseball games, editing documents in the stands while waiting for my son to bat so I could wave and give a thumb’s up, and then race back to the office. I tried to be nurturing but I never took off my lawyer hat, often telling my children to “toughen up” instead of acquiescing to the sorrow of childhood bumps and bruises.   Nannies were enlisted to help assuage working mother guilt. I’d try to mother my children when I came home exhausted from the office.

My marriage began to deteriorate so I stopped practicing law and tried staying home. I was an outcast among the other mothers.  Their conversations were boring and their obsession with their children seemed unhealthy to me. I prepared spreadsheets for class cupcake volunteers and felt incompetent in my new role. I became depressed and like an addict who needed a fix, I yearned for the office.

At the same time, my lawyer father became ill at age 65 and came into my home for hospice care as he was dying. Towards the end he would hallucinate often saying he saw dead lawyer colleagues in the room.  I wondered why the lawyers would show up to him instead of cosmic visits from loving relatives or his golfing buddies.

My father died and I was divorced. Even though I wasn’t working I was “imputed” with the income of a lawyer in the divorce. After all wasn’t that who I was? I had to recreate myself and start making money quickly and the most logical step was to reclaim my lawyer-self.  When I went back to inhabit her skin, I noticed she was different. She was weary, having sustained a whirlwind of life, tragedy, and brokenness.

I set up a law practice focusing on family law and mediation. I’d experienced devastation similar to what my clients were facing. I encouraged clients to find healing, forgiveness and compassion and decided to claim those things for myself.  I still fought for client’s rights and equity, but I did it with dignity, calmness and compassion for all.

I felt more authentic as a person and a lawyer. I began to write. I transported my brother diagnosed at that time with cancer to his chemotherapy appointments. I watched the IV drip, drip, drip of the drug infusing him with life. The writing did the same for me. Each moment in the chair typing was life-giving, healing, rebuilding, and renewing myself.

I wrote and self-published “The Compassionate Lawyer” in 2014 and started speaking to lawyers about compassion in the practice. I mentored several lawyers and helped three women lawyers start their own firms.  I encouraged lawyers to be compassionate problem solvers and for women lawyers to realize we should celebrate our unique gifts and skills as women.

I continue to practice, write and teach about what I’ve discovered.  Earlier this week I saw a woman lawyer in her first few months of practice aggressively tell off a male lawyer on the phone and then hang up only to burst into tears. ”I’m such a wimp for crying!” she declared.

I told her that being tough and aggressive is uncomfortable for many women. We can do it, probably even more biting than men, but is it really who we are? The crying was undoubtedly from the adrenaline but it was also a warning sign of living outside her authenticity. It hurt to watch her minimize her body’s warning and I tried to tell her so, encouraging her to use compassion and dignity instead.   I’m guessing it fell on deaf ears as it would have to me at her age when I ‘d set out to “make my mark” as a lawyer. But at least she is getting a message I was never told.

In my last act, I see a woman enjoying life, available to her three children for long talks instead of saying “I’ll call you after this meeting.”  She is a compassionate, kind person to all she encounters. She practices law in an authentic way that is uniquely hers, until she decides it’s time to stop. That woman will die as far away from her desk as she can get.

From the moment she walked into the doors of law school her identity as “woman” and “lawyer” were permanently fused together. She’s learned many lessons as a woman lawyer. She will claim her journey without regret but with gratitude for the wisdom she’s gained.  And most importantly, she’ll  live out her last act with compassion for herself.

 

 

 

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For Such a Time as This

DanielleDoll

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”- Jeremiah 29:11

 My daughter Danielle is a middle school teacher at a school in California where her students are largely refugees, and the student body speaks many languages and dialects. Danielle is so smack dab in the bullseye of her life purpose that I am grateful every day that she has the gift of doing what she is meant to do and that she figured it out at such a young age.
 As a baby, Danielle had a horrible case of colic that caused many sleepless nights for her father and me.
The only thing that helped when Danielle was sobbing with colic was when we took her favorite doll, a plush African American doll with colorful ribbons in her hair, and held the doll in front of her face. Danielle would stare at the doll and quiet down almost immediately. We called the doll “Melanie.”
Today she texted me photos from her classroom. She had taken a life long collection of toys (including an elaborate set of beanie babies with the TY tags on them) to her kids, and distributed them to the students, giving them extras to take home to their siblings. In one of the pictures my heart skipped a beat. There was a young girl holding Melanie and smiling brightly.
My first instinct was- how could she have given away one of her most precious dolls, one that she’s had for thirty years? I wanted to be supportive but with a tinge of sadness texted back “Is that Melanie?”
“Yes” she texted back, “and the young girl holding her and smiling is from Haiti where her home was destroyed and her mother died. She fell in love with Melanie and said she has never in her life owned a doll who looked like her.”
What I’ve come to realize is my daughter is my teacher too. Despite my having raised her in Scottsdale in a world of excess, she let go of attachments to “things” and gave away the toys and dolls she had saved “for such at time as this.”
I, on the other hand, still hold on to things that need to be given away or released, material and otherwise.
I am telling myself a story now about Danielle and Melanie thirty years ago. When she was a baby and unable to talk, Danielle looked mesmerized at Melanie and quieted because God was talking to her in secret places. He was telling her “I know the plans I have for you” and showing her a glimpse of her future, and her purpose.
I love you Danielle. And to Melanie I say goodbye, and Godspeed.  I’m praying for blessings for the new little girl who met you today, and who loves you. I hope that you are an instrument of  God’s special messages to her as well.
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Struggling With a Setback? Bounce Back!

Relax I'm just practicing my bouncing back skills

From the time I was a little girl I struggled with perfectionism.

I suppose it started as a result of the attention I got when I did something extraordinarily well.  “Wow, that is great! You are really something!”  Hearing those accolades gave me a higher sense of self worth.

I remember bringing home one of the few “B” grades I ever got in high school. “What? No straight A’s?” my father said in sarcastic jest; yet to me it was a devastating reminder that I had fallen short of the perfect 4.0 that semester.

Excelling and doing our best becomes perfectionism when the need to achieve becomes compulsive.  Over time, I realized doing things perfectly was my dysfunctional coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Everything became black and white; it was either perfect or not.   Because you can’t always be perfect I would become dissatisfied with myself and work harder, do more, over-function like a pro.

My wake up call came when I failed the bar exam the first time I took it, just out of law school.  That glaring imperfection, in public for all to see, caused me to feel shame and unworthiness.  Because I hadn’t really ever failed before I wasn’t’ sure how to handle it.

As lawyers, failure doesn’t sit well with us. If we lose a trial, or don’t prevail on an appeal, or are unhappy with our performance, we might agonize and rehash the circumstances for days on end.  For some of us such failure or imperfection can set us back and cause depression or worse.The anecdote to perfection is that we have to learn to fail, and most importantly to have resiliency, or the ability to bounce back.

Resiliency is a lost art in America. The failure to have healthy bounce back is becoming worse because many of us are raising our children, to get the trophy. In our quest for imparting self esteem we shower our children with indiscriminate praise and tell them that they are special, amazing, extraordinary and well, you know, perfect!

 A recent report from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence highlights the fact that today’s teens are unskilled at resiliency.  In fact, a 2013 survey of college students shows that more than half suffer from overwhelming anxiety and a third experience intense depression during the school year.  Business leaders are concerned this will adversely impact the United States’ ability to compete globally if those students are tomorrow’s leaders.   This report and others asks whether we might be emphasizing the wrong things in our kids. At what point do emotional management and non cognitive skills have to be as important as intelligence and being in accelerated academic classes?

Does resiliency seem to be a problem for you or your children? If so, how do you become resilient and teach your children do the same?

  1. When things don’t go your way, or you suffer disappointment, become aware of your emotions without letting them hijack you. You can’t escape strong emotional feelings but you can courageously face them.  Don’t push them away (that actually makes them stronger) but instead acknowledge that you are suffering. “I’m disappointed with my job performance review. Wow, it’s really painful to hear what my boss said about me. I have knots in my stomach right now.”

 

  1. Recognize that the feelings will pass if you don’t give them power. Replaying our victim stories and getting carried away with the drama will only keep you stuck. When the bad version of what happened comes into your head, switch instead to kindness, self care or nurturing of yourself. “I’m upset about that review of the article I wrote, I think I will take a hot soak in an Epsom salt tub and then read that book I have wanted to start reading.”  Self care can remove you from the intensity of the disappointment.

 

  1. Talk to yourself like a friend, or mentor. “You worked so hard on that proposal, I know you are disappointed it wasn’t accepted for the conference. But don’t give up!  You have an important message and there will be other opportunities.”  When we talk to ourselves it’s often the voice of our inner critic.  Recognize that voice, and switch to the inner mentor/friend.

 

  1. Recognize that others have had similar failures and disappointments, and have come back with strength. The bar association is full of lawyers who have contributed to a better society, after having  failed the bar exam the first time. Famous authors have drawers full of rejection letters. Actresses have been turned down for parts and gone on to win academy awards.  Nobody is perfect.  Reminding ourselves that we are not alone in our suffering helps us recover.

 

  1. Practice hope and optimism. There is such a thing as learned helplessness.  And the opposite is leaned optimism.  Positive psychology tools actually do work. Visualizing what you want and moving towards it, instead of lingering on what doesn’t work does have an impact. Counselors and life coaches are good resources to teach these skills.

 

  1. Take steps towards the positive path you have visualized. Staying stuck in quicksand and hiding under the covers only works temporarily. Taking one small step towards “digging out” is progress and leads to the next small step and so on.  Having accountability partners around you to encourage and support your efforts is helpful.

Often we are packing shame or disappointment and think that sharing with others is an embarassment  or even a burden. Chances are there are people in your circle who would be glad to help you bounce back if given the chance.  Staying in your own bubble of negativity and disappointment not only keeps you from having resilience, it can drag down the loved ones who have to live with you in your negative state.

Resilience isn’t easy. But it’s necessary to lead a full and productive life and becomes easier with practice. Since that bar failure over thirty years ago I have gone on to lead a productive and fulfilling life as a lawyer, with many triumphs and other disappointments along the way.  I found my life’s passion in serving as a mediator in legal disputes. I wonder what might have happened if I had let that defining moment defeat me.

And remember, nobody’s perfect.

 

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”- James 1:4

 

 

 

 

 

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