If you want to feel good about the future of our profession, sit in on a class of young law students. I was recently invited to speak to an evening class at the Charleston School of Law to talk about attorney wellness. I discussed how certain aspects of the lawyer personality, while making us very good at what we do, also make us lonely and isolated. Knowing “vulnerability” can be a provocative concept for aspiring lawyers-to-be, I was careful not to use the dreaded “v” word. But in the discussion that followed several students did—observing how our profession’s allergic reaction to anything resembling vulnerability keeps lawyers disconnected from each other as well as from our friends and family.
Brene Brown defines vulnerability as choosing to risk showing up and being seen in your life, even (or especially) when you cannot control how things will turn out. If there is a scenario more frightening than that for a lawyer, I have yet to hear about it.
The training begins in law school, but we really develop proficiency during our first few years of practice. Before we know it we are getting up every morning and suiting up for the day. We put on our armor and go out to kick some ass. We do what is necessary to mitigate the forces of uncertainty and risk. We work hard to make sure that we always present as solid, in control, confident, able to handle whatever comes our way. We try to appear competent in everything we undertake. We never, ever appear weak. And we crush anything that smells like vulnerability. Even when we’re unsure, and things become more than a little frightening, we fake it and pretend that everything is under control. After doing that day after day, month after month, year after year, where does that leave us?
It leaves us afraid to take any real risks and to face any real uncertainty. It leaves us avoiding the emotional and difficult conversations that are necessary for relationship. It leaves us stressed out, anxious, lonely and isolated. And it leaves us feeling as if we’re half way through a career and never really shown up for our lives. Too afraid to risk being who we really are or doing what needs to be done to care for ourselves, we stay in bad jobs and bad relationships. Because the certainty of those things that are clearly not right for us, is much less frightening than having to deal with the uncertainty of what comes next.
Our resistance to vulnerability has been very much on my mind this summer. Last month, I talked to a large group of insurance defense attorneys about the need to embrace vulnerability. I anticipated a response of something between Candy-Crush-Saga induced indifference and cold arms crossed stares. But the reaction I received was quite the opposite. A lot of the lawyers there connected with what I was saying about vulnerability. And my discussion of that topic seemed to touch on something vitally important for those who had spent years in the trenches of a stand-on-your-own-two feet, never-let-them-see-you-sweat profession. It seemed clear to many of these insurance defense lawyers that all of our training and all of our work in perfecting the art of “not doing vulnerability” has left a pretty big hole in our lives.
This openness to a discussion about vulnerability (from both veteran trial lawyers and last week’s law students) has me feeling there might be some hope for our profession. Maybe we’re finally at a place where we can begin to talk about this. Where we can begin to acknowledge how our aversion to vulnerability (as necessary as it might be in hotly contested litigation) quickly becomes pathological. Maybe we’re finally finding ways to begin to courageously talk to each other about our own personal journeys, and listen compassionately when others tell us theirs. And maybe we can keep the conversation going—presenting more programs around these kinds of topics at bar gatherings and judicial conferences, and offering CLE credit for programs that discuss mental well being and the necessity of the legal profession (and its individual lawyers) to come to grips with issues like this. If we can begin to talk about it, we can begin to change.
Will change come quickly? Of course not. We still have a ways to go before discussion about vulnerability becomes mainstream in our line of work. Remember, it takes a hundred miles to turn around an air-craft carrier. But if my conversations over the last few weeks with law students and veteran trial lawyers suggests anything, maybe it means we’re finally starting to make this sucker come about.