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Sober Lawyers discuss…’the drinking default’

Jo:

Annmarie, we recently discovered that we are both ‘sober’ lawyers. I’ve been sober for more than 11 years and you for more than 13 years*.

We have also set up our own businesses. Do you think that’s a coincidence?

Annmarie:

I think not. I reckon that being sober in a country where that’s not the norm indicates a bit of independence of spirit that goes hand-in-hand with having the gumption to start your own business. It suggests a desire to break free from the mould.

Do you think it’s still the norm in law firms to be a drinker?

Jo:

Yes and no. I think there are people who drink a lot and people who drink to keep up appearances but would probably rather not have to drink. They feel, probably rightly, that their career prospects rely on turning up to social functions where drinking is the default.

Annmarie:

Yes, that’s something that I hear from lawyers in therapy a lot. There’s that pressure to say yes to a drink at work functions even when you don’t want to. In some firms, it is still seen as part and parcel of being a ‘good laugh’ or a ‘good team player’ to be a drinker.

I did a vacation scheme when I was a big drinker and then turned up at the same firm to start my training contract 18 months later sober and had changed quite a lot in the interim…

Jo:

So, alcohol related social events are ok for those that want to partake (as we did once) but what about those that don’t? Do you think this may explain the lack of diversity in the top jobs or at partnership level?

Annmarie:

I think it probably does, partly. It’s getting better but people can still feel a bit marginalised if they don’t feel they fit in with the ‘majority’ culture at their firm.

The younger generation of lawyers are teaching us a lot though – that they want to have the opportunity to build relationships with workmates in a setting that doesn’t revolve around alcohol and which also fits with their lifestyle and other commitments.

 

two brown and blue ceramic mugs
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Jo:

My worry too is that ‘the drinking default’ excludes those whose cultures and religion do not revolve around alcohol or where it’s prohibited. For example, Muslim people will find it awkward (perhaps impossible) to navigate this culture and therefore their advancement.  So, what would our recommendations be for firms or membership organisations thinking about changing their culture?

Annmarie:

I’d suggest that firms get their staff’s creative juices flowing by asking them for suggestions of how they think their firm could support them in a move away from a drinking culture. There’s tons of options out there… sporty, arty, sightseeing, teambuilding, foodie activities.

Also, with the move to more flexible, agile working practices do you think it’s possible that we might also see a move away from networking activities taking place in the evening, which tends to be more associated with alcohol?

Jo:

Yes, absolutely. Why not have a morning event (say training) ending at the spa?  Or a social incorporating an afternoon tea?  I’d ask that organisers consider that breakfast meetings can also exclude those with caring responsibilities as do evening networking events.

Annmarie:

Yes! So important to think more broadly about people’s responsibilities rather than limiting it to those caring for children. Perhaps firms could be encouraged to make specific mention in their diversity policies of the need to be inclusive in their social and networking events.

In the lead up to the ‘festive season’ it feels particularly important that everyone feels thought of and taken into account.

Jo:

Let’s talk again soon about life as a sober lawyer.

Annmarie:

Absolutely!

* sober meaning we don’t drink alcohol or take any other mind-altering substances.

Ghosts

light landscape sky sunset
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It’s the right time of year to be talking about ghosts. The ones I’m talking about here aren’t those that come out on Halloween though. But they can still be pretty spooky.

I’m talking about people from the past re-surfacing in our lives, either by design or by chance. How that affects us and what it means.

It’s often those people who haunt us slightly. There may be something unfinished about the relationship. Some loose ends that might never be tied up.

These are themes coming up not just in my clients’ lives but also for me and my friends. I have a milestone birthday next year and as I and many of my friends hurtle towards 40, it’s no surprise that the past is rearing its head and smacking us all round the chops a bit. For milestone birthdays mean parties, reunions and, at this age, a lot of knackered parents who don’t get out much getting nostalgic and taking stock about where they’re at in life.

“Regrets, I’ve had a few…”

Frank Sinatra may have had “too few to mention” but most of us do have some regrets about things done or not done in the past. And it’s part of the human condition to ruminate on this stuff. ‘What if x hadn’t happened, what if I hadn’t done y?’ we wonder, spurred on by alcohol and bleak love songs (Adele, anyone?).

We all engage in this pursuit from time to time, don’t we? Why else would Bryan Adams’ ‘Summer of 69’ and that girl who told him that she’d ‘wait forever’ still be played in every alcohol-soaked bar in the country? I’m more than a bit nostalgic myself and still have the t-shirt my holiday boyfriend sent me back in 1997, soaked in his Davidoff Cool Water aftershave (though we definitely didn’t say we’d wait forever. In fact, I’d bet good money that he didn’t even make it to the end of the holiday).

Such formative experiences are particularly potent. First love and all that. And there’s a scientific explanation for this. The ‘peak-end rule’ developed by psychologists tells us that the way we remember events is not made up of a total of every individual moment. We tend to remember and overemphasise the peak (best or worst) moment and the last moment and neglect the duration[1]. This explains why the end of a brief but intense relationship can hurt just as much, if not more, than the end of a long-term one.

So, these early experiences I’m talking about can often seem more powerful than relationships in our later adult years. That’s inevitable when you compare the high drama of your teens and twenties with the more hum drum aspects of an adult existence; joint bank accounts, mortgages and the joint obligations of parenthood.

Decisions, decisions

What these ‘ghosts’ also tend to remind us of are our choices in life. Whether we realise it or not, we go through life constantly making decisions. Certain paths that we take prevent us from taking others. “Alternatives exclude”, as the author John Gardner famously said.

80’s kids like me will remember the Choose Your Own Adventure multiple ending storybooks from childhood. If you didn’t end up liking the story you chose initially, you could always backtrack to the relevant fork in the road and go another way, choosing a new path that you liked the look of more. But real life doesn’t usually work like that. For every road we take, we’re simultaneously closing the door on another.

People talk about life being too short, but often it feels like it can be too narrow.

It’s not possible for us to fit in all the things we’d like to. This applies to so many things; for those of us with kids, the cost is the loss of freedom, sleep, money. For those with high-powered jobs, the price is seeing less of our homes and our families and having less free time. And it applies to our relationships. Often there are people from our past who mean something to us but who don’t quite fit into our present-day lives.

Some people do try to slot such people in as friends while others decide that they simply can’t make all the jigsaw pieces fit.

Playing with fire?

There are good reasons to be wary of these ghosts of course. I remember in 2004 at the peak of the success of the website Friends Reunited, a spike in the divorce rate was attributed to people’s new-found ability to get back in touch with former flames easily. So, we know that it can be playing with fire to keep in contact with exes. There’s also a danger that living in the past can take energy away from our present. If you’re looking to meet someone but you tend to be surrounded by a coterie of exes for example, then clearly it can send the wrong signal to potential dates.

But these ‘ghosts’ can also remind us of positive aspects of ourselves that we may have lost touch with over the years. Take someone dealing with the aftermath of having kids whose sense of identity has gone a bit all over the shop. Being in touch with someone from the past can motivate someone dealing with that to try to get back to themselves a bit, to rediscover themselves in a healthy way.

Unfinished Business

So, is it best to leave well alone or to open Pandora’s Box? Who knows? It’s different for everyone.

But we do need to be wary of expectations that seeing these people from our past will leave us with a proper ‘ending’ and a neat conclusion wrapped up in a bow. Often that doesn’t happen. We have to learn to be OK with some things left undone and some questions left unanswered. Sometimes that means we feel grief and loss. And it’s good to allow ourselves to have that.

If we can give ourselves space to grieve for the paths that we didn’t take, then it can leave us freer to enjoy the ones that we did.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201510/why-do-we-remember-certain-things-forget-others

 

Law and wellbeing: are they incompatible?

Having procrastinated over the title of this article for a fair amount of time I can tell you that life in the brain of a lawyer ain’t an easy one. It’s teeming with all sorts of stuff: a ton of perfectionism, a heap of compulsive overthinking and a pretty hefty dash of pedantry for good measure.

We lawyers tend to be those people at school who win (after secretly revising for) the spelling bees. We’re Monica from Friends in that episode in a class raising her arm in the air in response to the teacher’s question shouting “I know, I know, I know…”. We’re the overachievers who want to excel at everything we do.

Once we get that first initial ‘hit’ of approval from our caregivers, our teachers, it becomes addictive. We want more of it, more praise and more recognition. From an early age we tie our self-esteem to the externals in life – what does this person think of me, is this grade good enough etc.

Thus begins a life lived on a hamster wheel; forever seeking the next ‘success’ and the next challenge.

Naturally, we seek out a profession that provides those external markers of success we seek and which satisfies our need for intellectual stimulation. And law is the perfect vehicle into which to pour a strong work ethic and intense drive to achieve.

And the truth is that the legal profession rewards us for these traits. The pursuit of accuracy to the point of OCD is applauded, we’re rewarded with bonuses for meeting or exceeding our targets and we’re taught that every minute of our days can be monetised.

But we can’t switch the compulsive thinking off.

The Stakes are High

The message is that accuracy, nay perfection, is the gold standard. And when we stray from that standard (as inevitably we do as humans), our bodies and minds get invaded by a shedload of fear. We feel under attack, as if there’s someone ready to pounce on our mistake, whether it’s the client, your boss or a solicitor at another firm.

The truth is that that is often the case.

Expectations are high of lawyers and there are consequences to getting things wrong. The bottom-clenchingly awful moment in the Supreme Court prorogation case a few weeks ago when it was discovered that the court bundle was incorrectly numbered gave many of us a shiver down the spine and flashbacks to errors that that have kept us awake at night.

And while we can all talk the talk about the importance of boundaries, we all really know that there are still many offices out there where chronic overworking at the expense of your health is worn as a badge of honour and seen as a demonstration of ‘commitment’ to the clients.

This reality doesn’t sit easily alongside the current focus on wellness in the profession.

Indeed, you could argue that a profession with precision and meticulousness at its heart as law does is inherently bad for your emotional balance and wellbeing.

We need to be honest about these tensions, not deny that they exist.

To make real progress with these wellness initiatives we need leadership from the top.

We need our leaders in law to do what they say and say what they do. 

Because as humans we all learn by imitation. If we have a boss who thinks wellness is a ‘great idea for young lawyers’ but who works all hours him/herself, people will be likely to follow what the boss does not what he/she says, in an effort to progress up the ranks.

activity board game connection desk
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Critical Voices

It’s not easy to detach a lawyer’s self-esteem from their job even slightly. Helping lawyers to dislodge their own internal Critical Parent voice is a tough old task. This voice is the natural bedfellow of impostor syndrome; telling you you’re not good enough and making you feel like a scared child. The problem for lawyers is that that voice is often amplified and supplemented by criticisms at work, be it from a scathing judge, an angry client or a stressed out boss taking his/her ire out on you. We file these criticisms away in our brains and bring them out now and again as evidence of our lack of worth and ability. This creates a skewed perspective which can be incredibly damaging over time.

Our urgent task is to help lawyers to develop their own individual internal barometers that tell them when ‘good enough’ is enough.  We have to help each other to try to shut off or at least temper that instinct to strive for excellence at all costs (the cost usually being our physical and mental health).

It may be that the culture of workaholism in law firms will never really change until promotions stop being linked inextricably to billable hours.We can talk about wellness all we want but if those external markers of success are achieved by working yourself to the bone then the need to look after yourself will not really hit home.

I spoke with a coach recently who works with law firms on improving culture. The first thing she does when she goes into a firm is to ask the senior management team whether it would be willing to let go of one of the top billing partners if it emerged that he/she and his/her working practices were having a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of their juniors. If the management team say they would not then she will not work with them. I admire her resolve that if a firm was not willing to place staff wellness ahead of profits then they were not a firm she could work with.

We’ve got a long way to go to redress unhealthy work practices and to better protect our lawyers from excessive working, excessive productivity and excessive availability. I believe that this generation coming up is the one to restore balance to the practice of law. But if we are going to do it then we have to be unafraid to be honest about the current state of affairs.

 

“What the hell have you done to my hair?” and other awkward conversations

“HAIR IS EVERYTHING”

We all secretly knew this to be true but it took Fleabag for us to know we knew it.

Clearly it’s not the only lesson to take from that programme (the main one being that, if that’s what priests look like these days, we need to start going to church a bit more…) but it really stuck with me, not least cos of my own experiences.

I was reminded again last week during my bi-monthly trip to the hairdresser.

several scissors
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Now, nothing strikes fear into my heart like a trip to the hairdresser. I monitor covertly every snip of the scissors and dab of colour as I masquerade as a person hugely interested in the latest copy of ‘Now!’ or New!’ or some other excitably named trashy publication.

There is some sense to my neuroticism as, let’s face it, the stakes are high at the hairdresser. One false move by the scissor-wielders and you’ll be wandering around with a peroxide blonde mullet for the next year (trust me, it happened to me in 2003 and that was not a good year).

There’s also the ‘big reveal’ element of it all. That wait is like the Strictly Come Dancing episode where they pair off the dancers. Except a lot less fun. And if haircuts were pro dancers, I’ve had more than my fair share of Antons and far too few Gorkas.

There’s also something particularly awkward about trying to have a discussion in those hair salon mirrors that highlight every blemish. And there’s a weird power dynamic involved with trying to negotiate with some uber-stylish millennial when you’ve turned up in your trackie bottoms with no make up on and hair that’s not been washed for the best part of a week (so you can get your money’s worth).

But it’s not just about the hair.

While your average hair salon is a crucible of awkward conversations, these bottom-clenchingly difficult interactions are something that we all have to deal with in life, in the hairdresser or not.

I know I’m not the only one who suffers from an aversion to it all. Women particularly suffer from it. We are taught from day 1 of our lives to seek social cohesion at all costs. This can result in us squashing any uncomfortable feelings that we think others might not like, sticking a big smile on our faces and overcompensating by being uber-nice. In the therapy world,we call this incongruence– when the face we show the world doesn’t match our insides. It’s not good for us and it’s not good for the other person involved. Because how will they ever learn what we do and don’t like if we don’t tell them?

Part of getting older for me is about acting in spite of my fear and having these bold conversations I’m scared to have. What I’ve noticed is that, if I sidestep these conversations, the universe will keep sending me similar scenarios, be it with a friend or family member I find challenging, an aggravating call centre assistant, the hairdresser or a boss, until I adjust my actions so they’re more in tune with how I actually feel.

Things I’ve found helpful for such times include:

  1. Talking about how YOU feel, not what THEY’VE doneg. “I feel disappointed, I feel uncomfortable, I feel anxious”. It’s harder for people to argue the toss over your feelings than it is over facts.
  2. Get your script in order– prepare sentences or phrases that you feel comfortable with before you go into situations you’re likely to find challenging. I don’t drink alcohol and, in the early days of being sober, I used to have a prepared stock phrase I’d tell those people who asked me about it. Having that prepared in advance made me feel more confident about those situations and if someone kept pressing me on it, I’d just repeat slightly different variations of it until they got bored.
  3. Check your body language– a very effective way of wielding power in the workplace is to either loom over someone shorter than you (think Donald Trump in the pre-US election debates with Hillary Clinton) or the opposite; to remain seated at your  comfortable desk while your acolyte hovers around you. So, when you’re feeling nervous in a conversation, check how you’re standing and what you’re doing with your body. If you can adjust your body language to become more open and less timid then it often has a massive knock on effect on how you feel and on what comes out of your mouth.
  4. Not everything has to be resolved right now– If you’re feeling overwhelmed and finding it hard to express yourself, ask for a bit more time. It’s actually quite rare that things absolutely have to be decided on the spot. And if you’re getting cloudy in your head then it’s absolutely OK to go for a walk round the corner, call a friend, do whatever you need to do to remind yourself of what’s important to you again before you have to re-enter the fray.

On that note, I had a bit of a breakthrough with my hairdresser this time. Having booked in for a cut and colour I was getting very ‘cloudy’ in my head about what colour I actually wanted. So I took a deep breath and said ‘“I’m not 100% sure which way to go on this. Let’s postpone for now and I’ll think about it further”. Such a little thing to the outside world but such a big thing to me.

And you know what? As I type this, there’s not a peroxide mullet in sight.

Thanks Fleabag.

 

Happy Birthday To Me!

So I’ve made it to the first anniversary of starting my own business and I’m chuffed as hell about it.

From starting out mildly terrified that I’d never get any work to getting to the point of having to turn work away, it’s been quite a journey. Here’s a few things that I’ve learnt so far:

  1. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you

I’m a lawyer by background. What that means is that my natural tendency is to work, work, work and then, when the weekend comes, do a little bit more work besides. It also means that I’m inclined to judge my worth on the basis of productivity. I’m hard wired to bustle around like one of my kids’ wind-up toys until one day the batteries run out and the music slows down to that creepy drawn out whine (OK, so I don’t do the last bit. But I do go a bit wonky).

Even though I know this, I still find it excruciating when people (and by ‘people’ I mean my husband) ask me to slow down. It goes against the grain. It feels weird and uncomfortable to go easy on myself.

But I now understand that having spaces in the diary is precisely what’s needed to be a decent therapist. It’s during those spaces that the right-hand brain (the bit more inclined towards creativity and emotions) comes out to play (‘play’ being the operative word – various studies have shown how crucial it is for mental health and growth).

My job, more than anything else, is about encouraging clients to turn away from ‘fixity’ in their thinking about whatever situation has brought them to therapy and to inspire them to develop their curiosity and imagination about their lives. Trying to stimulate that mindset in clients while spending my own time in my logical business-sided brain just does not compute. It’s also a tad hypocritical.

So my own ‘homework’  has increasingly become to encourage my own creativity and inspiration to come out; I do this by being outside in nature, listening to different forms of music, being in my body in some way. None of this is about immersion in theory and books (although I do still love that bit as well – after all, you can take the girl out of law etc etc…). But my real homework these days is all about feeling and experiencing.

And for those of you who like measurable outcomes, all this messing about does lead to tangible progress. What I’ve realised is that those ‘peak moments’ or changes of heart, those realisations, breakthroughs and shifts that we all hope for arrive mostly when approached via the side door, in the gaps, in the silences, in the inbetweenness, when we’re feeling and experiencing. They don’t come around when we’re trying to force it using intellect and clever words.

  1. Trying to be all things to all people makes you just a bit beige

It’s a classic trend for those starting out in business isn’t it – to say ‘yes’ to everything and everyone. It’s borne out of good intentions but also fear. Fear of not having enough and fear of not being enough.

It’s also really hard to say no to people. Especially, I think, for women. Women seem to be particularly programmed to seek to create cohesion. As a natural people-pleaser, rescuer, fixer, whatever you want to call it, I’m no exception to this rule.

Left to my own devices, I could give myself sciatica bending over backwards in an effort to get you to like me.

But in recent years I’ve learnt better. I’m no longer everyone’s ‘cup of tea’ (and I’m not sure I ever was really). And nor is everyone mine. And if I say yes to everyone then I become like a watered-down Green Tea (sorry Green Tea aficionados but it makes me want to vom) not a full-bodied English Breakfast. The more thinly spread I am, the less substance I have. And I want to have substance.

Becoming more discerning about what you take on is not about arrogance. It’s an acknowledgment that, when we have faith and put ourselves in the right situations, the work comes and it’s the right work and the right clients for you at that particular time. It’s a natural unforced process, a lot like those sessions I have sometimes with clients where it feels brilliantly effortless; like they are almost doing the work themselves, gently guided by me. While all sessions are rewarding, those are particularly so and I emerge feeling that I’ve learnt as much from the client as they have from me.

  1. No one likes an ending

British people, it seems to me, will literally do anything to avoid an ending. Endings in whatever form they may take are uncomfortable, they’re weird and frankly what’s the point of wasting time dwelling on them?

I get it.

During my therapeutic training, I was more sceptical than most about the amount of time I felt we  ‘wasted’ on talking about managing endings. To give you some context, I’m the sort of person who is up and out of her seat before the credits have even started rolling at the end of the film, leaving the other suckers to sit in those queues in the car park whingeing about the price of popcorn. And, speaking of cars, anyone who’s ever sat in one with me for any length of time will know that I’m an annoying ‘flicker’, switching from station to station before the song’s even finished. And (most embarrassingly) my relationship history used to be peppered with ‘overlaps’ with me seemingly unable to end one relationship before starting another, (something which, in these days of Brexit could be referred to as suitor ‘stockpiling’).

I used to do all I could do avoid endings. I’ve noticed that this is often the way with clients as well. The final sessions of therapy are often characterised by cancellations, illnesses and interruptions; various ways, consciously and unconsciously of avoiding the reality of an ending.

I don’t mean to sound critical (please see above for evidence that I have literally no leg to stand on). I just notice that tendency in us to avoid things that are uncomfortable.

What I now know is that when I allow myself to sit with the discomfort of bringing something to a close in my own life, whether it’s by having an awkward conversation, responding to an email or ending a relationship in some other way, I get a ‘clean’ feeling of something being brought to a close in a proper way. That’s very different to the murky emotional hangovers I used to experience where I knew, having not ended things ‘well’, that I’d feel slightly awkward if I ever bumped into that person in the street again.

I tend to agree with the Gestalt therapists on this (for whom life is seen as being all about patterns, with each ‘Gestalt’ or situation a type of circle to be completed), that it’s crucial psychologically not to leave ‘unfinished business’ in our relationships. If we do then it stops us from being able to focus on the here and now, as we’ve got too many loose ends to live fully in the present.

So, in summary, I’m a convert to the importance of endings. And so you’d think I’d have a good idea about how to end this blog. But I’m sorry, I’ve just had an idea for the next one so let me just write that down and I’ll finish this one later…