Bar News - September 21, 2016
Board Perspective: Connecting with Colleagues Is Good for Your Health
By: David McGrath
This will date me, but for the first few years of my practice, lawyers had no computers on their desks and were not allowed to touch the bulky firm-wide computers we had at the time. We had one woman who did all the “tech” stuff, but only a few people knew what that was. We had one excellent lawyer who would hand write his Supreme Court briefs on legal pads, copying (yes, we had photocopiers) sections of cases he’d found through the descriptive word index, cutting those sections with scissors and then taping (with Scotch tape) them onto the legal pads. His assistant would transform this thoughtful mess into a pleading suitable for filing with the Court.
Times were obviously different. We had three librarians and very large work rooms in the expansive library with carrels where we’d work, commune style. We spent more time there than in our offices. There was much kibitizing, mostly about each other’s cases and legal issues. We rarely felt disconnected.
When we all got computers on our desks, we stopped going into the library. It was not a conscious choice we made, and I don’t even recall any discussion around it. After a while, we just stopped convening in the library. The doors to our offices still remained mostly open, and we still shared insights occasionally about each other’s issues, but after a while we just started spending a lot less time together.
Psychologists have long known that motivation, health and happiness are closely tied to the feeling that we belong to a greater community that shares common interests. This applies to lawyers too, particularly with the unusual stresses that accompany the practice of law. The New Hampshire Lawyer Assistance Program (NHLAP) has troubling information about lawyers’ increasing mental health challenges, substance abuse and general dissatisfaction with the law. One interesting study that can be found on NHLAP’s site shows that relatedness to other people in the profession and supportive workplace environments were much more strongly correlated with lawyer well-being and happiness than money, prestige or the like. If we know this, then why do we spend less time together?
Nearly one-third of New Hampshire-based lawyers are sole practitioners. Many more practice alone – essentially – with office doors closed or remotely, infrequently coming to the office. At least one past Bar President sought to promote interconnectedness and civility. He recognized that even adversarial professional relationships could be governed by respect and even friendship, as with Sam Sheepdog and Ralph E. Wolf (again, I’m dating myself – you’ll find the old cartoon on YouTube). Prominent members of the bar, like Jack Middleton, Dave Nixon and Kim Zachos, disciplined themselves to stay closely connected and to build enduring and sustaining personal connections with each other, other lawyers, and their broader communities. They knew intuitively what studies have shown empirically: We are more motivated, professionally satisfied, and happier when we form and maintain relationships with each other.
Our Bar Association is not the only means to that desired end, of course, but it is an excellent one. We are a unified Bar and that connotes much more than mandatory membership. We have abundant opportunities to connect with one another. It could be for example in a high quality continuing legal education program, an event supporting access to justice, a section meeting, or a retreat at which 50-year members of the Bar are celebrated. You’ll learn much from and about each other at these and other Bar events. I know one fellow Bar member who recently completed his first triathlon. Another is a volunteer firefighter. Many can demonstrate the entertaining cut and tape method. No matter, take full advantage of these interactions, knowing that it’s good for your health and our Bar’s health, too.