Believe it or not, horses can help lawyers discover the capacity for change, identify inner strengths, and heal their spirits. Learning how to make horse sense out of nonsense will help you to decrease stress and improve your emotional and mental health.
By Andrea M. Hall, Attorney
Why is suicide so prevalent in our chosen profession? Why do attorneys feel like there is no other choice? According to studies, a reported 40% of law students already suffer from depression and that’s before graduating. After entering the workforce, lawyers are nearly four times more likely to suffer from depression than the average American. Because of the enormously taxing environment, long hours, unfortunate public opinion, tough cases and clients, the rate lawyers commit suicide is 1.33 times higher than the national average. Suicide among lawyers has become such a concern that many states have implemented mental health programs that are required for their lawyers.
A review by CNN of 50 state bar associations found that eight associations were so concerned about lawyer suicides that they took measures to stop the deadly pattern. Recently, California, Montana, Iowa, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina have added a “mental health” component to mandatory legal continuing education.
Do You Think About Burnout?
As a high-profile criminal defense attorney, I think burnout, depression, and anxiety more often than not, result in suicide and are matters of grave concern that the legal profession needs to address without hesitation.
In stating the need for programs, Yvette Hourigan, who runs the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program states, “There are a lot of high-stress professions. Being a physician has stress. However, when the surgeon goes into the surgical suite to perform his surgery, they don’t send another physician in to try to kill the patient. You know they’re all on the same team trying to do one job. In the legal profession, adversity is the nature of our game”.
Type A Personalities
We can all probably agree that the legal profession is a magnet for “Type A” workaholics. This overachieving behavior easily lends itself to falling into a pattern where non-managed stress leads to depression and anxiety. Stress of any nature, be it from the more socially acceptable form of working too many hours under crushing pressure, having a hazardous occupation such as police/firefighter, or experiencing the trauma of combat, can and does trigger substance and/or drug abuse, marital problems, may jeopardize careers, leads to disappointing personal lives, as well as sleep disturbances and other physical and mental health problems.
So, welcome to a lawyer’s world – rife with struggle and conflict. They must solve their client’s problems, win against the opposing lawyers, deal with insurance companies, expert witnesses, as well as judges, jurors, and the bar association. And, if these enormous responsibilities are not enough, there is also the huge stigma the lawyer faces of never exposing any weakness, let alone admitting to having anxiety or depression that would require treatment.
Lawyers Have Problems Too
It’s commonly accepted that a lawyer is the person people go to when seeking expert advice. The general public has a stereotyped impression of lawyers, with many people assuming that lawyers make a lot of money because of the status accorded the profession. This translates into a belief that since lawyers have money, they should not be having problems, or need advice of their own. Lawyers are the problem solvers.
And yet, stress related problems start as early as law school. In a CNN report, Dr. Andy Benjamin of the University of Washington conducted a study of law students and estimated that 40% of law students suffered from depression by the time they graduated. Dr. Benjamin’s report goes on to say that after law school, lawyers experience the high-stress process of admission to the bar. At this point, many do not seek treatment for any type of depression or mental illness because they fear not meeting the “character and fitness” requirements, since many state bars make subjective decisions as to whether mental illness or depression, treated or untreated, is a barrier to a candidate’s certification to practice law.
Then, once licensed, the lawyer engages in the pressurized career itself. As noted before, public perception views lawyers as rich and powerful – living the good life. But reality, in fact, can be grim for some attorneys. After the economic downturn, many big law firms lowered salaries and laid people off. The National Law Journal cited in May 2009 that even prestigious firms like Kilpatrick Stockton, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, and King & Spalding each lost an attorney to suicide after they were laid off.
Going a Hundred Miles an Hour and Getting Nowhere
One harried day (i.e. business as usual), the realization occurred to me, that in my own legal career, I was the proverbial hamster on the wheel – going a hundred miles an hour and getting nowhere. My survival instinct kicked-in and said “enough is enough.” I knew the stress I lived with in the profession was seriously affecting my personal life. The way to achieve balance and serenity in my life though, was not immediately discernible. But, in that moment a new path had been awakened.
While on this new journey of self-preservation, meeting all types of people in the world of “stress management” techniques, it still seemed quite peculiar, to consider: “How can a horse help?” That was my first question, and yet, when I found myself at a barn, just standing there with a 1,500-pound animal, the crazy stresses from my world disappeared. All I can say now is that it was providence that I was eventually introduced to Melisa Pearce and her program Touched by a Horse®.
Making Horse Sense Out of Nonsense: How Horses Can Help You Heal
Through the process of Equine Gestalt Coaching(EGC)®, a leading-edge training modality, Melisa and the herd, helped me access and develop my inherent emotional intelligence (EQ). It began with a process of cultivating self-awareness. The ground-based, non-riding experience with the horses imparts a shift in perspective while holding a safe, supportive space for reflection and self-exploration. Accompanied by the research of neuroscience behind EQ, a strong framework of tangible EQ tools, and a well-defined process, I was able to elevate my presence, engagement, and discover my own path towards emotional resilience. Changes that come from within, greatly contribute to a lasting shift in perceptions, awareness, and behavioral habits.
Horses are exceptional models for developing EQ in humans. As non-predatory animals, they are highly sensitive to their environment and as part of their primary survival mechanisms, they process emotions as information. Acting without the interpretations and judgments the human mind eagerly offers in every situation, the horse becomes an emotional mirror for humans. As they intuit and reflect our emotional inner landscape, powerful learning metaphors inevitably arise regarding how we connect, communicate, and interact with other people. The immediate “agenda-free” feedback allows a person to see themselves in a new light, unaffected by the opinions of other people.
As a defense attorney, the general population has plenty of opinions about our profession, and generally, they are not positive. We work with stressed (clients and opposing counsel) in a stressed and tense environment. Learning the skill, of not getting captured by what other people think and say, sometimes even about me, was not something imparted in law school. My job performance and the ability to respond often “on-the-fly” is much better when I am calm and composed on the inside. The paradox is that I must fully engage and not disconnect to protect myself in order to function well. Staying centered and involved, regardless of the drama ensuing around me – that is just part of the job – is a very important ability to possess. Having this “emotional agility” effectively takes the stress out of the equation in the moment and I don’t have to wait until later to “de-stress.”
This brings me back to the horses and my new “get off the hamster wheel” journey.
These programs with a horse can work for lawyers which will help them discover the capacity for change, identify inner strengths, thus healing their spirit. As a stressed lawyer, I was game to learning a little “horse sense” to decrease my stress and improve my emotional and mental health. I know too well that our profession is hard on us as a whole and we are harder on ourselves individually than anyone else. In my short time as a criminal defense lawyer (11 years), I have looked at other colleagues who have been in the business longer, and wondered, how they have survived in this jaded, cynical and negative environment. I have seen lawyers who were suffering, bravely fighting the good battle alone, and not asking for help.
Stress including depression and anxiety is not a solitary ailment. It not only affects your health and self-esteem, but your work team and loved ones around you. As I stand up for my clients on trial, I now am standing up with as much principle and conviction for you, my fellow lawyer, to say that it is ok for those in our profession to seek alternatives to fix our stress and to not feel ashamed.
Talk is often minimized in many professions, including lawyers, doctors, dentists, CPAs, bankers and corporate CEOs, of having an “outlet” that will fix the problem – yet genuine solutions for the bigger problem of suicide from stress or depression are not necessarily talked about in everyday conversations, possibly because there still exists a certain stigma regarding “mental/emotional healthcare”.
At this time, I am still a practicing defense attorney. Yet, as a result of learning firsthand about the power of the human-horse bond, my new passion – to share with the legal profession the amazing knowledge of finding your emotional intelligence (EQ) with a horse – is equal to the passion that I had when I first became a member of this profession. Let the whisper of the horse echo the spirit of the soul.
Andrea M. Hall is a successful attorney, speaker, author, and coach who has lived her life in service of others. Andrea’s passion to make a difference has led her to the thrilling heights of success — and some harsh realizations about the costs of dedicating your life to a career that depends on your personal strength to flourish. www.witherswhisper.com
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