Almost two months into quarantines, stay-home orders, business shutdowns, and remote work, many of us have adjusted – with varying levels of discomfort and anxiety – to a “new normal”.

A Constant State of Anxiety

A recent Forbes article provides some insight into our current psychological reality: “Psychologically, we can attribute this discomfort to anxiety. However, it’s not a run-of-the-mill anxiety, the type that’s normal and even healthy. Instead, it’s a constant state of incertitude, a miasma of apprehension that’s all the more draining because there’s no clear end-date. Our brain craves certainty, but with nothing except vastness in sight, there’s precious little certainty to go around these days.”

Accounting for Our Psychological Reality

As I participate in various virtual professional roundtable conversations and read articles related to legal proceedings, it strikes me that our legal system is woefully unprepared – and quite possibly unwilling – to account for the fact that we are currently experiencing a collective worldwide trauma.

It is well known that, even under normal circumstances, mental illness and suicide rates are among the highest for members of the legal profession. And while many professional organizations such as bar associations provide some support, the profession as a whole has never been equipped to do so.

This is only aggravated by the fact that most lawyers are perfectionists who have a tendency to hold fast to tradition and precedent, making us anything but nimble in the face of sudden and drastic change.

Self-Care is Not Weakness

The teaching profession has long emphasized self-care as a necessary component of serving others. By contrast, many years ago, I asked a partner I admired at the small law firm in which I spent the majority of my litigation career if they had any suggestions on how to maintain “work-life balance”. The response was derisive laughter.

Almost 20 years later, I am encouraged to find that self-care has been a topic of discussion during weekly roundtable meetings of solo and small practice attorneys (thanks to  Jordan L. Couch and Ann Guinn) and similar meetings of mediators (thanks to Mediate BC’s Sharon Sutherland) that I have been attending for the past few weeks. Suggestions range from meditation and yoga practice to finding a way to bring levity into each day, and from more sleep and later morning start times to creating and maintaining routines.

Nonetheless, this clearly remains an uncomfortable topic for most attorneys.

Signs of (Dis)Respect?

I recently came across this article about a federal judge who shut down a remote hearing after interruptions by audience members, as well as this one, dealing with lawyers dressing too casually for online court hearings.

There is no doubt that it is important to dress appropriately for any meeting, and especially for court proceedings, in order to be fully present and to demonstrate respect. It should go without saying that wearing pajamas or participating in a hearing from your bed are inappropriate (though it is sadly not unheard of for an attorney to call into a meeting from a hospital bed…). I also agree that common courtesy demands eliminating interruptions to the extent possible.

Or Merely a Collective Juggling Act?

On the other hand, let us keep in mind that everyone is juggling: working from home, sharing internet bandwidth with other household members, parenting children who have not seen their friends for weeks, dealing with adorable but sometimes unruly dogs and cats, and addressing countless other possible disruptions.

So if an attorney who is also a young parent does not have the ability to look perfect for a video-conference, that may not be a sign of disrespect; it may simply be a sign that they are unable to fully satisfy all the demands on their time despite their best efforts. If a client or other meeting attendee seems gruff or distracted, keep in mind that they may be panicking about how to pay the rent and put food on the table.

If participants or audience members in a video-conference fail to mute themselves, or attorneys forget to make eye contact (do you look at the screen? or the camera?), remember that some participants may not be technologically sophisticated, and that we are all adjusting to a new mode of conducting business.

Let’s Try Some Empathy

At this moment in history, perhaps we can lead with empathy, by assuming good intentions.

​Instead of labeling self-care as weakness and an occasional failure to precisely follow “the rules” as a sign of deliberate disrespect, perhaps we can make room for the fact that we are all mired in “a miasma of apprehension” – and that we must all support each other to make it through this.