Mental health is an important topic that often goes unaddressed in the legal profession. Yet, one study revealed that nearly half the lawyers surveyed had struggled at some point with depression. Now more than ever, in this time of the pandemic, we need to bring awareness to mental-health issues and promote lawyer well-being. In this episode, Todd Smith and Jody Sanders are joined by the Director of the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, Chris Ritter. Chris shares his own struggle with alcohol and depression as a practicing lawyer, how he got through it, and how he now helps others in the legal industry. He sheds light on what makes lawyers vulnerable to mental-health issues and provides strategies for maintaining one’s well-being during the pandemic and the upcoming holidays. Through it all, it helps to know that you are not alone and are not the only one fighting this battle. Join Chris as he offers comfort and guidance through this conversation.
Listen to the podcast here:
Well-Being Strategies for the Pandemic and the Holidays | Chris Ritter
We have with us the Director of TLAP, the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, Chris Ritter from here in Austin. Welcome to the show, Chris.
Thanks, Todd. I am glad to be here.
The Texas lawyers reading, which makes up the majority of our audience, many of those folks may find your name familiar if they haven’t heard you speak. Why don’t you give us some information about your background, your career as a practicing lawyer, and what led you to TLAP?
Thanks very much. I am an attorney that practiced trial litigation for years. I grew up in Lubbock and went to law school here in Austin at UT. I practiced mostly insurance defense for a few years and plaintiffs’ personal injury cases. My path toward this started in about 2007. In that year, I was made a partner in my law firm in Lubbock. I had finished between 35 and 40 jury trials at that time, which is pretty exceptional for that age for doing Civil Defense work. I had gotten awarded the Super Lawyer Rising Star Award, which was a big deal for a Lubbock lawyer, and everything on paper was perfect. I was going through a divorce and I’d never been more miserable in my life. I was burned out at work and I didn’t tell people that how burned out I was, but I got depressed.
My grandmother, who was one of the first elementary school principals in Lubbock, was also a counselor before. So whenever I got a call from an opposing counsel one day, it was his paralegal and it’s one of those cases where you’re trying to find the other attorney, and you call and call. I got a call back that he had died in an accident. In the middle of the divorce, my grandmother died, who I was close to, so I was in a time of grief and poor mental health.
I thought to myself, “That attorney that died in an accident is the lucky one.” I remember thinking about what my grandmother told me about if I ever got depression, to talk to a counselor. I went to a counselor. Fast forward a couple of years, I got much healthier and quit drinking. I decided to give meaning to my life, get involved in recovery work, and it eventually led me to TLAP. The work we do now is so important. What I didn’t know then which I know now is how normal a lot of what I went through is and how many attorneys struggle with these issues.
There was a study, it was a Betty Ford study, that outlined some of that data. I don’t know if it was you or somebody else from TLAP doing a presentation, and I was shocked by the incidence of mental health substance abuse in the legal profession.
I would say that most attorneys think, “It’s just me. What’s wrong with me? Why am I struggling?” I want to say everybody’s been to a hearing where there’s a picture of a totaled car and the attorney representing the person that caused it won’t even admit that there’s any property damage. Attorneys won’t admit anything. We’re trained to not admit things unless we must but 46% of 13,000 attorneys admitted to struggling at some point with depression. Twenty-one percent of all attorneys struggle with a serious drinking problem. For young attorneys, it’s almost a third, it’s 32%, but attorneys frequently face burnout and depression. If 46% admit it, I’m telling you, more than half of us are going to see problems with it.
I believe that it’s rooted in something that’s changing and it’s changing with programs like this and in law schools. We went to law school. I don’t know about you two, the only thing I learned in law school about self-care was that they put a keg on the patio on Fridays and I was there every Friday all through law school. Other than that, we did a little bit of intramural football, but there was little taught to me in law school about what to do with all this stress? What do I do to put some boundaries around my stressful career to have the life that I want? Things are changing now.
On top of the anxiety that we deal with, that can lead to depression. We’re also dealing face to face with trauma if we do criminal law. Even appellate work, you’re reading the facts on all this. What do you do when you have to digest fact patterns that involve serious assault, children being taken away from a parent, or a client going to prison? All of these things are traumatic. A lot is going on with our mental health. I’m happy to share more about that but I wanted you to know, I thought I was a weak person because I was affected by the things that I was seeing every day.
I’d see wrongful death cases, I’d see people that were paralyzed, and have to ask questions of a person that killed someone in an accident. That takes a toll on your mental health and I feel that we don’t talk about it that much but it’s a pretty unique profession. Compared to other professions, practicing law, not only do we deal with important matters, but we don’t have the training in law school. In medical school, they talk about brain chemistry, how to manage health, and likewise, therapists that do this. They talk about self-care, and they’re required for their first 3,000 hours of practice to debrief every week. Mine was at happy hours. I don’t know about you two.
That’s right. I’ve heard you say before, Chris, that one of the major causes behind all this is the fact that, as lawyers, were discouraged. It would be one sort of mild description. Were discouraged from showing weakness especially in litigation, but probably across practice areas. In transactional work, I’ve never been a transactional lawyer, but I can see how you’re supposed to be a hard-nosed negotiator so you can’t reveal any weakness to the other side, but litigation is probably the best example. You’re supposed to be the lawyer that people see on TV that never loses a case. You’re always the quickest and the smartest, and wins every case. Even revealing any vulnerability to your client can be seen as a real negative so it seems that’s a major cultural influence on what’s going on with our profession these days.
One of the things that’s an illusion is, I was in a law firm with about 30 lawyers. Many of us work in a shared office space, but 80% of us are solo practitioners. Even those of us that work in law firms, you can hide in a law firm pretty well and we get isolated. One of the things when you’re in a profession where online writings exist and everything that people find out about you, they hold it against you somehow later, it’s a place where we feel guarded and worried. When we’re dealing with social media, we see everyone else’s wins. Nobody talks about their losses and we hear about everybody else’s victories and, “They bought a new house,” and all of these different things. One of the things that lawyers are afraid to let others know about is that they’re human and they struggle. We make mistakes and we’re happy sometimes with where we’re at.
Many of us, and I’ve been in the position before where I was so guarded about that I wouldn’t want my partners to know I was sick of what I was doing but also wouldn’t want my significant other to know a lot about what I was struggling with because I didn’t want her to be afraid that I would fail or whatever that would cause. We are in a weird position to manage, many of us, 50 to 100 cases some people, many more than if you do the right kind of law. All of these people depend on us and one of the things that don’t get talked about enough is people talk about the negatives about lawyers, with our egos and all that, but we’re giving our lives away.
We’re so unselfish. We give up, most of us, all of our work life during the day to our clients plus a lot of time after that and we rarely give ourselves any time to take care of ourselves. We put ourselves last and that’s another big reason that we see so many attorneys struggle with mental health and boundaries. Look where we’re at now in the pandemic. It seems like it’s exaggerating a lot of the things that we are challenged with normally. It’s even more so because there’s something ceremonial about leaving your office, but when you have your office in your house, all of a sudden, it’s hard not to check your email or feel you ought to walk across the hall and do a little more work. How are you guys making it now?
I’ve been working out of the house 100% of the time for more than a few years. It is difficult to draw that line. I do have a dedicated home office so I have the ability to change rooms. If I’m going to go have dinner with my family, I can physically get up and go to a different location, which I’ve always heard is a good trigger for being able to eat things separately. In speaking as a solo, there’s more pressure on you than ever. It’s more isolating than ever because as you point out, the pandemic has made it more difficult to do the most basic sort of socialization, things that make you feel better like going out and hanging out with your friends. Even going to the gym hasn’t been a given these days. What about you, Jody?
I’m slightly different. After Labor Day, I’ve been going back to the office every couple of days, 2 or 3 days a week, and alternating on that and being at home. That has helped some but I’ll tell you, before the pandemic, 2 or 3 days a week, I’d go to lunch with somebody and get out of the office and now you have to plan that out in advance. What place has a patio? Where can we go that we can be socially distanced? It happens, but it is a lot more isolated than it was. Zoom conferences are great and they’re as good as they can be but it’s not quite the same as being able to have a hangout with somebody or stick your head in somebody’s office and say, “What do you think about this?” It has been, in some ways, good and bad, but it has been a strange adjustment.
There’s been some good that’s come out of the pandemic. Zoom hearings are here to stay. We’re going to see some efficiencies that are going to come out of that. Chris, the problems that you pointed out at the beginning were all extremely prevalent before the pandemic. It seems like we’re more reliant on technology than we ever have been. I know technology can make us more efficient and make things better and a lot of ways, but I’ve heard you say before, it is a big contributor to the problems that we’ve seen with lawyer well-being.
I want to say, to start talking about the pandemic, I was scratching my head. I can’t think of a more difficult year in my life than this so I thought, “I wonder if this is the worst year ever?” I decided to look it up and it’s pretty close. It’s in the top few of the worst years and it’s a complicated year. Here you have medical, financial, social, and all kinds of things going on that are complicated in 2020. If it makes anyone feel better, look up the year 536. They had a fog that covered the earth. The temperature in the summer was freezing, all of the crops failed, and half of the earth perished. It was the worst year. It’s, in consensus, the worst year ever.
This has been a tough year. For us as attorneys, we’re already at the tipping point and when we’re already at the tipping point with our stress. We can be doing well but all of a sudden, something can happen in the resources and I’m going to say, as a person, I’m in recovery. As an attorney in recovery, I can exaggerate the need for some of the things that I normally went to. I need to see people. Lawyers need to see people. We need to see people process what we’re going through.
We need to get out of our rumination by talking to other people and seeing other people. I feel that 2020 has opened my mind to all the things that I took for granted that I didn’t realize how much they made a difference. Going out to eat lunch with people, going into coffee without it being a scientific experiment to try to find where to go and all that. The daily routines that we had were a big deal. I’m a parent. I have a daughter. Spending six months straight with her without getting a break was unhealthy. We love each other.
There’s a lot of parents out there that know what I’m talking about. We shouldn’t be spending that much time with our children. We should have more variety but it’s also been difficult in many other ways. You all probably have seen this film on Netflix, I highly recommend it, The Social Dilemma. We’re already being manipulated by technology but for attorneys, we’ve used technology in the past as a little bit of an escape in between. Let’s say I’m going over to deposition and I’m sitting in the lobby. I’m going to check Facebook or whatever. We’ve used it as a filler but when we become isolated like this, the technology becomes even more overwhelming. For some background on technology, most of us get, on average, 120 new emails a day.
That’s a study that shows that we’re averaging, as professionals, 120 new emails a day. A study indicates that the average American is getting 94 text messages a day. The average person in the United States is looking at their smartphone 150 times a day. This is unbelievable with what this is doing to us. If I went to my mailbox 150 times a day, my neighbor would call the cops on me. We’re doing this on our phones all the time and we’re spending 24 hours a week on the internet. Lawyers may exceed that and during the pandemic, you can check, I’ve added 1 or 2 hours to my daily average on my phone on-screen time. Part of that maybe because I’m checking Twitter.
To kid around, I’m going to weigh 270 before they get to the election of 270. It’s messed up. For me personally, as a person that used to have a drinking problem, it’s messed with my boundaries on eating. I walk into the kitchen at any time and there’s the refrigerator instead of at work where it’s a cooler with some drinks. Everything that you can think of has gotten complicated and to let you know there was a study on what happens to us with quarantine and you’ve already heard the stats on our mental health. A study of 129 people and the only thing they’ve done is quarantined for a couple of weeks. Twenty-eight percent of them after that quarantine showed symptoms of PTSD, and 31% of them had symptoms of depression.
As a human, this is an unhealthy situation and it becomes tedious. I used to go listen to music and Austin’s a great place to do that. I would go listen to music and now people are like, “Come to my Zoom Show.” I’m so sick of Zoom, by the end of the day I don’t want to go get on and watch somebody play on Zoom. It’s complicated but I do think this is a good time to confront some of these things that are a problem like technology because it’s been creeping up on lawyers for years and it is a time where it’s essential to try to look at maybe creating some boundaries with that. How are you guys doing with your technology?
I noticed what you’re saying, especially with the election and all the news going on around that. I spent a lot more time on social media, on news sites, and all that and I finally had to put it down and say, “I’ve got to set some limits on this,” because it makes you crazy. Beyond the end of your fingertips, there’s not anything on there that I have the least bit of control over so you’re making yourself crazy scrolling up and down newsfeed trying to see something going on that you can’t do anything about. It is bound to have a detrimental impact on you. Particularly, and this is not unique to the pandemic, but in the last couple of years, especially lawyers, have turned into 24-hour industries, because you can find me 24 hours a day. Thankfully, a lot of people don’t but that option is there.
I think about people that practiced 20 and 30 years ago and that wasn’t necessarily the norm. You could go home and maybe somebody would call you, but probably not. If they sent you a letter it might get in your office in 1 or 2 days or it might not but now it’s instant. People expect responses and that’s the norm that we’ve created. It is a different situation because you’re right, not only do you now miss the ceremonial walking out of your office but even if you still do that, everything else still goes with you, because it’s in your pocket.
I’m glad you mentioned The Social Dilemma, Chris. It’s on my watch list. I haven’t watched it yet, but there’s a book that I love by an author named Cal Newport. He’s written a couple of great books, but the one I’m thinking of now is called Digital Minimalism. The Social Dilemma covers some of the same research that Newport covers in his book because he talks about how social media platforms are designed to keep your eyes glued to them for the benefit of their advertisers. You’re getting dopamine hits by watching to see if someone liked your tweet, Facebook post, or even your LinkedIn post. I’ll tell you when I read that book for the first time, it scared me on how pervasive this is and how all of it’s going on.
Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but this is all happening under our noses. We pay attention to screen time, the function on the iPhone that tells you how much screen time you’ve had over a given week on that device, it is sobering to figure out how much time you’re spending. I subscribe to the view that you have to set boundaries. I do that with sort of mixed success on my own. I’m trying not to send emails or respond to emails during off-hours. I try to set a pretty reasonable structure for my workday, which helps. I’m into trying to develop positive habits.
Once you do that, they can sort of taking over because a habit will help you automate your behavior in a way that will help you avoid some of the negatives here. Like everybody else, Election Day tanked me. In fact, that whole week, I was pretty much shot. It was a complete Twitterfest. I felt informed but also, I’ll tell you even now, it’s still a buzz on Twitter. I find that the messaging going on there from either side is so negative that it brings you down. It distracts you. I’ve thought about deleting all the social media apps from my phone, which was one of the things that Newport has to do in his book. That’s a hard step to take.
One of the suggestions that I’ve heard is that it’s almost impossible for attorneys who often have a presence with their businesses on some of these platforms but it’s sometimes impossible for us to stay off too much. I do think, if you use your desktop instead of your phone, you’re so much less likely to spend a lot of time. If you have an emergency, you can always get on safari and do it the old fashioned way through the web browser. It’s making it harder for yourself to get lost in it is one thing. It seems like some people have suggested that and it may make some sense like what you do with your refrigerator. If you want to eat healthily, fill it with healthy foods. Delete some of the apps that you struggle with and maybe put some apps on there that are healthy hobbies of yours if you like.
Escapisms are sometimes healthy to get out of what you’re stressing about. Video games, music, and things that are a little less of that social mental health ego thing. Part of what people struggled with as attorneys before social media came along was we were comparative thinkers. We’re concerned about what people think about us because our art and trade are to delight a judge into doing what we want or to persuade a jury to do what we want or to do an appeal to convince someone. We’re concerned about our image. It’s part of our business model. That’s also why we struggle with mental health problems because we don’t want to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable in this business can come back to haunt you.
I want to share, I thought that talking about my history with depression or my drinking problem could be fatal to my practice whenever I was practicing law. I talked about it whenever I was still practicing. It was the opposite. Clients and people see it as, “He overcame some things. He’s a real person. He’s strong or something.” I couldn’t see it from that perspective. Likewise, with civility. Civility is a mental health tool. Some of my heroes are some of the kindest lawyers. They’re happier and they also win more because somehow their kindness to other people and even their adversaries get them further than the other tactic.
There is a lot of attorneys awakening to some of this. You would be surprised how many attorneys now attend support groups and go to therapy. We talked about how you would think I was nasty if I never went to the dentist but why are we thinking that I’m crazy because I go to a therapist. It’s maintaining the most important organ we have. That’s changing too. People now are saying, “I’ve got to go therapy, I’ll see you later.” There was a time when that was a super-secret.
The bar associations are emphasizing lawyer wellbeing and wellness. The American Bar Association has led the way on this. The Austin Bar has focused a lot on it in the last few years and is trying to help not only educate their members but also provide some of those healthy outlets and alternatives to going to happy hour, for example, that can help with a lot. With those efforts, we’re starting to see some cultural change and also not only with respect to there being no less of a stigma in, say, going to therapy, taking an antidepressant, or whatever it may be, but also on the civility side. I’m seeing a lot of positive peer pressure.
Maybe it’s not the best strategy, but I see people getting called out for being jerks pretty regularly and the courts don’t seem to be tolerating it. Lawyers who have risen to leadership positions in their firm aren’t tolerating it, because it’s not the right thing to do for starters. The other thing is there are some people who have talked about this Rambo litigation tactic to help or benefit your client. The answer is no. If we get away from those strategies, it would be healthier as a profession and I don’t think our clients would suffer for it.
I feel that maybe in the next chapter the next big movements are going to be well-being and civility intertwined to talk about if I’m doing well and someone is refusing to give me a 30-day extension on a deadline, I’m probably not going to cuss them out, flip out, or whatever. I used to be afraid. When I was practicing in Lubbock, I’d be afraid of drawing an adversary from Dallas because I felt they were going to be so harsh and they weren’t going to be willing to give me an extension.
All it took for me, no matter what city an attorney was from, is the possibility of another case with that person, and all of a sudden our behavior seems to improve. That’s why smaller communities and people are a little less harsh because they know they’re going to have to deal with a person over and over again. I appreciate what judges seem to be doing. They’re not tolerating the games as much anymore. If you file a motion for sanctions now, it better be well-grounded. It’s going to lose you a lot of respect for doing so unless it’s well-founded.
The whole nature of the practice of law and the dynamic between the adversary system is a component of mental health. I can’t tell you how many attorneys have called me because another attorney filed a motion for sanctions. It caused a mental health crisis. It’s not a nice thing to do to people. If they haven’t been abused over and over again but when you start saying, “We’re going to ask for you to pay $15,000 in attorney’s fees, because you made a mistake.” Those things affect our well-being. Everybody is starting to say, “Let’s step back here, and let’s create a better environment for us to do this because we’re already stressed out. Do we need to be bullies? Do we need to be hateful?”
That’s something that I credit a lot of younger attorneys for wanting. Those of us that have been around a couple of decades, we’re willing to go that way. I see that as a positive thing. Likewise, I see the stigma changing with mental health, therapy, and all of the others. There was a time when I was practicing, the first couple of years I was practicing, that you didn’t tell anybody that you’re going to go play golf, ever. You kept that secret because people might think you’re not working hard enough. I know people that are now, “You need to go do some stuff. You need to have some fun or you’re going to burn out.”
It’s an investment for law firms. They don’t want to burn you out and spend a lot of time, money, and investment in you in building skills and lose you because you overdid it. There are some good things. I did want to bring up since we were talking about technology, I have noticed since the pandemic happened, that and I’ve read many articles, drinking has increased because people are home. I read an article that said that there are 20% more people that are struggling with substances because of their work or drinking more from home.
One of the things that happened to many of us, and I wish I was one of these gym rats, but some of the resources we normally had, like the gym, people were losing it because they couldn’t go to the gym. Many of the resources that we normally had that we didn’t think about disappeared. What happens for lawyers is we’re such advocates that our minds are set and our voices in our heads, take positions. We can make arguments on one side or another of everything so we have a lot of black and white thinking.
Many of us have this idea that everything’s messed up and it’s never going to change and that can give us the perspective of hopelessness. I want to say that it’s a good time to look at thinking habits now because the kinds of thought that help us to be good lawyers, thinking skills are also the same things that can give you bad mental health. Taking a position, black and white, thinking all or none thinking, and catastrophizing, are all skills that are wonderful when you’re writing an appellate brief to make everything look one way.
When you’re weaving that into your life and you see all these problems, I want to make mention of a tool that can offset that is a gratitude practice. If you find yourself noticing everything that’s screwed up, take a few days. You could do it for ten days or a week. I highly recommend trying to do it for two weeks but to think of three things a day that you’re glad to have in your life. There’s a lot of research that shows an increase in happiness of 25% by doing this. For lawyers, from law school on we’re trained to spot problems, and at a time when there are lots of problems, it can validate that nothing is going well. I encourage people now to try to think about trying out a gratitude journal.
It’s a great tip. Certainly, we’ve talked about therapy and medication. Those are incredibly valuable and things that everybody needs to consider. Along the lines of the gratitude journal, what are some other ideas and tips that people can do in their time at home that are not as formal as having to go through professionals to maybe help themselves out?
I want to mention at least three things and all the things I’m talking about are complicated but as attorneys, we can pick up some of the best students. It’s nice, as attorneys, to be able to learn new stuff. It’s funny because when you talk about therapy, most attorneys are hesitant, because they’re like, “What if somebody finds out that I went to a therapist?” I want you to know that most attorneys are going to struggle with depression, but depression is the most highly treatable condition that you can have.
80% of people with major depression completely recover from that within 6 to 8 sessions of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Medication can help. You go years with heightened anxiety and it can have an impact on your brain chemistry. Using medicine, science, and therapy. Therapists can be healthy for attorneys because we can debrief. They can help us with our skills. How do I stop negative thinking? How do I stop ruminating? Those skills that you can change and challenge thoughts.
Attorneys are so used to devastating the other side that we become so skilled that we devastate ourselves too. We can cross-examine everything we do. Unless we do gratitude, we can stop building ourselves up. Let me tell you a couple of tips. One, I mentioned earlier, is what therapists do, find someone on a weekly basis that you can connect to and debrief with so you can talk about what you’re struggling with. Many times at a time like this, you’re going to find out shortcuts from that person or you’re going to find out they are also struggling with the same thing. One of the things that are important now is learning the skill of turning off your fight or flight nervous system.
When we get to work or when we’re at home and check our email in the morning, we’re one of the few animals that can be triggered into our fight or flight nervous system by thought. You can be lying in bed at night and imagine what happens is going to happen to you the next day in court. Your heart can race and your body physically responds to your thinking. When you finish in the morning, reading your mail, email, the hearing, or the phone conference that is stressful, remember this, you have activated your fight or flight nervous system. In order to get healthy, you have to turn that off. It’s like a light switch. It stays on. You stay in that until you do something physical to relax. There’s a lot of things you can do physically to relax.
One of them is to breathe and focus on the breath. That’s why meditation is such a big deal for lawyers because we can do that at our desks. In law school, we’re in the 96% for anxiety, and I don’t think it gets easier. One study shows that if you’re in the 90th percentile for anxiety, you can get to almost normal, the 57th percentile, after two weeks of doing breathwork and focusing on the breath for five or more minutes a day. All it is, is we’re turning off our light switch on our nervous systems to where we’re back to the relaxed mode.
For people that aren’t comfortable with meditation, I also highly recommend the old fashioned get up and go for a little walk because after you read your mail, there’s something bad in there. We’re lawyers, that’s how it happens. Something comes in an email or whatever, get up after you finish that, and go for a short walk. Five minutes is enough but it makes a huge difference in your day and at a time like this, it’s probably nice to get out of your house anyway to go do something like that. There are many other things you can do to activate your relaxed parasympathetic nervous system. Many people used to do them and that’s why we’re struggling. Going to the gym is one, yoga, playing music is another, gardening, golfing, or cooking. These are all things that help us to get out of that rumination. That’s a great thing.
The third thing that is a big deal now, I’ve mentioned gratitude earlier. It’s learning how to set boundaries. If it’s with your phone, keeping it as simple as possible because it gets overwhelming if you have too many rules. It’s keeping as simple as possible. You decide a threshold. Do you want to limit yourself to three hours on the phone? Go to screen time and you can do that. You can put a time limit on how much you want each app to be allowed. You can always punch in the code and get more but it’s a shaming thing to set it up that way. You’re like, “I’m going to give myself five more minutes,” but it helps. That’s one thing with boundaries but I want to mention the proactive use of boundaries.
I know a lot of attorneys that have all the intentions in the world to take care of themselves, but they run out of time. You can use your device or your calendar. I have to say, Todd is maybe the most organized I’ve ever met so far on setting this up because I got emailed and everything set up for this podcast masterfully, but you can use that same technology to give yourself about 1% of your life. That’s three hours a week. Put three things on your calendar, otherwise, your calendar will fill up, and you’ll never be able to do anything. If you could do that it could make all the difference in the world. For most people, if they do three things a week for themselves, that evolves into a daily self-care.
Are you talking about blocking self-care time on your calendar?
It can also be self-care in the sense of, we’re isolated, so how about meeting at Radio Coffee? It’s outdoors, so talking to and having some social time. It doesn’t have to necessarily be physical care but those are the kinds of things that can help. I know we’re heading toward the end of this and I know that we have the holidays coming up. What are you two doing for the holidays and how do you manage your mental health during the holidays?
You turned that around on us, Chris. We were going to ask you about it to set the stage a little as we started to wrap up. The message that you have is one that people need to hear all the time, but especially in the month of December. It seems like even if you take away the pandemic, there’s a high incidence of issues that come up with lawyers and laypeople too that you’re in. It seems the lessons that you’ve given us, and we’ll certainly apply on a daily basis, but maybe even more so as we approach the holidays. I have a small nuclear family and probably the best we’re going to be able to do is get together and try to have an outdoor gathering. Maybe in my mother’s backyard where we’re socially distanced. I haven’t seen my mother since before the pandemic hit. She’s also the age where she’s high risk and has some health conditions that are even at a higher risk than age so we’ve had to be careful about that. That’s probably about all we’re going to do until the vaccine is out there and rolling. That’s what we feel safe doing. Nobody needs to contract the virus. It would be a negative for all of us, so far we’ve escaped it as a family, but that’s probably it for us. What about you, Jody?
It’s the same. Normally we have people travel in for Thanksgiving, and we travel out for Christmas. We’re not doing either of those things in 2020 so we’re going to be close to home. We’re going to have to be certainly more intentional about reaching out to people and we have been better even if it’s using Zoom or Google Hangouts to get online with the family that we normally would be able to interact with a person. Sometimes it’s, we’ll set aside Saturday evening and say, “Let’s all get on a Google Hangout at 8:00 and have family come on.” We’ll sit and chat for a couple of hours and catch up and it’s not the same as being in person but it’s something.
Back to the idea of meditation and mindfulness, that’s something I’ve done probably for a few years now and that does make a big difference for me. Once you get in the routine, it’s not hard to keep up because as you said, you can do it for 5 or 10 minutes a day. You can do it for two minutes a day and you can set your Apple Watch to give you a reminder to do it for two minutes a day. It is something that turns off and I got deep into it, personally, and not everybody has to do that. There are apps you can get on your phone, YouTube videos, and all kinds of things.
It’s something that’s not hard to learn, but you can get as deep into it as you want and continue learning it because there are so many nuances. It can be a lifelong thing. The only thing I will say is, and I’ve talked to people and they said this, you be careful because if you do get into it, you may find that you bring up things that you didn’t realize were there, and be prepared to deal with that. I will vouch for that as something that has made a positive difference long-term for me.
We’ve done some family Zoom calls, which the irony of using technology to connect when technology is hurting in other ways. We’ve had more interaction with some of our siblings, my wife and I, and other relatives than we would, otherwise. That’s been a blessing for me. I’m not into meditation, at least not yet, but one thing that affected me when the pandemic hit was not being able to go to the gym because I was doing that quite regularly. I’m still struggling to get back where I was before the pandemic hit, but I’m on my way. It is something that helps with my daily routine and helps me sleep better. It’s a great coping strategy generally that I’m thankful to have.
I know that for most attorneys, the holidays are like hurricane season for bad mental health. It’s not only dealing with in-laws, the crazy uncle, or whatever that it might involve and this is during the pandemic, it’s probably going to look different. Many of us, as attorneys, we’re oftentimes, not always, many have other family members that are our attorneys but many are the only attorney in the family. We have this nature of being, “Chris is the attorney. Ask him the questions. So and so is having problems. Some cousin has a drug problem. Some other cousin is going through a divorce.” Family lawyers make most of their money in December because there’s so much that happens that is negative with family, the stress, and all that thing. It’s also a great thing to mention and to talk about a plan for the holidays.
If you have a mental health plan, for one, it’s not getting stuck somewhere that you can’t get out of for too long. If that means driving your own car to the event, even if you’re married, sometimes we get situated in an unhealthy spot where you get stuck for an entire football game worth the time with somebody that you don’t want to be sitting beside talking to. You could have come up with a need and an errand to run. We should give ourselves permission and forgiveness, to pause and go out of that environment when we need to give ourselves some peace. I know so many people suffer through it and are feeling like they’re in a room with someone they’re uncomfortable with or whatever. We don’t have to be that way. I’ve seen masterful people in my family say, “I’ve got to go to the pharmacy. I’ll be back in a few minutes,’” and they come back two hours later. Those things happen all the time.
I want everyone to consider putting themselves first a little bit for their wellbeing, giving themselves breaks, not being Superman, not having to be perfect, and knowing that it’s hard for everybody. There’s no one thing that can necessarily fix it all but I do think having a plan so when you’re going somewhere and how you might be able to get out. I can tell you from Thanksgivings and Christmases past that there’s a bunch of people in my family that seemed to disappear a lot during these things. Develop that skill, if you’re in the one place that you need to disappear, go disappear.
Growing up, we would always sit out, the kids would always sit outside. When I grew up, I was wanting to go outside again. It was like, “I wish I could still sit at the kids’ table.” These are things that lawyers face. I also do think that we also face financial stresses. Are we going to be able to afford to buy these things for Christmas? Know that you’re not alone. Make a plan to get through the holiday, make a plan to talk to some other people, maybe that aren’t in your family about what you’re going through on the holidays.
We usually ask for a tip or a war story to wrap up an episode but that’s about the best tip. It’s a great way to cap us off. You mentioned earlier Chris, being on Twitter, and I know that you personally are and I know the TLAP has a Twitter account. Would you let folks know how they can follow you and TLAP on Twitter to get more information?
The place we’re most active in is on our Facebook site and it’s Facebook.com/TLAPhelps. On Twitter, it’s @TLAPHelps but our Twitter account honestly mimics what we posted on Facebook here and there. On Facebook, we’ll post programs. We’re going to have programs over the holidays. Also at TLAPHelps.org, there is a button with over twenty hours of different programs, videos on different topics like the ones we’re talking about that could be helpful for gearing up for the holidays or for learning about boundaries or whatever the topics are. If anybody ever needs anything, you can call or text us anytime at 1-800-343-TLAP.
It’s important to point out that sometimes there’s a misperception that TLAP is the State Bar. It’s important to point out that those contacts are completely confidential.
There’s a statute that protects it. We are an agency that’s a part of the state bar but I want you to know, we tell no one anything. We don’t talk to discipline or the other departments other than waving by when I walk past them sometimes. We’re walled off in our own department and we don’t share information with anyone. If anybody’s ever worried about that, you don’t have to tell us who you are, when you call us. We’re not worried. We want to help people and it’s a safe place to get help.
You have a lot of resources that you can help pair people with or direct them to so even if you don’t know where to start or what to do, TLAP is a great place to start if you’re trying to figure things out.
Yes, we can connect people to specialized professionals, groups, peer support and if there’s funding that’s needed for care, we have access to a trust that can help attorneys, if they have financial need.
Thanks so much, Chris, for spending the time with us. It’s extremely useful information that you’ve passed on. It’s important to all of us, for Jody and I to convey to our readers out there that there is help out there if you need it. You don’t have to feel like you’re facing this alone. You don’t have to be the undefeatable warrior day in day out. It’s not worth your mental health to carry that around with you all the time. We’re grateful for you spending the time with us and hope that our readers get some benefit out of this episode.
Disclaimer: This transcript has not been proofread or edited to written-article standards. If you have any questions or see any discrepancies, please let us know by sending an email to email@example.com.
- Texas Lawyers Assistance Program
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About Chris Ritter
Director, Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program
Chris Ritter graduated magna cum laude from Baylor University in 1994 with a B.A. Political Science and Philosophy and was elected Phi Beta Kappa. After law school at the University of Texas School of Law (J.D., 1998), he was a trial lawyer in West Texas for over 15 years until he joined TLAP in 2014.
Most recently, Chris obtained a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Lamar University (M.Ed., 2018). He has been recognized by his peers for his legal accomplishments, including being named a Texas Monthly Super Lawyers’ Rising Star three times. Chris is also in long-term recovery.
During his career, his law practice has included being a solo practitioner, an Assistant Criminal District Attorney, and a partner in two prominent law firms. In his work at TLAP and in pursuit of his master’s degree, he has gained significant knowledge and experience pertaining to mental health and substance use disorders and their treatment.
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