For native New Yorkers like me, complaining is second nature and in this city there is no shortage of stressors to wind us up. Flu season, a spring with a winter-identity crisis, bills at NYC rates, the subway. Add to these, more personal stressors like kids, health, relationships and everything happening on twitter. Public interest lawyers face an additional set of stressors. We serve marginalized, victimized, disenfranchised, traumatized communities.

I run free legal clinics in hospitals as part of a medical-legal partnership that addresses the pressing legal needs that endanger the health of low-income patients. My clients are the victims of trafficking and domestic violence. They are on dialysis four days a week yet ineligible for a transplant, or grappling with a terminal diagnosis. Their health challenges are complicated by the threat of eviction, lack of health insurance or the struggle to navigate myriad complex and bureaucratic social services. As their attorney I am vulnerable to vicarious trauma because it is often difficult to separate myself from the people I serve.

This past year and a half, work-place stressors have been compounded by policies and legislation that attack and threaten these populations most at-risk.  Our clients are under attack: whether it relates to DACA, the Affordable Care Act, sanctuary cities, consumer protection, or trans members of the military, we are scrambling to adjust our advocacy strategies as we wait for the next blow to hit. We are exhausted, drained, stretched-thin, angry, frustrated, more often the bearer of bad news, on the defensive, and at times powerless. It’s no surprise that under these conditions self-care has become a buzz word. And for public interest lawyers, self-care is like drinking water: we know we’re supposed to do it but even with the reminder we never drink enough.  Self-care has always been a necessary survival skill in this line of work. But the attacks and uncertainty under the current administration have resulted in a more urgent need to prioritize self-care. Our well-being – and that of our clients – depends on it.

That context and sense of urgency is what has spurred me to drive self-care initiatives for my organization of 300 employees. And this past Saturday, I had the distinguished opportunity to share my insight during a panel discussion hosted by the National Association of Women Judges, an organization dedicated to achieving fairness and equality in our judicial system.  In addition to members of the judiciary, the event brought together professionals from the private bar, legal services organizations, academia, and business to grapple with pressing social justice issues, including bail reform, the opioid crisis, revenge pornography, cybersecurity and more..

With topics like these on the agenda it was little wonder that when we got to my panel, “Self-Care is an Essential Part of Your Professional Success”, ears perked up.

My fellow panelists included clinical psychologists, a pastor and the co-chair of the American Bar Association’s commission on lawyer assistance programs and judicial assistance initiative. We were all there to talk about maintaining mental well-being while living in particularly stressful times, doing particularly stressful work.

Here were some of the takeaways:

  • Asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness.

Often there is shame and a sense of failure when we fall behind in our work or struggle to fulfill our responsibilities. Rather than allowing the fear of reproach to heighten our stress, asking for help can get us back on steady footing and a place of calm. Furthermore, by sharing our own difficulties we are signaling to our colleagues that it is okay to need help and to seek it out. This helps to foster a supportive and open work environment.

 

  • Create a culture of self-care in your workplace

One of the star sheet cakes from NYLAG’s self care Sheet Cake Party

An effective culture of self-care is created when mental health and wellness is an articulated value of the organization and when staff is encouraged to actively participate and contribute to self-care initiatives.  At our organization, we formed a Post-Election Working Group as a rapid-response to policies which affect our clients, and as a self-care initiative to combat work-related fatigue and burnout. Some of our events have included, diversity potlucks, book club, yoga, phone banking, art therapy, and my personal favorite, a “sheet cake party” inspired by a Tina Fey sketch on Saturday Night Live.

 

  • Exercise self-care when times are easy.

Much of the panel was spent identifying symptoms and addressing strategies to assist individuals in moments of crisis. But as was noted, it is important to practice self-care when things are not so bad. Prioritizing self-care and making time for metal wellness lowers the risk of crisis and also makes us better prepared to cope during challenging times.

 

  • Know what resources are available to you when quick fixes and simple solutions no longer apply.

The New York City Bar Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) is a free, confidential service, available to attorneys, judges, law students and their family members, in New York City, who are struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, depression, anxiety, stress, as well as other addictions and mental health issues. LAP’s confidential hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week: 212-302-5787

Self-care can help to lower anxiety, prevent burn-out, and strengthen our capacity to advocate for clients.  Self-care can also be used as a community-building tool for organizations, leading to higher staff-morale and retention. For me, it can mean going to a rally to keep ICE out of courthouses or reading daily affirmations from Lin-Manuel Miranda.

If you don’t make time to stay healthy, you better leave time to be sick. So take care – and drink more water.