How Lawyers Can Find Equanimity In Crisis

By Meredith Parfet and Aaron Solomon
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Law360 (April 24, 2020, 5:17 PM EDT) --
Meredith Parfet
Meredith Parfet
Aaron Solomon
Aaron Solomon
In the last few weeks, business leaders across America have faced unprecedented COVID-19 related crises: investment firms with significant trading losses; manufacturing companies trying to make sense of new pandemic-related regulations; struggling businesses negotiating bank covenants, employee severance issues, and amended leases.

Name an issue of corporate law and you will find it intensified because of the pandemic. Because crisis is so all-consuming, it is easy for the person (or company) to develop tunnel vision and only see their own issues.

But for the lawyers involved, the coronavirus pandemic has created cascading crises across all areas of their practice. They are left standing in the middle, trying to juggle all of their clients' crises and prevent anything from falling to the ground, while also worrying about the details of remote working and the long-term impact of COVID-19 on their careers.

Much attention has already been paid to helping businesses make choices, manage risk and stay afloat during this challenging time. Little has been said, however, about how to help lawyers survive under the strain of balancing multiple client crises while simultaneously experiencing a crisis of their own.

Just like everyone else, lawyers find themselves navigating COVID-19 fallout encompassing issues related to family, friends, physical health, mental health and finances. In such circumstances it is easy for lawyers to think that they no longer have time for the "soft" aspects of their work, such as advising and counseling, much less to take care of their own well-being.

Many lawyers we've spoken to say that the demands are so great they can only focus on legal matters: "This is just how it goes. This is the job." But it doesn't have to be this way.

Equanimity: How Can We Hold Things More Lightly When our Clients Are in Crisis and We Are Too?

Choosing how we respond emotionally to a crisis can make all the difference. In our work with leaders of all types, we advocate the concept of equanimity. Equanimity, a practice cultivated across religious and cultural traditions, is the ability to hold competing and sometimes opposite thoughts and feelings at the same time.

Picture equanimity like a handful of small pebbles. In times of crisis, frequently our instinct is to grip the handful as tightly as possible. If you're sitting at your desk right now, just try it. Make a fist, clench it with as much force as possible, and hold it for 20 seconds. Now relax your hand. You can still feel the energy in your hand along with your attention directed toward it.

This uncomfortable and distracting feeling is what lawyers grapple with when they hold tightly onto multiple client crises, afraid that something will slip through the cracks.

Equanimity in these circumstances means giving ourselves permission to hold the pebbles in our hands a little more lightly. To say, "I am carrying a lot. I am doing my best. I am human." Focusing on the human aspects of lawyering is key to helping loosen our grip, for our sake and for our clients'.

Stress begets stress (think of the parent yelling at a child to stop crying). But peace begets peace. Here is what that means in practical terms:

Be willing to listen.

Even something as basic as active listening can make a huge difference in how a client experiences crisis — and as their tension reduces, so does their lawyers'. The basics of affirmative listening are relatively straightforward and involve speaking and acting in a way that demonstrates the centrality of the speakers' narrative. Some active listening techniques you can easily begin to use are:

  • Verbalize your concern for what you are hearing ("This must be a very difficult time for you ...").

  • Show that you have been listening ("I remember you telling me last week that ...").

  • Paraphrase, summarize and restate what you are hearing to show understanding ("What I'm hearing you say is ...").

  • Avoid interrupting or prematurely offering solutions — it tells the speaker you don't really care about what they are saying. You don't have to jump in just because the other person pauses for a few seconds.

  • Ask open questions ("What are your concerns right now?") rather than closed ones ("Are you worried about x?") to give the speaker space to communicate in.

  • Call proactively to check in. A quick call just to make sure someone is doing OK can be very meaningful.

Sometimes all of this is simply too much. When you are unable to give your client the time and attention active listening requires, an acknowledgement and preemptive apology — "I'm sorry, I will only have 10 minutes to talk" — go a long way toward still allowing your clients to feel heard even if you have to rush the conversation to a conclusion.

In a crisis, clients will frequently talk to their lawyers every day, perhaps even more than their spouses or children. That makes the lawyer an outlet for not just legal concerns, but of all the emotions that surround a crisis, such as anxiety, fear, guilt, loss and anger. The current global pandemic will certainly exacerbate those feelings. Lawyers cannot forget that part of their role is to be an outlet for their client's stress and fear rather than a source of it.

Set boundaries without anger.

Boundaries are healthy ways of communicating needs to other people. When our needs conflict with those of our clients, spouse, children or friends, boundaries can be difficult to set. But when we fail to set a boundary, especially when we are already feeling anxious, we run the risk of taking out our frustration on people as anger. Holding onto a few boundaries and giving yourself some breathing room will restore a sense of control key to achieving equanimity.

Give some thought to what your limits are. Remember that everyone is not the same, and your boundaries are likely specific to you. Perhaps long hours don't bother you as much as most people, but you absolutely have to have an uninterrupted hour for exercise.

Once you understand your essential boundaries, setting them can be as simple as just saying no, clearly and without overexplaining. It is always hard to say no, but there is no other way to set boundaries. However uncomfortable it may be to set a boundary, not doing so is likely to cause more damage to the relationship over the long term.

You may fear that voicing a boundary will result in undesired consequences. But more than likely, your clients and partners will understand. In these extraordinary times, almost everyone will be able to relate to basic human boundaries.

For example, "I know you are feeling a lot of pressure right now. I am too. I need about 30 minutes to gather my thoughts before we talk." Or, "I have something I can't cancel tonight but I will call you first thing in the morning." And then be willing to enforce your boundaries with yourself as well as others; it does no good to bargain for time with your family if you are going to answer the phone anyway.

Pay attention to compassion.

We're all going through a really hard time right now. One lawyer we spoke to said, "It's like [the clients] don't know how many things we're juggling" because of the COVID-19 turmoil. We reminded him that because everyone is in crisis but everyone's crisis feels unique, it takes a lot of awareness for people to look beyond their own needs. Most people have trouble with that on a good day, and much more so when they are experiencing a crisis.

The antidote for "people just don't understand" is to share our experiences through compassion. To share compassion, take the time to connect with people on a more personal level. Ask basic social questions: How are you holding up? How are you feeling? How is your family? Do you have children at home? Is this a good time to talk?

If someone shares their pain with you, be gracious in your response. Gently acknowledge what they have to say and offer a patient and positive response. No one wants to hear trite, quick-fix solutions.

"I'm so sorry to hear that you're having trouble finding work" is more constructive than "be sure to get your name out there." If you are not afraid to be human with other people and to let them be human with you, you may find that everyone has a little more understanding.

Remember the importance of self-care.

Like most crises, the COVID-19 crisis is a marathon rather than a sprint. It's quite possible that this will be our new normal for some time to come. Decision-making abilities degrade rapidly with stress and lack of sleep, so it's imperative that you take care of yourself. Don't skimp on rest, find time for exercise and fresh air, and block time for nonwork activity and distraction.

In addition to taking care of the basics, try to set some personal priorities. Successfully navigating the crisis (as opposed to being adrift in it) requires knowing where you want to go. Unlike goals, priorities emphasize states of mind rather than external factors, actions or desired outcomes. When you reach the edge of the map, priorities are your guide stars. Some of the questions that you might ask yourself when setting priorities include:

  • What is most important to preserve during the crisis (reputation, connection with clients, momentum on a certain project, etc.)?

  • What traits or characteristics do you want to display in this crisis?

  • If you look back on the crisis in 10 years, what will make you feel like you managed the crisis well?

  • What key relationships do you want to maintain during this crisis (friends, family, business contacts, community)?

Priorities might include relatively concrete concepts, such as "protect employees," "put client relationships first," or "preserve capital." They may also be more general, such as "do what is right for the community" or "act as a leader in my field." A short list of two or three priorities is both simple and clarifying. If you set priorities and stick to them, you will know that you are working on what really matters.

The COVID-19 crisis has imposed heavy burdens on everyone. Maintaining a sense of equanimity helps you and those around you weather it a little more easily.



Meredith Parfet is founder and CEO, and Aaron Solomon is director of strategy at Ravenyard Group.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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