Like many other members of the Philadelphia legal community, I was shocked when I first learned Slade McLaughlin had died. As fellow plaintiffs’ attorneys, whose firms had offices in the same building, Slade and I would speak often.
It seemed Slade had it all: a family he loved and was proud of, a law firm he co-owned that consistently secured incredible verdicts and settlements for its clients, and a sterling reputation locally and beyond as both a force of nature and someone who’d give the shirt off his back to his clients and his colleagues.
But despite apparently having these things in life—and more—that others might look at as signs of a happy life well-lived, Slade died by suicide last month.
The legal profession is merciless
I don’t want to speculate on what caused Slade to do so. But I do feel comfortable saying that the profession he chose, the life of a lawyer, is one that can show no mercy to an individual’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.
That’s in part because we lawyers carry the burdens of our clients as if they were our own.
We take their legal issues with us when we close our laptops, put down our phones, vacation with our loved ones, and put our heads on pillows each night.
We stress over making sure we don’t screw up, resulting in our clients not being able to put food on the table for their families, or having to spend years of their lives in jail, or signing contracts that may force them or their companies into bankruptcy because of a poorly worded provision.
But our clients’ burdens are only one source of the stress we lawyers must contend with.
Among the litany are ornery opposing counsel who seem to pride themselves on making our lives and the lives of our clients miserable. Then there are those external economic pressures that can sometimes be rising tides that lift all boats—and other times be storms that sink those same boats. And, of course, there’s law firm ownership, which brings with it a unique set of stresses, like being responsible for your attorneys’ and staff members’ paychecks, and developing practices that cannot be eliminated with the stroke of a president’s or governor’s pen.
The four pillars of health lawyers must attend to
As lawyers, our days, weeks, and years fly by. It is easy for us to fall into unhealthy habits that exacerbate the effects our career-driven stress has on us and the damage it causes to our relationships. Many of us seem to allow our unhealthy habits to fester so long as we can suppress them enough that they don’t interfere with our ability to serve our clients, resolve their matters, and bring new clients into our firms.
But those habits may damage our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health—the four pillars of health I believe all lawyers must attend to if they wish to be both effective lawyers and healthy human beings who are present for, and active participants in, the lives of their families, friends, and colleagues.
One way we all can honor Slade’s memory is to take care of ourselves holistically and make sure we’re in good physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
What follows are my thoughts about how we, as busy lawyers, can do this.
Some of you might think my suggestions are too simplistic. Others might think they are too woo-woo. I’m no physician, and I’m certainly not doling out medical advice here. No one has all the answers here, and I, without any other qualifications aside from being a lawyer for 38 years, surely don’t. But your failure to take care of yourself holistically—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—will hold you back from being all that you can be as a lawyer, family member, and productive member of society.
While I am taking some privilege and license in giving you my thoughts on what I learned so far during my legal career, it was not without challenges, valleys, and at times, heartache. We all have the joy and burden of the professional human experience. But that experience provides us lessons we can incorporate into our mindset and into our perspective so that we can continue to grow as human beings.
Our weight: Most of us have to work to keep our weight under control. Luckily, even though lawyers like to claim they aren’t “numbers people,” we’re talking basic arithmetic here.
If you bring in more calories than you burn, you’re going to gain weight. If you burn more calories than you bring in, you’re going to lose weight. And if you burn what you consume, your weight will stay the same.
As for the calories we consume, when I hear about someone’s “diet,” I hear something that’s not going to work. “Diet” might as well be a synonym for “failure.” Healthy eating is a lifestyle. It’s not a week. It’s not a New Year’s resolution. It’s a life resolution that becomes part of your everyday life. Sure, you can treat yourself to unhealthy food, but it should be a “treat” and not the norm. No matter what you eat, drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water daily.
Have you gained a few pounds? Consider fasting for twelve, sixteen, twenty-four hours, or a day or three. Fasting isn’t just for Ramadan, Yom Kippur, or the occasional medical procedure. But don’t worry, you’ll have enough food in your gut. Your body will tell you it’s hungry, but physiologically, hunger doesn’t set in until about three days after a meal. Humans can go about three weeks without food—but only about three days without water.
Moving away from the kitchen for a moment, understand that you need to exercise. You need to get your heart rate up. You need to stay in motion. Motion is lotion for good health. Get your physical activity from an activity you enjoy, whether it’s running, tennis, cycling, or simply walking. Also, please use your common sense. I’m amazed when I’m in an airport and no one uses stairs and almost no one carries luggage. Why? I hate to tell you but, yes, pain gives gain.
What are you doing to keep your brain active and your outlook positive? It has to be more than reading the latest Third Circuit decision of relevance to your legal practice, or watching funny videos on social media.
Just like the body, you must exercise your brain with intellectual curiosity. We must challenge our brains by getting them out of their comfort zones. Take on a challenging math problem or difficult text. Read. Play games like chess, Scrabble, and crossword puzzles. Indulge in intellectually stimulating conversation. These are easy ways to exercise your brain. Quite frankly, one benefit of our profession is that it exercises our brains.
Step back and meditate for a few minutes about the thoughts you are having to make sure your mindset and your thoughts are under control and in the right place. What our thoughts are is what we’re going to be. People may say that’s nonsense, but have faith in it. If you have thoughts that are directed in a certain way, that’s where your life will go. That’s where it’s going to manifest. That’s where the energy of your thoughts will take you. And that will be your destiny. That’s why you must maintain mental health and take an audit of the thoughts in your head—only you control them.
Where are you with your emotions? Are you around loving people? Do you love someone? Do you love yourself? I’m not saying you should do so in a narcissistic way, but are you comfortable with you as a human being, as a soul? Are you happy with yourself? Are you happy, period?
With life’s responsibilities coming our way practically every moment of our existence, we need to be happy. That is up to us. That is within our control. We can do things that make us happy. We can surround ourselves with people that make us happy. Again, it’s about mindset.
Have empathy for others. Feel others’ pain. That’s the emotional connection to humanity that we all need.
How about your relationships? Are they healthy? Are they toxic? Don’t play the blame game and hate people. That’s bad karma. If you’re in a bad relationship, take control and move away from it. If something in life isn’t making you happy, move away from it. I know it’s easier said than done, but most of us fail to listen to our guts and our instincts about our relationships.
We all have suffered pain. We have to deal with it and move beyond it. Sometimes, we may need professional help with doing both. But suffering pain and getting past it is part of the human condition. Being a victim to a relationship is usually counterproductive. Only once we’ve preserved and come out the other side can we look back and know we’ve grown positively by dealing with that pain. None of us are exempt from this—it’s just a matter of the degree of pain we’ve had to deal with.
Do you feel connected to the people you interact with daily? Do you feel connected to the world around you?
I tend to believe in a spiritual universe, which naturally wants to connect us. Eventually, you want to get to where you feel connected to others and feel connected to your world. That is spirituality: Being connected to whatever lies beyond, whatever is in our environment, whatever is around us.
Spirituality is also about being at ease because we know that we have behaved with hopefully honor and virtue and dignity, not only in our own actions, but in how we deal with others and accept their actions because that’s their human condition. That gives us a great peace, a great centering, that we know everything is going to be OK. I recently read a quote that speaks to this point: “Ancient [people] worried about dying with honor. Modern [people] worry about dying.”
My feeling about spirituality in the universe is that it’s merciful, and that everything will be fine. As long as we understand that we have choices regarding what we do and what we think. And as long as they’re well-intentioned, and they connect us without separating us, then our spiritual experience will be one of peace and joy.
Pursuing a healthy life is a strength, not a weakness
I’m old enough to remember a time when lawyers wore their poor health like a badge of honor. Increasing waistlines, decreasing amounts of hair, and frequent consumption of, and participation in, life’s vices were the trappings of longevity in an industry that demands so much of a human being.
Those days are gone. Pursuing a healthy life is a strength, not a weakness.
Slade McLaughlin was a friend, colleague, and mentor to many, but a husband and father to a handful. He will be sorely missed by all the people whose lives he touched.
Honor Slade by taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
If a lawyer you know is having problems doing so, particularly mentally or emotionally, please tell them about Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Pennsylvania. Since 1988, LCL has confidentially assisted thousands of Pennsylvania lawyers, judges, their family members, and law students struggling with mental and emotional health concerns. LCL can be reached at 888-999-1941.
If you or someone you know is contemplating injuring themselves, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Finally, although I have no medical qualifications, I do know how to listen. Please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Samuel H. Pond is the managing partner of Pond Lehocky Giordano LLP, the largest workers’ compensation and social security disability law firm in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Reprinted with permission from the May 24, 2022 edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2022 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.