President’s Page: Listen. Learn. Be well.

By Paul D. Peterson 

This month I want to take our membership discussion in a slightly different direction and talk about the connection between loneliness, isolation, and bad mental/chemical health outcomes. Although some progress has been made, there is still a stigma around discussing and seeking help for these conditions. I asked our wonderful, internationally recognized Joan Bibelhausen, the executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL), to assist me in this effort.

Joan writes: “LCL offers free and confidential assistance to legal professionals statewide. We are honored to share this page with Paul, who has championed the importance of self-awareness and accessing support throughout his presidency. 

“Are we the loneliest profession? A Harvard Business Review survey says yes, and this was before the pandemic. We strive for perfection—being able to do it all ourselves—yet perfectionism and resisting support and help from others hurts us, our clients, and those we care about. Loneliness and isolation result in far higher than average rates of mental health and substance use issues in our profession. We don’t think as well, we’re not as satisfied in our work, we lose a sense of meaning, we have more health challenges, and we simply don’t feel we belong. The high rate of suicide in our profession is associated with a lack of belonging. Knowing someone else is paying attention and cares is a powerful antidote. 

“As we seek to define our new normal (but beware: there may never be one), can we put our mental health first? What will help us to be our best selves and do our best work? At the top of the list is meaningful connection with others, giving and receiving. This is what we will remember most as we measure what is truly most important in our lives. 

“Please ask for help when you need it. Well-being practices can reduce our risk, but our profession is a difficult and traumatic one. We will still have issues, and it will never be our fault for not doing well-being well enough. LCL offers free counseling to help you navigate that path to belonging and more, and LCL has resources and tools to support you. www.mnlcl.org, help@mnlcl.org, 651-646-5590.” 

It’s no secret that studies and reports over the past decade have shown we are the unhealthiest profession out there. No one is immune from problems with wellness while doing this work, and I am no exception. If we don’t talk about these issues—bring them to the forefront and work on them without attaching stigma—the troubling health and wellness news will continue.

The culture of our profession has continued to demand often brutal rites of passage—the expectation is that every lawyer must endure pain and agony and difficulty, long hours, impossible demands, and daunting expectations to call themselves members of our profession. How’s that working for us? We are on the front lines facing incredible stress, incredible conflict, incredible demands on our time and our psyche. 

The MSBA and its related organizations offer a helping hand professionally for all of us. We have tools to help with lawyer wellness, led by LCL. We are the place where a member can join the great work we are doing across our whole profession. One other way we achieve this is to actively pursue diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the MSBA is blessed to have Erikka Ryan (eryan@mnbars.org; 612-278-6321) as our DEI director. Get to know her. The work she is doing is critical to the future of our profession and the MSBA. The MSBA and our related organizations provide a sorely needed sense of belonging.

Our institutions as defined by our Constitution are under attack. We have taken an oath to support and defend those institutions. At the same time, we should always be looking to improve those institutions, to be sure our institutions represent our greater community. It is in this spirit that we are working with our justice partners to review how we license lawyers and whether (or how) we should keep using the bar exam in that process. 

I am less concerned with who we are today than with who we will become tomorrow. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable when I participate in efforts to focus on DEI and wellness. What I have learned is that if I can overcome my own feelings of uncertainty and anxiety and strive to listen and learn from attorneys from diverse backgrounds trying to share their experience with me—experience that is often different from my own—I become a better ally. I also try to remember that if I feel uncomfortable, how must the people trying to share their experiences feel? Listening and learning and keeping an open mind is an important contribution that all of us can bring to wellness and DEI efforts. But it takes a conscious effort. And it’s not on the people whose experience differs from my own to try to enlighten people like me. It is incumbent upon me to listen. 

Paul Peterson represents families in personal injury and wrongful death cases. His office is in Woodbury and he is licensed in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. He is the proud papa of four above-average children and one outstanding dog.