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Posted by: Suzanne Craig Robertson on May 1, 2013

Journal Issue Date: May 2013

Journal Name: May 2013 - Vol. 49, No. 5

You. Are. Stressed.

Everyone and everything are telling you to get healthy. But they don’t understand the pressures you are under as a lawyer. Your job is hard and the stakes are high. There is no time. You are s-t-r-e-s-s-e-d. You think it’s just the way it has to be — and there’s research to back you up:

  • Lawyers experience the highest rate of major depressive disorders of any of 104 occupational groups (two to four times that of the general population)[1];
  • Rates of anxiety, phobia and interpersonal sensitivity 5 to 15 times higher than in the general population[2];
  • High levels of suicide and substance abuse[3]; and
  • Significantly lower levels of happiness than their socio-economic peers.[4]

But does it really have to be this way for you? Some Tennessee lawyers have made changes — tough choices coupled with hard work  to improve their lives. It turns out there are as many ways to get there as there are people doing it. This article, with more details online, will look at a few of the ways Tennessee lawyers are choosing to help themselves by making conscious decisions about their health.

Helping Yourself by Helping Others

It’s not all yoga and granola, either. Linda Warren Seely looks into the psychology of happiness and finds that “doing a kindness” has been proven to increase well-being, too. In the book Flourish, psychologist Martin Seligman writes that “what Thomas Jefferson meant by ‘happiness’ is really our sense of well-being — a transitory and subjective feeling that when measured is measured only in the moment. Well-being, on the other hand, is more a sum total of our life satisfaction.” Seligman says that “doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being.”

Seely looks to another book, Gross National Happiness, to learn that “what’s crucial to well-being is not how cheerful you feel, not how much money you make, but rather the meaning you find in life and your sense of ‘earned success’ — the belief that you have created value in your life or others’ lives.”

It’s a short leap for Seely to see the connection between this and pro bono work ... and even bar association membership.

“This theory of well-being … goes a long way to explain why attorneys seem to get such a kick or charge out of doing pro bono work,” she writes. “First, they are doing a kindness. Second, they are ‘learning and growing.’ Third, they are developing new relationships. Fourth, they are engaging in professionalism — belonging to and serving an ideal, equal access to justice, that is greater than they are alone.

“It explains why bar associations grow and thrive as a means of creating community,” she writes. “For many lawyers, both belonging to a bar association and participating in pro bono work provide a much needed refuge from the daily barrage of deadlines, clients and billing requirements.”

What Goes In

When Nashville lawyer Sherie Edwards turned 45 and began to gain weight, she had a sinking feeling that her old eating habits were not going to carry her into the future she had hoped for. Focusing on the role that nutrition plays in overall health, she began a diet of “clean eating.” Clean eating involves eating more smaller meals of lean protein, complex carbs and healthy fats, which keeps blood-sugar levels stable.

Avoiding red meat and sugar and guzzling 16 ounces of water with each of her six small meals, she began to see marked changes. She says she now has more energy, few problems with allergies, doesn’t crave sugar and uh, says “everything runs well (if you catch my meaning).” Take a look at a typical day’s worth of food and suggested resources in her online article.

Like Edwards, Nashville attorney Lisa Ramsay Cole turned the direction of her life when she realized that she was not on her own priority list. “It dawned on me that if I was going to have the health and stamina to continue as a lawyer, a mentor and a leader, my health, and consequently I, had to be one of my main priorities,” she writes. Cole, an attorney in Nashville, put her own well-being in the mix last year with a personal trainer and better diet.

In 22 years of practice, she says, she has found “nothing that gives me clarity, calmness and perspective like an hour with a personal trainer.”

Now she is her own priority, at the top of her list along with her “faith, family and firm.”

“If we can encourage more lawyers to get to the gym and off the couch, off the unhealthy food, off the alcohol,” she writes, “we will all be a lot less stressed.”

(Read Cole’s interviews with Knoxville lawyer Jason Long and Nashville lawyers John Tarpley and Bill Harbison, all of whom have made serious healthy changes in their lives.)

Working Out at Work

Although it would seem that the practice of law contributes to the stress problem, law firms and other employers can help ease stress, too. Comprehensive wellness programs are increasingly more popular, and may include smoke-free campuses, healthy vending machines, breastfeeding rooms, walking groups and health insurance benefits that reward healthy employees with lower premiums or provide health coaches for employees with high-risk behaviors.

But do your homework, warn Knoxville lawyer Scott Griswold and Sarah E. Griswold, a registered dietitian. In a recent article published in Dicta,[5] the Griswolds outline the benefits of such programs and point out pitfalls, too, including that “legal considerations have not been fully explored by practitioners or considered by courts.”

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) should be considered when creating a workplace wellness plan, they say, specifically if your program is incentive-based, such as offering reduced rates for obtaining a certain result.

Tennessee has several statutes to consider, such as Tenn. Code Ann. §56-7-2804, which allows insurers to offer premium discounts and other rewards for “adherence” to progams that promote health and prevent disease.[6] Insurors can also offer rewards for participation in voluntary programs.[7]

Wellness programs as they related to workers’ compensation were addressed by the General Assembly in 2009.[8] Although the statute provides protections for employers and offers incentives to offer worksite wellness programs, Scott Griswold says that the jury is still out. “The legal contours of these programs are still being fleshed out and controlling legal authority is scant,” they write, but that with careful review, practitioners can ensure that clients’ wellness plans will be a positive, not a negative.  

Cancer Happens

Yet even with precautions, Nashville lawyer Mary Griffin will tell you, bad things can still happen. Yearly mammograms, lack of family history of breast cancer, eating organic foods and working out with a trainer did not stop cancer from attacking her.

During Griffin’s treatment, which is ongoing, she says she finds that laughter, losing herself in her work, and support from her friends and coworkers are integral parts of her recovery.

“On many days work was my respite from being cancer girl,” she writes. “I would immerse myself in the law and forget or at least be distracted from thoughts about cancer and my next treatment. My body was often tired but my mind still needed stimulation … I was having trouble with my memory and at times I repeated myself. I normally love multi-tasking and found that to be a challenge with chemo brain. For me, this was devastating. I just didn’t feel like me. The more projects I am working on, usually the happier I am. The effects of chemo are cumulative so by round three, there were days I felt like I was swimming circles in a murky pond.”

She tried to go to the office during that time but found it too exhausting. She began to work from home, which eased the heart palpitations and helped keep her from passing out.

Her coworkers and members of the bar have helped with many acts of kindness, like others who came forward with their stories of their own journeys through cancer. Also, people gave gifts that made her smile; formed a walking team to raise money for cancer research; took her to lunch; visited her in her home, bringing meals; sent cards; put her on prayer lists; and even helped her trim and adjust her wig when it just wasn’t working right.

“I used to think I had bad hair days,” she writes. “They were nothing compared to a bad wig day.”

As an attorney, a wife and a mother, Griffin says she was used to taking care of people and things — and in the beginning of her journey it was hard asking for help. “But I have come to see it as a gift,” she writes. “I have reached out to my supervisors, coworkers and the bar in general and I have gotten help. I have been embraced by the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) Wellness Committee and used the resources of the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP).

“People have said that they don’t know what to do to help,” she writes. “They have asked me what I need. The fact is that I had never been through anything like this experience and I didn’t know what I needed. People just began helping … and it turns out that it was just what the doctor ordered.”

— Suzanne Craig Robertson

Get Help All in One Place

Learn more ways to improve your health during the TBA?Annual Convention, June 12-15 in Nashville. The “Better Next Year” program on Thursday of the convention  includes exhibits, activities and CLE sessions such as:

  • yoga, holistic coaching and healing, chiropractic care, pitfalls of working in an adversarial system, message, stress testing, tobacco cessation counseling, and clinical nutrition consults.
  • CLE:?How to Thrive as a Lawyer, presented by Dave Shearon
  • the annual Race Gestae 5K, with part of the proceeds going to the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program
  • a Step Challenge, sponsored by Geico. All registrants will receive a pedometer!

Contributing Authors

Read personal stories from these lawyers, with tips about what has helped them.

Thanks to the Tennessee Bar Association’s Attorney Well-Being Committee, Kay Caudle,?chair, and authors Lisa Ramsay Cole, Sherie L. Edwards, Mary Griffin, David N. Shearon and Linda Warren-Seely.


What are you doing to improve your health, outlook, or to reduce stress? Add new comment below to let us know.


  1. Sheldon & Krieger, 2004.
  2. Id.
  3. Id.
  4. Analysis by the author of more than 80,000 records from a 15-month period at
  5. “Balancing the Scales: Legal Considerations for Employee-Sponsored Wellness Programs,” by Scott Griswold and Sarah E. Griswold, February 2013 Dicta, p. 14, April.2013.pdf
  6. Id.
  7. Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-8-112
  8. Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-6-110(a)(6), provides that workers’ comp benefits are not allowed for an injury or death under certain circumstances when participation is voluntary.