How Country Music Connects to Law

“If you’re going through Hell, just keep going ….
There’s angels everywhere to pull you back on your feet.”
As implausible as it sounds, a source of comfort to lawyers struggling with the pressures of the practice of law was inspired by an Irish toast combined with a quote from Winston Churchill.

The toast is “May you be in Heaven five minutes before the devil knows you’re dead.” Churchill is attributed with saying “If you’re going through Hell, keep going.” According to Wikipedia, citing a 2006 article in Country Weekly by Alanna Horner, these two quotes merged to form the title of the 2006 Rodney Atkins number one country hit “If You’re Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Knows)” written by David Berg, Sam Tate and Annie Tate.

It’s a song about things going wrong in life, and then getting even worse; about hopelessness and despair and hitting rock bottom.

However, the lyrics then take a positive turn:

But the good news
Is there’s angels everywhere out on
    the street
Holding out a hand to pull you back up on your feet …

Then the song advises:

If you’re going through Hell
Keep on going, don’t slow down,
If you’re scared don’t show it.
You might get out before the devil
     even knows you’re there.

It’s a fun tune with a strong message of hope. Work through the dark days to the daylight on the other side. I find it to be relevant to the very serious topic of attorney wellness. (Now admit it, would you have ever had read this far if the headline mentioned attorney wellness?)

What’s the opposite of attorney wellness? Attorney despair? Maybe so. We all have those difficult times that are situational, such as two major trials back to back. What a source of stress looming, appearing larger and more daunting every day. That’s when Rodney Atkins’ song encourages us to just keep moving. It will get better soon. But what if you can’t see that light at the end of the tunnel?

The literature is replete with advice about fixes: work-life balance, meditation, good nutrition and exercise. Many lawyers find substantial benefit from these conscious decisions to improve their lives. That’s a great thing. And then there are the rest of us who don’t eat kale or do yoga or make smoothies with berries and spinach; whose lunch is either something fried or a diet soda and vending machine fare. And we will tell you that, while the lawyer’s life is stressful, we thrive on stress. We love to close that big deal or win that trial. Of the lawyers I spoke with in preparing to write this column, the prevailing attitude was that the stress monster can be a killer, but that “It won’t happen to me.” Yet most know someone who has really hit rock bottom, like license-losing rock bottom or worse.

In fact, the anniversary of the suicide of a colleague a number of years ago is part of the impetus for this column. He was  low-key, meticulous, a good lawyer. I had no idea of his demons until one morning when I saw him drinking out of a brown paper bag from the lower left drawer of his desk as I walked past his open office door. Although, as a young lawyer, I ultimately mustered the nerve to mention it to his senior partner, back in the ’80s, such things weren’t given much attention. Soon after, he took his life.

So how do we avoid succumbing to the stress monster? Search the TBA website for information about the great work being done by our Attorney Well Being Committee. Yes, you will find positive ideas for improvement. But being self-aware is difficult. The American Bar Association recently posted a video, available by searching “ABA speaking out to end stigma,” encouraging lawyers to speak out to end the stigma of mental health issues by contacting their state Lawyer Assistance Programs. ABA President Judy Perry Martinez ended the video with these words: “Seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Please — Don’t wait.” 

The Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program is a great resource. Go to www.TLAP.org, which reads in part, ”If you are concerned about yourself or about a partner, associate, colleague, bar applicant, law student or judge, help is available here. Schedule an appointment. … All calls are confidential and free.”

Who wants to admit “I think I might need help?” Well, the answer is that many bright people do make that admission, but not nearly enough lawyers.

We handle other people’s problems for a living. We aren’t supposed to have problems ourselves.

Well, that’s nonsense. We are human beings in a difficult job. And TLAP provides confidential help available with a mere call. I can’t overemphasize the importance of making a call about yourself or your partner, colleague or friend who is not in the same position you are to see the difficulty she is having. Those phone calls can save lives. Please help yourself or help a colleague before it’s too late.
As Rodney Atkins sings, be one of those “Angels in the street.”

SARAH Y. SHEPPEARD  is a shareholder in the Knoxville office of Lewis Thomason and a Rule 31 Listed Mediator. You can reach her at SSheppeard@LewisThomason.com.

          | TBA Law Blog