The NCBA Professional Vitality Committee creates sourced articles centered on reducing inherent stress and enhancing vitality in the lives of legal professionals and offers those resources as a benefit for members of the North Carolina Bar Association.

By Michele Morris

In the morning, immediately upon waking, my mind screaming at me: “Get up. Get out of bed. You can do it. You can do this. Get up.” Not exactly high motivation. But I would indeed get up and sit in front of my computer, alone, in my apartment, drinking my first cup of coffee. I still had a small number of paying clients and an appellate brief due date looming. Even though writing it felt like pushing a rock up Mount Everest, I wrote.

It was the fall of 2019. I had relocated from Ohio to North Carolina in 2017 thinking that I could find work and seamlessly transition from a solo practice in Northeast Ohio to W-2 employment in Western North Carolina. After all, I am a seasoned litigator. My skills are easily transferrable, right? Um, maybe not. My income plummeted. I felt frightened and alone. Little did I know then that there was a much greater challenge lurking right around the corner: COVID-19.

By March, the many ways I had learned to network and find work suddenly vanished. No gatherings? What? Plus, everything is on Zoom now. What? How does one do an oral argument on Zoom? How does one conduct a deposition on Zoom? Oh no! It took me hours longer than normal to prepare for my first appellate argument on Zoom. My first Zoom deposition, even longer. My experience of isolation was suddenly thrust exponentially to a whole new level.

Things were challenging on the personal side of life as well. In early July, my mother, in the last stages of dementia, fell and broke her hip. As if things were not already hard enough, I found myself navigating her end-of-life issues without being able to see her, or even enter the assisted living home she resided in. Three months later, she died, and the memories of her last months of life will haunt me for the rest of mine. But life was not done dishing out challenges. Not even close.

Remember that appeal I mentioned earlier? It concerned beneficiaries’ pro se contest of the final distribution of estate assets. In October, the beneficiaries sued me for all sorts of frivolous claims. No joke: now I have to defend myself in a lawsuit too. Will this let up? No. Not yet. 2020 also brought me an IRS audit, angry clients, and massive uncollected invoices.

At this point, maybe you are judging me; maybe you have some fix-it advice that you would like to impart; or maybe you are wondering if I think my particular woes require special consideration from you specifically, or from our profession in general. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 brought us all challenges, personally, politically, and professionally. But I am not asking for your advice, your pity, or for any judgment. I am pulling for compassion. Opening your heart will not make you a part of my story, but it will offer connection, which is what allows progress. I think we, as lawyers, could do less correcting and more connecting.

Why should you care?

Social connectedness contributes to emotional and physical well-being. It logically follows then that those who lack social connection tend to engage in antisocial behaviors, like addictions, that lead to further isolation. This is a universal experience of being human. Lawyers are no exception.

Two recent surveys conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA) showed staggering rates of alcohol use. The survey of nearly 13,000 lawyers, conducted by the ABA in connection with the Hazelden Betty Ford Center (released in February 2016), showed one in five lawyers are “problem drinkers” – double the rate of other professionals with similar education. I honestly question whether my own sobriety impedes my professional opportunities because our profession’s alcohol use is a central marketing tool for many lawyers.

To add to the problem, over the past couple of decades, technology has advanced much faster than our culture has evolved for maintaining connection and community. The ABA study revealed that one in four lawyers struggles with some level of depression, and one in five demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. And that is understandable. The legal profession is hierarchical, and highly competitive. We are only just now scratching the surface of diversity and inclusion. We get caught up in our roles as lawyers: advising, fixing, billing. We are overworked, stressed out, and isolated. Maybe if we spent less time correcting and more time connecting – with ourselves and those around us, especially other lawyers – it would lessen our need to numb out.

We seem to forget that we are people who happen to be lawyers. Connection happens when we relate to one another with empathy, mutuality, curiosity, authenticity, non-judgment and with an awareness that each one of us has intrinsic value. So, consider this moment an invitation to shift your attention even for a nano second from the immediate task at hand to a curiosity about the person behind the lawyer that you are, and the other lawyers with whom you interact. Small, simple acts of connection such as introducing yourself or asking another lawyer their name or how they are doing today with a sincere interest in hearing the answer could improve that person’s life and your own life as well. It might even lessen the need for numbing out.

As one lawyer to another, remember: lawyers also confront challenging circumstances that are difficult to process and seemingly impossible when isolated. It is hard for us to admit, but we all need help sometimes. 2020 brought unprecedented isolation and other challenges to many of us. Thankfully, I was supported through 2020; in many instances, by lawyers and judges whom I scarcely knew.

In the crux of my despair, one of my colleagues randomly called me to see how I was doing during the pandemic. Even though I said I was “just fine,” he pushed for more details. When I shared what was actually going on, he helped me draft a letter terminating a relationship with a client who was not paying me in the midst of complex litigation. This same busy lawyer followed up with me over the ensuing weeks to ensure that I successfully withdrew from that case. This is not an isolated example of my experience with colleagues during 2020.

The care and support of smart, compassionate lawyers who retain humility – and who actively develop their capacity to give empathy – is invaluable. Are you one of them?

“The depth of us all is a presence of indescribable beauty, majesty, intelligence and love. Yet commonly we live on the surface of ourselves, chasing after fulfillment in the external world. This keeps us seeking, but never really finding.” ~ Miranda Macpherson

The preceding article was researched, written, and reviewed as part of the work of the NCBA Professional Vitality Committee (“PVC”). The lead author was Michele Morris of Morris Law Office, Asheville, NC. Please direct comments and suggestions to Erna Womble, Committee Chair, and Holly Morris, Communities Manager. See more of the PVC’s Compendium of articles and blog posts at