Burnout In Lawyers with Ilona Salmons [TFLP 122]

This week, I am talking about my interview with Ilona Salmons. She’s actually not a lawyer but she works primarily with mental health in lawyers and other high achievers. In fact, in her doctoral research, the subject of it was burnout in lawyers.

I wanted to share this interview with her because some of the things that we talk about quite a bit are mental health and lawyers, lawyer burnout, and the normalized toxicity in legal workplaces.  

People have a lot of questions about it. Let’s be real, burnout in lawyers is rampant. It’s a huge problem, which is why I’m so excited to share this conversation with you. So, let’s get right to the conversation.

Who Is Ilona Salmons?

Ilona is a licensed psychotherapist, practicing in Los Angeles. Her specialty is in working with workplace wellness. She helps lawyers and other high achievers connect with their work in a way where they can feel like they are doing something fulfilling and that contributes to their overall wellness.

How Ilona Came To Mental Health And Workplace Wellness

Ilona went to UCLA Undergrad, where she studied psychology. Not sure about her commitment to that field, she chose to work in the corporate world. After a while, she decided to go back to school to get her master’s degree in clinical psychology.

That time was a challenging time for Ilona. Aside from the vigorous course, she was also working full-time, and completing hours, as well as other necessary commitments to be able to graduate. It was then, that she started to experience real burnout.

Eventually, Ilona graduated from school and started my practice and getting my hours part-time. Then, as she dug deeper into the research.  All of the research pointed to a toxic environment being the leading cause of burnout.

She decided to go back to school once again for her doctorate, realizing that along with being effective in working with clients, she really wanted to work on proactive stress management and burnout.

 

What Causes Burnout in Lawyers?

Burnout is quite a serious thing that impacts both our physical and mental well-being. It happens in small incremental changes. These changes are so small most people don’t notice them until they get to the point where they start to have those very serious symptoms.  

Stress

Stress is truly how lawyer burnout is caused. The majority of our stressors that cause burnout in lawyers are psychological. This can be having to meet with really demanding clients, a partner who’s yelling at you, or a demanding workload.

When looking at stress, you need to look at three things:

1.      Intensity: It can be a very intense stressor but does not last for a long time, or the opposite. It can still take a toll on us.

2.      Frequency: It can be a small stressor but one that happens frequently enough that affect us, both physically and mentally,

3.      Duration of stressor: If it’s a stressor that lasts for an extended period, how long it’s been occurring is definitely a factor.

Normalized Toxicity

Another factor is the level of normalized toxicity in a legal workplace. Ilona says that a lot of her work with mental health in lawyers involves attorneys who think that there’s something wrong with them.

They think that because they’re not able to tolerate the toxicity in a legal workplace, that there is something wrong with them, and not the workplace. As if they’re not able to tolerate this level of toxicity, that the issue is within them, not with the actual environment.

Healing From Lawyer Burnout

One of the most challenging things about lawyer burnout is that when you do recover, not identifying the person you were before burning out as your true self. That the pre-burnout level of functioning was not sustainable in the first place.

Here’s what you should do to help heal from lawyer burnout.

Making Changes

By removing yourself from a toxic environment, things will start to slightly improve. But, it’s really important to do the work to understand what’s going on for you internally and to address some of those limiting beliefs.

Build Boundaries

The way you set boundaries will depend on who you are, your history, whether you have experienced trauma, the types of traumas, and how resolved that trauma is or not resolved. But remember that you can have compassion for someone, and still set healthy boundaries to protect yourself.

Take Care Of Yourself

It’s important to make sure that you emphasize taking care of yourself internally, like working with a mental health professional or coach to help you identify some of your thoughts and challenges that are potentially making an already toxic environment more emotionally impactful.

Network

Research has shown how camaraderie can help relieve stress and prevent burnout in lawyers. Even if you only have one colleague that you trust, having that validation, somebody to talk to, that you can connect with,  it’s really helpful.

Are You Recovering From Lawyer Burnout and Want A New Career? Join The Former Lawyer Guided Track!

Enrollment is officially open for the spring Guided Track through The Former Lawyer Framework inside of The Former Lawyer Collaborative. If you are interested in getting the support action plans and weekly calls, so you always know exactly what to do, this is the perfect time.

There are going to be two cohorts. One is going to be an evening cohort and one is going to be a daytime cohort. There are 20 spots available in each cohort. The weekly calls will take place at Noon for the daytime cohort and 8:00 PM on Tuesdays, starting February 15th. Both of those times are Eastern Time.

If you’ve considered enrolling in the Collaborative but thought you would like a little bit more support and accountability, this is the perfect time. Head over and see all of the information about enrolling in the Guided Track, what that looks like, what you get when you join the Guided Track.

Just remember that we will be closing enrollment for both cohorts on Friday, February 11th, to give everyone time to come in, get settled, and get ready before the orientation calls. And as always, If you have any questions, you can email me at [email protected]

Connect with Ilona

Website

Mentioned In This Article

Ilona’s Therapy Practice

Former Lawyer Guided Track

Former Lawyer Collaborative

Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.

Hello, everyone. This week on the podcast, I am sharing my interview with Ilona Salmons. Ilona is a therapist. She's actually not a lawyer but she works primarily with lawyers. In fact, in her doctoral research, the subject of it was burnout amongst lawyers. She has deep knowledge in this area and so much insight to share. This week, I'll be sharing this interview with her, then next week, we're going to dive specifically into signs of burnout because it's something that can sometimes be difficult to identify. People have a lot of questions about it. Let's be real, burnout amongst lawyers is absolutely rampant. It's a huge problem. I'm really excited to share this conversation with Ilona with you, so let's get right to the conversation.

Hi, Ilona. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.

Ilona Salmons: Hi, Sarah. Thank you for having me.

Sarah Cottrell: I am really excited to have this conversation. It's a little bit of an outlier in terms of the interviews I do for the podcast because typically, the people who I interview are former lawyers, and that isn't your story but there are lots of connections with lawyers in your story, so I'd love for you to introduce yourself to the listeners.

Ilona Salmons: Yes, I'd love to. My name is Ilona Salmons. I'm a licensed psychotherapist. I have a private practice here in Los Angeles. My specialty is in working with workplace wellness. I really focus on the wellness component specifically because I think a lot of people, when it comes to mental health, they use an illness model and that has its limitations. When it comes to the workplace, I don't want people to just be in a place where they can tolerate their job or get through until Friday, until they have a weekend that they can enjoy. I'm trying to help people connect with their work in a meaningful way where they can feel like they are doing something that makes them feel fulfilled and that contributes to their overall wellness.

In my practice, I specialize in working with high achieving professionals, specifically attorneys, and we'll talk a little bit of how I got into that particular niche, but specifically with attorneys, and high achieving professionals whose life looks good on paper. Sometimes, their life looks perfect on paper but they often feel unfulfilled or like something is missing. We put on our detective hats, we try to figure out what's going on for them, and see if we can help them make some positive changes in their life.

Sarah Cottrell: It won't be a surprise to anyone who listens to the podcast regularly that I wanted to have you on because one of the things that we talk about quite a bit on the podcast is mental health and lawyers, and the mental health of lawyers and many of the ways in which lack of mental wellness is normalized in the legal profession, and all of these sorts of things. I would love for you—and you already mentioned this a little bit—but can you talk a little bit more about how you specifically ended up focusing on the mental health of lawyers?

Ilona Salmons: Sure. I guess a quick history of how I got into the mental health field in the first place. I went to UCLA Undergrad, studied psychology there. I really loved it. I wasn't quite sure that I wanted to commit to this field for the long term, so I worked in the corporate world for a little bit, then I decided to go back to school to get my master's in clinical psych. At that point, I was working full-time. I was doing a quite aggressive program in the evenings. I finished my program in a year and a half. It was a very challenging time for me. In addition to working full-time and being a full-time student, I also had to complete hours and things outside of both of those commitments to be able to graduate. I started to experience what burnout was. At that point, I had already taken an interest in it. What was fascinating for me was that even though I knew it and I knew what the red flags were, and I knew what the warning signs were, I couldn't prevent myself from falling into burnout and experiencing a lot of those symptoms.

What else was really interesting for me is that in all the classes that I was taking in my master's program, burnout was never discussed. Stress was maybe touched on a little bit but nobody discussed burnout. I was having this very real experience with it in my personal life, so I tried to read everything that I could read, learn everything that I could learn, and just really try to understand what burnout is, this big monster that has all these different components associated with it. Try to understand it from the research side because it is one of those terms that is used in our daily language. A lot of people say, “I'm burned out.” I think very few people understand what it actually means. Unfortunately, the few people also include the clinical professionals, medical professionals, and so on. I tried to really educate myself on it.

I graduated from school. I started my practice part-time, getting my hours and all of that part-time, then as I dug deeper into the research, I decided to go back to school to get my doctorate degree. The reason for that is because all the research that I read really pointed to the fact that the largest causal factor in burnout is the environment. A lot of the information out there, especially the articles that you read or blogs that you read from people who are not professionals in the mental health field, a lot of the advice is like self-care practices, things that we can do to avoid burnout or to feel better. But the research really suggests that you can be the most zen person in the world that does all the right things when it comes to self-care but if the environment that you work in is toxic enough, it's going to take a toll on your physical and mental well-being.

At that point, I realized that not only do I need to be effective in working with my clients and my practice, I wanted to be really proactive when it came to stress management and burnout, and to have the training, the ability, and even the title to be able to go in some of these law firms and be taken seriously, to go in there and to impact change because I didn't just want to be the person who is helping people go through a crisis once the crisis occurred. I wanted to be the person who's at the forefront, who's talking to the decision makers, who's talking to the leadership at these law firms and in other toxic workplace environments, and helping them understand that if they do not make changes, their employees will burn out. Their employees will have a very tough time mentally and that will ultimately impact the well-being of the firm, and the well-being of the company.

Unfortunately, you really have to present it to a lot of companies in this way. Sometimes, they don't care so much. I hate to say that, but they don't care so much about the well-being of the individual until they understand the toll that it can take on the firm. Then when you do something, like in the field of law where there's a very low error tolerance and you can lose a lot of money for your company by making a mistake, the firm starts to pay attention, they start to understand why the mental well-being of their individual contributors can have a very positive or very negative impact on their company's bottom line. I went back to school to get my doctorate. I specifically focused on burnout in the legal profession and the best practices for managing burnout. We can talk more about that as well.

Sarah Cottrell: Yes. So many things that I want to touch on. The first is, and it's so interesting, the way that you were talking about burnout and how most of the popular literature around burnout is along the lines of like, “Oh, meditate and do these various things,” that, like you said, are very like an individual taking particular actions. One of the problems that I think we see that's entrenched in the legal profession is that thinking about how burnout works is also the way that these large law firms and other corporations approach burnout, which is like, “Oh well, you can avoid burnout if you, as the individual, do the right combination of supportive self-care things.” I think that anyone who had any experience in those environments and is paying attention can see that it's really not about, I mean yes, obviously, individuals taking care of themselves is important but to your point, it's knowing about burnout, knowing what causes it, and taking care of yourself as much as you can. All of those things don't actually prevent burnout if the environment is one that produces burnout.

Realistically, when we're talking about large law firms, part of the model is a model that burns people out. I think that is so important for people to hear because I don't know if you encounter this but I find that many people, lawyers, feel guilty when they're experiencing some form of burnout. They feel like they've somehow missed the magic formula that would have prevented them from having that experience. Is that something that you have seen?

Ilona Salmons: Absolutely. It's exactly how you described, because a lot of this toxicity—I think it's especially true for Biglaw, notoriously a very demanding place to work—but a lot of this toxicity is normalized. It's like the saying, “A fish doesn't know that it's in water.” It's just so prevalent that if you're the one who's struggling, you feel like it's something that's wrong with you and not something that's actually an issue in the environment. Again, it's very normalized. It's communicated in this way, like the law is challenging. Or when I was interviewing attorneys for my research, a common phrase that came up, it was almost like they all talked to each other beforehand—and certainly, they didn't because they worked in different firms—but this common phrase kept coming up and several attorneys refer to the field of law as the nature of the beast, so they would tell me something that's happening.

As a mental health professional and as a person not in the field of law, I'm listening to these stories and I'm thinking, “This is outrageous.” or “This is absolutely wild.” But then they would rationalize it with, “Well, it's just the nature of the beast.” What's interesting about that phrase is obviously, there is no beast. It's just a collection of choices that people make. Because it's so normalized, if you're the one who's struggling, you think that it's something that's wrong with you. A common thing that happens with a lot of my clients who come see me, a lot of attorneys who come see me is that they think that there's something that's wrong with them. That they're not able to tolerate this level of toxicity, often, some level of interpersonal abuse, whether it's from partners or colleagues or attorneys on the other side. That they think that they're not able to tolerate it and that the issue is within them, and not that the issue is with the actual environment.

This is very much like victim blaming in the community that if you can't tolerate it, it's your fault. It's also a little bit of gaslighting as if there's nothing actually wrong with the environment and it's the issues with the individual. What's interesting is that a lot of attorneys struggle. We know this based on the research. There have been several studies that have been done that have compared the well-being of attorneys to other equally prestigious, equally demanding professions. They found that on those studies and various measures, including mental well-being, substance abuse, and so on, attorneys are typically far worse than their counterparts in other fields. We know statistically that there is something that's going on but because people are not allowed to talk about it, they think that they are the only ones who are struggling. It creates this dissonance, this emotional dissonance that if I'm struggling, then I'm looking out in the external environment around me, and everybody looks like they have their stuff together but I know what I'm experiencing internally, again, I'm more likely to attribute it that this is my issue. But what's actually happening is that these discussions are not held on the public platform.

When it comes to attorneys specifically, they have a lot of pressure to look like they're strong and to not hint at any type of weakness or any type of shortcoming that could potentially make them a target, including within their team, within their firm because there's a lot of competition internally to make partner for instance, and certainly not with the opposing counsel. There's a lot of pressure to always look like you have your stuff together. Everybody feels that pressure. Everybody's putting on the facade, then they close their doors and they cry in their office when no one's paying attention. Nobody knows that a lot of people are having this very common experience because it's not talked about. That further exacerbates the issue.

Another big challenge in the legal field is that this “work hard, party harder” mentality is emphasized as a positive thing. You see a lot of substance abuse in the legal field because a lot of attorneys go to, for instance, happy hour after work, then after that, they come back to work late into the hours. There's a lot of substance abuse that's used as a coping mechanism to self-medicate because again, it's frowned upon, it's looked as a weakness if you get mental health support, so you are required or you're left to be able to cope with the feelings however you're able to cope. For a lot of people, they turn to substances. They turn to substances to help them relax in the evening, so they can fall asleep. They turn to substances to help them perk up in the morning so that they can focus on their work. They turn to substances so that they can work these extreme hours. One of the attorneys I interviewed said he went through a period of time early on in his career in Biglaw where he worked for 23 hours a day and only slept for one hour for a period of several weeks. That is wild but you hear a lot of these stories in the legal field.

Sarah Cottrell: I literally, everything that you said, I agree with. When you were talking about this experience that people have of feeling like they're the only ones, I mean that is one of the main reasons that I created Former Lawyer because I felt like you had this environment where there were so many lawyers who felt the same way, who were in distress, yet felt like they were the only ones and there was something wrong with them. Like you said, part of it is that there is so much gaslighting and normalizing of misery. One of the most popular episodes of my podcast by far is an episode, the title of the episode is Your Job Should Not Make You Cry. I think it just speaks to the reality of the profession that of the hundred plus episodes of the podcast that have been released, that is one of the most popular by far.

It came directly out of my own experience of working at a law firm and finding myself crying at my desk or even if I was at home and I would get an email from work. Often, the email itself was fine but just that experience is a very universal experience. People often have questions like, “Okay, but what is burnout and what does that actually mean? How does that intersect with mental health?” I've heard people say things like, “I'm not depressed. I'm just burnt out,” or “I don't think I have an issue with anxiety. I'm just burnt out.” Can you speak a little bit to what burnout is and how it intersects with those other things, and essentially, if people downplay what they're experiencing and saying, “Oh, it's just burnout,” is actually looking at it through the proper lens?

Ilona Salmons: Thank you for that question. To just answer the second part of it, to minimize burnout is probably not the right approach. Burnout is quite a serious thing that impacts both our physical and mental well-being. We'll talk a little bit in a moment of how burnout is defined in the research because that's important. Like you said, it's a term that people use on a daily basis. We'll discuss how it's defined in the research, but how burnout comes about is as a result of chronic stress that has been unaddressed. There are small incremental changes to our well-being day-to-day. It's like your hair growing. You don't notice that your hair is growing but six months from now, if you don't cut your hair, it's going to be much longer than it was before. Burnout is like that also. The day-to-day changes are so small most people don't notice them, until they get to the point where they start to have those very serious symptoms. At that point, it's already too late.

Now, that's not to say they can't get help. Of course, they can. But once a person is burned out, it takes a lot more time and effort to get them out of that burnout. It's like you fell into a big hole and you have to climb out of it versus using a more preventative approach to prevent people from getting burned down in the first place. Again, I want to discourage people from minimizing the term burnout because it has very serious implications, both for our physical and mental well-being. It's as a result of chronic stress. I want to talk about stress for a brief moment because it's how burnout is caused. I think there's a lot of misinformation about stress also. Stress in and of itself is not a negative thing. Our body is capable of responding to stress. It's evolved to respond to stress. Stress is actually a positive thing. Our body has the ability to respond to stress because if there's something stressful in the environment, all these mechanisms kick into our body, both physically and mentally to allow us to deal with that stressor. It really is a survival mechanism.

Stress in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, the environment that we live in now versus the environment that our brains and bodies evolved in is vastly different. The majority of our stressors today, especially in the US, especially for attorneys, are just psychological stressors, really demanding clients, a partner who's yelling at you, a demanding workload or crazy billables that you have to meet. There are a lot of psychological stressors. The thing with psychological stressors, especially in the workplace as compared to the academic world, is that they never end. A lot of my clients struggle when they get into the field of law because in law school, especially if they're smart enough, which a lot of attorney hopefuls are, they're able to hack the academic system. They cram before an exam. They work really hard for a paper but then they have these pockets of opportunities to just relax and catch up with sleep, and do some self-care and so on. But when they get into the legal field, they find out that it's basically like finals week every single week with these clients that are incredibly demanding. They don't have those same breaks in between to take care of themselves. That's what contributes to chronic stress.

When we look at stress, we really need to look at several measures. The first is the intensity of the stressor. It can be a very intense stressor but does not last for a long period of time. It can still take a toll on us. The frequency of the stressor is also important. It can be like a small stressor but one that happens frequently enough that will take a toll on us, again, both physically and mentally, then the same is true of duration if it's a stressor that lasts for an extended period of time. The reason why these three measures are important is because our body is capable of handling acute stress, which is short-term stress, but it doesn't have the resources to handle this ongoing stress. All sorts of things happen again physically and psychologically.

The way that burnout specifically is defined in the research is it's defined by three interrelated dimensions. The first dimension is exhaustion. This is typically the most common one that my clients talk about because it's the one that they notice the most. It's physical and emotional exhaustion. Sometimes, my clients will say things like, “I'm getting enough sleep but I'm still tired all the time.” They're feeling emotionally depleted. Often, they're feeling on edge with people because they're already at their wit's end and any small thing will set them off, so they're just feeling incredibly depleted. It's like they can't fill themselves up fast enough because all their energy is being depleted through some other area.

The second component of burnout is inefficacy in the workplace. That's the component that's really focused on their work product. That's one where people typically can look at more objectively, so they notice if they are missing deadlines more than they used to before or they're not as efficient with their work or often, they even get feedback from others that they're making more mistakes that they used to not make before, that dimension is specifically focused on the work product. It's one that can be looked at more objectively.

Then the third dimension is cynicism. Cynicism specifically pertains to our relationship or attitude toward our work and specifically, in an interpersonal context, it could be the clients that we work with or the colleagues that we work with. That one is, of course, especially concerning for attorneys because having a good bedside manner I guess is important for lawyers to be able to listen to the needs of their clients and to be honest with what is there isn't possible for that particular client but especially in certain fields of law, to have compassion for their clients, to help support their clients, make sure that their needs are getting met. Often, attorneys will come to me once they're burned out. They just have a very negative attitude, probably even more so than typical or acceptable in the field of law toward their clients and toward their client demands.

Burnout exists at the intersection of these three components. Again, once a person is burned out, it really takes quite a bit of time to get them out of that. At that point, simply leaving the job—while I'm not discouraging it and I think for a lot of people, it makes sense. I'm also not saying that you absolutely have to quit—but that in and of itself is typically not going to make somebody feel better overnight. That's because the person is so depleted, it's going to take time and effort to get them back to the pre-burnout level of functioning. One final thing that I want to say about that is that often, my clients who are burned out are also high achievers, which is what got them in that mess in the first place because they want to do a good job. A lot of their personal identity is very closely tied to how they're performing at work. That's for all sorts of reasons. But often, they struggle to get back to how they used to perform before, which in the legal field and in Biglaw specifically, is simply not sustainable.

What I really try to help my clients understand and the message that I really try to give to anybody who will listen to me when I speak about burnout is that the pre-burnout level of functioning was not sustainable, which is what got you in this mess in the first place. There do have to be changes that are made. Now, of course, if you work in a toxic environment where these things are just expected and you are expected to operate at that level, you're going to get burned out again, even if you get yourself to a point where you feel better because the demands are just incredibly unreasonable. But in addition to that, if it's also pressure that you're putting on yourself, you simply cannot function at that same level. Part of the work that I do is I try to help my clients understand if and where there's wiggle room to delegate things or to take things off their plate that they're really exercising that muscle, which a lot of attorneys hesitate to do.

Sarah Cottrell: Like you said, one of the things that I think is most challenging about the experience of burnout as a lawyer is that, to your point, even if you are able to recover, I think many lawyers identify the person that they were pre-burnout, like the level of over-functioning that they were experiencing pre-burnout as like, “Well, that's my true self.” It can really be a struggle to let go of essentially, “I'm a person who over functions in response to stress,” because it often becomes a part of people's identity. When you were describing the three dimensions of burnout, I'm sure there are some lawyers listening who are thinking like, “Aren't you just describing lawyers exhausted and inefficacy at work, and cynicism?” I think that speaks to the toxicity that is normalized, not just in Biglaw firms—although certainly also in Biglaw firms—but often in the profession in general.

I have a couple different directions that we could go but one of the things that I would talk a little bit more about is you mentioned, if you're in an environment that has created the circumstances that have caused you to burnout, leaving that environment while that still may be helpful is not all that is required in order to recover. I would love for you to talk about that a little bit more because another thing that I've observed, and I also experienced this myself, was lawyers will be in a situation, a work environment that's very toxic. Of course, they feel like, “Am I even allowed to think this is toxic because really isn't this just normal and this is just the way it is,” like you said, the nature of the beast, but often, people are in that environment. They say, “Oh yeah, I'm totally burned out but it's just my job. Essentially, if I wasn't in this particular job, then I wouldn't be experiencing this.” It's almost a sense of like it's not 100% real because they are holding on to a belief that if they got into a different environment, that it would go away. Again, I don't want to minimize the reality that getting out of a toxic situation can create a much better environment in terms of recovering from burnout, but can you talk a little bit to this idea that I know some lawyers have of essentially, “Yeah, I'm burned out but it's just this particular job. I still need to be doing this job. Essentially, I can just ignore the fact that I'm burned out because it's essentially a temporary thing”?

Ilona Salmons: Sure. You're absolutely right in everything that you said. I agree with your observation. There may be some truth to that, that again, by removing yourself from a toxic environment, things will start to slightly improve. But as it happens in any situation, whether you're getting out of a toxic workplace or toxic interpersonal relationship or toxic romantic relationship, sometimes the symptoms really hit you after the fact because you have a lot of resentment or a lot of anger for allowing yourself to be treated that way or for having somebody who treats you that way. You start to let your guard down at that point because during this entire period where you're at this workplace and it's very toxic, your adrenaline is up pretty high. You've learned to get your nervous system activated in that way to be untouchable in a sense or, at least, to feel like you're untouchable, like this belief that you said that well, it's just the workplace and I'm perfectly fine otherwise. But it does take a toll on us.

Sometimes, people don't really notice all the symptoms or even allow themselves to feel all the symptoms until they get out of that toxic workplace. A lot of things can hit them after the fact that they're going to need to address something that they didn't realize. But it's also like, if I can use the analogy with physical health because sometimes those are objective and easier to see, it's like if you have a sprain and you say, “Well, it's not broken, so I can still run on it,” where you're going to continue to hurt yourself until you might get yourself to a point where you're going to need to have surgery or to stay off of it for an extended period of time or you might even cause permanent damage where that part of the body isn't going to work as well as it did before. It really is important to take our physical and mental health seriously in that way.

Human beings are very resilient. That is an absolute truth. We can make change. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be in this line of work, but it's also important to understand there's a lot of toxic messaging around mental health, like this belief. I think it's also very prevalent in the field of law and it's also very prevalent in a lot of these self-help motivational gurus who are all about putting yourself through some abuse because somehow, it's a measure of character. This belief that what doesn't kill me makes me stronger, it's a very toxic belief because what doesn't kill you may make you stronger on the other side of that but it can also cause all sorts of long-term physical and mental issues that are going to take decades to potentially resolve. It really is important to check in with yourself and see, “Is my belief a defense mechanism? Am I telling myself everything's okay?”

Like people who say, “Oh, everything's okay. I'm perfectly fine. Nothing's wrong,” even though a lot is wrong or “Am I telling myself everything is okay because I've done the work and I've learned to detach myself from this workplace?” Maybe see it for what it is to know that it's going to require a lot of work and effort but you don't have a personal attachment to it. You're not personally impacted when a partner gives you a document that used to be a white page and that looks like just a red page with all the markings that are on it, and so on. If you're actually not impacted by it, because you've done the work to figure out how to be healthy in this type of environment, that's one thing. But I think for a lot of people, that's not the truth. I think they're pretending like it doesn't matter. They're rationalizing it. Again, if the environment is toxic enough, it's going to take a toll on you.

Pre-pandemic, I used to see some of my clients in their office. Again, a lot of my clients have very demanding schedules and it's often impossible for them to get out of the office anytime during reasonable daytime hours. I don't see clients at 2:00 AM, so unfortunately, some attorneys would really struggle to come see me. I used to see some clients in their workplace and on, at least, a handful of occasions, while I'm in there having a session with the client, some senior person comes in and just lets them have it. They know that I'm there. Sometimes, I guess they have a sense of who I am if the attorney told them and sometimes, maybe they don't but there's clearly another person there and they care not at all about this behavior. That's how normalized it is because I think in a lot of other fields, people would, at least, know that it's inappropriate for one adult to talk to another adult in this way or to one human to talk to another human in this way, regardless of age, but I've sat there and I witnessed clients being berated for minutes, and minutes at a time. That took a toll on me. It wasn't even directed at me. It was directed at my clients.

Just really being honest with ourselves and being honest of whether or not it's impacting us, and the work that a lawyer can do, for instance, with a therapist or even with a coach, like yourself, is to really help understand what the limiting beliefs are around that. “Is it just something that I'm going to push through for the next few years because this is very much aligned with my passion and this is the work that I want to do, and I know it's going to get better in a few years, I'm not taking it personally, I'm able to manage my well-being? Or is this really taking a toll on me but I think I can't do anything else because I have $200,000 worth of school loans, law school loans specifically, and I can't make this much money going anywhere else, I'll be a failure if I leave the law, my parents will be disappointed, and I'm going to die alone?” Oftentimes, the thinking is very extreme in this way.

It really is important to, at least, do the work to understand what's going on for us internally and to address some of those limiting beliefs because while the law, especially Biglaw, while it's notoriously very demanding and often very toxic as a result of that, including the adversity that's inherent in the law, which doesn't happen in a lot of other high stress professions, not every law firm is like that. Not every legal job is like that. I have some clients who have moved into in-house counsel, I mean it's night and day, how they're treated there versus how they were treated at their law firm. I have some clients that have moved into some other field entirely that have gone back to school for something else or have moved into finance for instance. Helping lawyers address some of these limiting beliefs that it has to be like this, “It's just toxic and I have to tolerate it,” versus “What are the other options that are out there, both within the law and outside of the law, and what are my limiting beliefs that are stopping me from pursuing that?”

Because what we do know about lawyers is that they are highly intelligent. They are capable of creating success in other fields but what often happens is that in the legal community, there's a lot of prestige around the law school that you went to and the firm that you work at. The amount of abuse that you're able to tolerate, these are stories that people share over drinks and happy hour, the abuse that they tolerated that particular day or week from a partner. Often, people wear a badge of honor. We really have to have more of these conversations to stop normalizing this toxic behavior, to call it what it is, and to help attorneys, as well as law firm leaders and even beyond that, bar associations, which I think they do have a sense of how serious some of these issues are, really understand how prevalent these issues are, that the law does not have to be this way, that we can individually and collectively make a change because, again, there is no beast. It's a collection of choices that each individual makes every day.

What I loved about one of the partners that I interviewed is he told me during the interview that his partners, he and his firm, take their culture of their firm very seriously. He said, “One thing that we do is we intentionally do not hire jerks,” because often, a certain personality is welcome or even highly regarded in the law or if you're like a cutthroat person, often, in finance, I see this also where a certain type of personality is praised and rewarded. They said that they don't do that. They try to hire attorneys who are competent, are good at their job, and don't have to have this huge ego where they're constantly creating conflict, where conflict does not need to exist.

Sarah Cottrell: I think also there is a huge component of narcissism in the legal profession. Both the many of the systems or workplaces are themselves a form of narcissistic system but then also to your point, I think there is a type of personality, narcissistic personality that is often outwardly successful and celebrated in the legal profession. I think that contributes a lot to some of these significant problems that we see.

Enrollment is officially open for the spring Guided Track through The Former Lawyer Framework inside of The Former Lawyer Collaborative. If you are interested in not only getting the support that you would get in the Collaborative, which is 12 months of access to our monthly calls to The Former Lawyer Framework, which is my framework for helping you walk through the process of figuring out what it is that you want to do, private community on Circle with other lawyers who are like-minded and are working on the same sorts of things, all of that plus with the Guided Track, you get a 90-day action plan with weekly items so that you know what to be doing each week, weekly calls with a small cohort, so we're going to have two cohorts. One is going to be an evening cohort and one is going to be a daytime cohort. We will have 20 spots available in each, 8:00 PM on Tuesdays, starting February 15th, and noon on Tuesday, starting February 15th. Both of those times are Eastern Time. If you've considered enrolling in the Collaborative but thought you would like a little bit more support and accountability, this is the perfect time. Go to formerlawyer.com/guidedtrack to see all the information about enrolling, what that looks like, what you get when you join the Guided Track. Just remember that we will be closing enrollment for both cohorts on Friday, February 11th, to give everyone time to come in, get settled, and get ready before the orientation calls on Tuesday, February 15th. One more time, that's formerlawyer.com/guidedtrack. Go there, get all the information that you need. Enroll if it seems like something that will be helpful for you. If you have any questions, as always, [email protected] Now, back to the episode.

Sarah Cottrell: Can you talk a little bit about the intersection between these toxic work environments, the gaslighting, burnout, and trauma? Because I have learned a lot about trauma and trauma, the studies around trauma in the last couple of years. In particular, many people listening may have heard of the book The Body Keeps the Score, for example, which talks about the ways in which trauma can affect us physically. I think there are a lot of lawyers who either come into the profession already carrying some trauma, as many of us do, which can affect their responses to the environment. But also, if you are in a toxic environment, especially when the toxicity is normalized and you're supposed to think it's okay, that can also create trauma. Can you talk a little bit about that aspect of things and what lawyers should be thinking about or aware of when they're thinking about trauma?

Ilona Salmons: Absolutely. That was a great summary and introduction. A lot of us have trauma from experiences early on. Trauma can really be defined in two ways. The common way that most people understand trauma is something that happened that should not have happened. That's the most popular definition. But trauma can also be something that did not happen that should have happened. Often, I find for my clients who are high achievers, they have this second form of trauma that there's some need, it was not met early in their childhood and as a result, they became high achievers to get the attention, the love, the accolades, and all these things to create some control in their life. They become high achievers. That behavior is rewarded. They get good grades in school and they're praised. Their teachers love them, they're top of their class, and so on. Often, that can go on throughout the academic career. Again, for a lot of individuals who choose to pursue law, they are just academically quite smart and capable, so they're able to hold on to this identity of being the smart high achiever as a way to cope with whatever challenges that they experience earlier on. They use it as a coping mechanism.

But eventually, when you get into the law, especially pretty early on and you realize that I've spent all this time, and money in education and I actually know almost nothing at all about being a lawyer is the way that law school is structured. You learn a lot of things but you don't quite know how to be a lawyer. You learn how to be a lawyer once you get your first job or internship. All these challenges came up for them at that moment also, “I thought I was smart. If I don't even have this, then what do I have? I'm not as smart as I thought I was. I'm not as capable as I thought I was.” All these fears start coming to the surface.

I was actually speaking with a client on Tuesday who came across their first challenge at work and all these things bubbled up to the surface. I guess if I could just give one advice when it comes to trauma and the law, it's just for all of us to recognize that we may have some unresolved trauma. Again, trauma has a very broad definition. It doesn't have to be like something life-threatening that actually happened to us, that we may have some unresolved trauma, that the people who are responding to us in this way may also have it. If a partner is just berating you, being verbally abusive, that's typically not a psychologically healthy person. That's typically not a self-aware person. A self-aware, psychologically minded, emotionally intelligent person simply does not have conversations like that on a regular basis, let's say, with other people, so you can understand that. But it's also important to understand that we need to have healthy boundaries to protect ourselves. Especially if we have a history of trauma, we are the ones who are responsible for protecting ourselves.

Typically, if we experience something traumatic early on, again, with this broad definition of trauma that I used and we were not able to protect ourselves, just by the nature of being a child who was not able to protect themselves, it becomes more important for us to set those boundaries, to be assertive, and to protect ourselves as adults. We can have compassion for people like that. We can say, “This person is clearly struggling with something. They have a lot of anger. They have a lot of rage that has been unaddressed.” Because even if you make a mistake, it doesn't warrant that type of reaction or that type of behavior. We can understand that. We can have compassion for the person and at the same time, we can set boundaries with those people. I've had some attorneys who've shared strategies, some of the attorneys I interviewed who shared strategies with what's helped them have a long career in the law.

When I interviewed the attorneys, I was actually very pleasantly surprised and honored that a lot of senior partners wanted to meet with me. When I first sent out this email to thousands of people, I was pretty certain that the senior partners would not have time for a graduate student, would not want to talk to me about this issue but the majority of the people, more than 80% of the people I interviewed were in the law for at least 15 years and over 30% of them were in the law for over 25 or 35 years. They've been practicing for quite a long time. What was helpful was understanding what helped them have a long career in the law without getting burned out or without quitting and moving on to something else.

One of the things that they said is they really learned to navigate these challenges, especially these difficult personalities, like you said, the narcissists and the people with the huge egos, which again, is rewarded in this particular field. It's more prevalent in that way. Often, they seek out a field where that behavior is going to be recognized and rewarded. What they said is they created boundaries, different types of boundaries to limit their exposure to some of these people. One attorney I spoke with said that they would refuse to have face-to-face meetings or even phone calls with the people who were verbally abusive. They would set a very hard boundary with them and they would say, “Moving forward, we will only be communicating via email,” then other certain parties would be copied on that email to set that boundary. Of course, a person can write all caps or whatever in an email but it's not going to have the same effect as them berating you for 15 minutes over the phone or in person. That's a boundary that worked.

I had another senior partner who had actually just retired when I was meeting with him. He said that one thing he learned to do was just to like if somebody is going to go off on a phone call, just let them go off. He said, “Eventually, they're going to exhaust themselves.” He had this just very detached in a healthy attitude. He said, “They're eventually going to exhaust themselves. When they do, then we can actually sit down and do the work.” He just allowed them to have whatever outlet they needed to have because it didn't personally impact him. But it's just important for each of us to identify what our boundaries are and to set those boundaries, and to communicate them clearly so that we are taking care of our needs and that we are not either traumatizing ourselves or re-traumatizing ourselves in those types of environments.

Sarah Cottrell: I think a really important piece of that that I just want to emphasize for the people who are listening is that there are certain behaviors that are just going to be over the line for every person, but in terms of what your individual boundaries need to be around some of this toxic and abusive behavior, like you said, in that particular example, this particular person was able to sit on a call with someone who was enraged and be detached. But depending on who you are, your personality, your history, whether you have experienced trauma and what types of trauma, and how resolved that trauma is or not resolved, that is going to significantly influence the way in which you're able to respond to situations like that.

What I just want people to hear is that you're not a bad person or weak if you need to have a stricter boundary than someone else around handling a particular type of behavior. You're allowed to be a human person who has had all of the human experiences that you have had. If you're someone who's just like, “I just can't deal with that type of behavior,” then that doesn't mean that you're somehow worse or less than the person who, like you described, could let someone who is upset burn themselves out. I think that's really important for people to hear because I think often, there's this expectation that lawyers have of like, “Oh, mind over matter. I can just decide that I'm going to deal with this thing, then I'm going to deal with it.” They don't account for the reality of their lived experience, their own individual nervous system, and all of the things that go to being a human person.

Ilona Salmons: Yes, absolutely.

Sarah Cottrell: Ilona, as we're getting to the end of our conversation, is there anything else that you would like to share with the lawyers who are listening that we haven't had a chance to talk about yet?

Ilona Salmons: I think it would be helpful to just maybe address some coping mechanisms that could be helpful for those who are feeling stuck in the law and feel like they don't have an outlet. For instance, I have a client who has been independent since her teenage years and she depends on herself for all the needs, including financial needs. She doesn't feel like she can just get up and travel the world for a year, and explore what it is that she wants to do, which is fine. A lot of people are not in that situation. They may need to have a more, I guess, thoughtful, deliberate, potentially even a long-term exit plan. What's important in that type of a situation, if you know that your environment is toxic and you need to have an exit plan but it may not happen in the near future, in their immediate future, it's important to make sure that we are really emphasizing on taking care of ourselves, working with a mental health professional to help you identify some of your thoughts and challenges in the legal field specifically that are potentially making an already toxic environment more emotionally impactful. It's important to increase what are called buffers or protective factors against stress.

One of the things that research has shown has been helpful in mitigating burnout is having camaraderie in the workplace. Even if you have one colleague that you really trust, when the partner comes in, yells at you, you can go to their office and just be like, “This guy,” again, you share that with them. They're able to validate your feelings because it's real. They probably heard it from down the hall or they've experienced it themselves. Having that validation, having somebody that you can talk to, that you can connect with, even if it's just one person is really helpful. As lawyers, make sure that you're also documenting things because, Sarah, you made a good point that individually, there are things that we may or may not be able to tolerate, given our history, given our own emotional sensitivity and whatnot, but when it comes to the law, it's quite clear what types of behaviors are crossing the line. If you can't leave your job but you know that there are things that are happening that are wildly inappropriate, make sure, again, you're putting on your lawyer hat for yourself also and you're doing all the due diligence to document those types of things so that should you need to leave immediately to be able to protect your physical mental well-being, you have the data on your side. You're able to, at least, provide for yourself or have the firm support you financially while you find whatever is the next thing, making sure that you're setting boundaries wherever possible.

It might be easier to do now that a lot of people are working from home. I know some of my clients are going back into the office on a more regular basis, but setting boundaries where possible and taking care of yourself in whatever way it is that you need, trying to make sure that you get enough sleep, trying to delegate things in your personal life to other people who are supportive, just reaching out for support and talking to somebody, like Sarah for instance, who can help you understand that if the law is not for you, it's perfectly fine. It doesn't mean that you're a failure. There are so many other opportunities for lawyers to pursue careers in other fields or even in a peripheral field in the law. Just taking some action. Often, taking some action can just give us that little bit of hope that okay, well, it sucks now but it's not going to suck forever because now, I'm taking steps to take care of myself, but just being mindful of all those things. There are things that we can do to mitigate burnout but again, if the work environment is toxic enough, sometimes, those steps need to be making an interview, going on interviews, finding a firm that is more respectful of humans and their boundaries.

Sarah Cottrell: I think that's really, really helpful. Ilona, do you see people only in person, do you see people virtually? Can you share a little bit about your own practice, then if people want to connect with you, where can they find you online?

Ilona Salmons: A big bulk of my practice is seeing people virtually. Currently, there are a couple of clients that I see face to face but it really is on a case-by-case basis just because of COVID. But I have, prior to COVID, and certainly moving forward will continue to have a big bulk of my practice virtually. I practice in the state of California as a psychotherapist but another portion of my practice is that I speak with organizations, I consult with organizations, everything from just doing a one-hour seminar of what burnout is, to consulting with them and providing surveys to their team members or interviewing people more in depth to understand what's going on, to help create just a more personalized support system.

I think the mistake that a lot of law firms make is they do whatever other firms or companies are doing. They invest a lot of time, money in things like, “Let's do yoga class at lunchtime” or “Let's do this other thing here,” but a lot of those things don't work for lawyers because they end up throwing so much money at these benefits that nobody actually uses because they're all stuck behind their desks, trying to meet their deadlines, so it becomes more detrimental because they've used the funds but it has had almost no benefit to the people around them. I help attorneys and law firms come up with strategies that might actually be effective for their particular workplace culture. That's the other portion of my practice as well. I'm happy to do both.

Again, my personal passion is just to help people in all the fields but especially in the law, understand that while things are like this, they don't have to be like this. There's nothing about the legal code specifically right that says that things have to be toxic when we talk about it. There's nothing in there about that. I haven't read everything certainly but we can still practice law and do it in a way that is psychologically healthy, in a way that has more compassion and understanding for all parties involved. Certainly, as a lawyer, you want to do what's best for a client. The other lawyer wants to do what's best for their client. There's going to be some adversity. There's going to be some contention involved, but doing it in a very human way or as human way as possible. The best way to get a hold of me is via email. My email address is [email protected] That's typically the best way to find me.

Sarah Cottrell: Okay, great. We will put that in the show notes, so if people want to find you, they can find it there. Thank you so much, Ilona, for joining me today and having this conversation. I just honestly think we cannot talk about this stuff enough that I really appreciate you sharing all of your expertise.

Ilona Salmons: Thank you so much for having me. I've listened to a lot of the other episodes that you've had where you've really addressed mental health in the field and I really appreciate it. As a therapist, when I talk about it, I'm a therapist so of course, I talk about it, but when I hear other people talk about it, especially somebody who's experienced it firsthand, these are the types of conversations that we need to have so that people understand that it's prevalent. But just because it's prevalent, it doesn't mean it's normal or it doesn't mean that it's healthy. To start, have these conversations of how can we, as individuals, then collectively change the law so that we can still do the work that we love but do it in a psychologically healthier way.

Sarah Cottrell: I couldn't agree more. Thank you so much.

Ilona Salmons: Thank you, Sarah.

Sarah Cottrell: Have you watched my free masterclass, The Simple 5-Step Framework To Identify An Alternative Career (That You Actually Like!)? In this master class, you'll learn the proven framework that I use with all of my clients to help them identify an alternative career. You can watch the masterclass right now, just go to formerlawyer.com/masterclass, sign up, and get the link to watch. Once you've watched, message me or email me and let me know what your biggest takeaway was from the class. I would love to know.