How and Why Lawyers and Law Students Should Start a Gratitude Practice
It's September now, so many of you either started classes or a new job just a week or two ago. Others may not be experiencing such fundamental shifts, but are checking on their billables and beginning the annual panic over whether or not they'll get enough work done in the final quarter to receive their bonus. Suffice to say, it's a stressful time of year.
Since well before the pandemic began, the concept of mindfulness has been slowly but steadily gaining traction in American culture. As former associates ourselves, we understand the pressures and stresses of the profession, including the need to optimize use of every minute of your time. With that same perspective, we can also tell you categorically that no one will benefit more from a robust gratitude practice than law students and/or attorneys. Read on to learn what the benefits are and how you can begin or resume a practice of your own.
The regular practice of gratitude has been shown to decrease the body’s stress response, which in turn boosts immune performance. Studies have suggested it lowers the risk of heart disease, and studies consistently demonstrate that it reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression while linking it to an overall improved mood. It can also improve relationships, both romantic and otherwise, with studies showing that partners who demonstrate gratitude toward each other experience improved happiness and relationship satisfaction. Studies also demonstrate that optimistic people suffer less from the negative effects of aging, and a gratitude practice has actually been shown to shift one’s outlook toward optimism when employed over time. In a profession rife with stress, anxiety, substance abuse, depression, and burnout, the above benefits sound pretty good to us.
So how should a busy attorney or law student go about practicing gratitude? One of the simplest and easiest starting points is beginning the day by saying, out loud, five things you’re grateful for. The time commitment on this one is minimal—it can be done in the shower or even during a commute. Be creative, and dive deep to remember things you might be taking for granted. You’re alive. Even with all of the attendant stressors, the fact that you’re a law student or a lawyer means you occupy a position of privilege. You have your mind, and you have the people you care about. Maybe you just have a hot cup of coffee. We guarantee that if you look around, you’ll find hundreds of little things that have been beneath your notice that you’re actually grateful for. Sure, commutes are annoying, but isn’t it genuinely pretty cool to have access to transportation? Start by naming five things—using your actual voice to do so—every morning.
Another good tip is to put your phone down, or more accurately, to leave it down when you first wake up. For those of you who practice, we know that you need to check your voicemail and emails, because partners are prone to sending things in the dead of night that inexplicably need doing first thing in the morning. Anything that can’t be helped can’t be helped, but we do recommend staying well away from doom scrolling the news or checking your social media for at least the first hour of every day. The comparative nature of social media is just an invitation to a sour mood, and the overwhelmingly negative slant of modern news reporting is a torpedo to a grateful attitude. Leaving that stuff aside for a while—ideally until after you’ve named your five things—will help you establish a grateful and optimistic mood that can persist throughout your day.
Although it does require more time investment, if you can take as few as five minutes to meditate each day, you will feel far better. There has been tons of ink spilled—not to mention audio recorded—on the best ways to get into meditation, and particulars on that front are beyond the scope of this post. All that needs to be said here is that there really isn’t a wrong way to meditate. Just create some space and sit down with the intention to reflect on what you’re grateful for, and the rest will happen naturally. Additionally, many firms have formal support for meditation programs, from free app memberships all the way up to formal, guided events and retreats. Check out Vault Law's wellness rankings—and our firm profiles for specifics—to see the kind of offerings firms have on this front.
Another good tool is to host a monthly gathering. The point, is to schedule time for the people you care about most—be they friends, family, or both—to come together in your presence. This will allow you to remember the things in your life that are far more important than money, school, debt, and jobs. The company of the people you love will always be a wonderful reminder of just how much you have to be grateful for.
We also recommend conducting volunteer and service work in the community where your school or firm is located. Human beings in general have a very strong tendency to only look up—at those who have it “better” than we do by some metric or other—and the comparison leaves us feeling down on ourselves. But the problem of comparison goes both ways. It is good for our perspective and our mental health to remind ourselves that, for others, we are the ones who have it better. Volunteering for those in need helps greatly in maintaining that perspective and fostering a grateful attitude, and it also reminds us just how much good we’re capable of and the different ways we can accomplish it. For attorneys in particular, setting aside time—ideally with the encouragement of your firm—for pro bono work is a great way to use your skills to give back and help out. (Check out Vault Law's pro bono rankings, or the pro bono quotes in the profiles of the firms you're interested in, to get a sense of what firms to target if this is important to you-which it should be!)
In law, as in life more broadly, it’s very easy to lose perspective. When a partner is emailing in your sleep, wanting something ready by morning; when you’re in the crunch for finals prep and it feels like you’re drowning in law school; when you’re sleep deprived and it feels like you haven’t done anything but read and write legalese for weeks on end; when it feels like you know your classmates better than your family; when it feels like you have no time at all for anything but law: These are the times when you’re most in need of some perspective. With a gratitude practice, you’ll be healthier and happier, which will make you a better student and/or a better lawyer. More importantly—and it’s critical to remember that this is more important—it will make you a better friend; a better partner; a more connected, happier person; and you’ll be better able to do good. Start by saying five things you’re grateful for every morning. You’ll be amazed where it can lead.
An earlier version of this article was published in November 2021 and can still be viewed here.