Legal Career Spotlight: Real Estate Attorney to Stress and Resilience Expert
Paula Davis-Laack is the founder and CEO of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm that partners with law firms and organizations to help them reduce burnout and build resilient leaders, teams, and cultures. She’s a former commercial real estate attorney who left law to pursue a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology, which led her to teach others about the detrimental effects of stress and burnout, and the skills needed to build wellbeing at work. She’s written an e-book entitled Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint to Burnout Prevention and regularly speaks to law firms and organizations about stress and resilience. She sat down to chat with us about her fascinating career path.
Vault: What initially drew you to law school?
Paula: I wanted to pursue an advanced degree of some kind, but other than that, there was not a strong reason—therein lies the first problem. My undergrad is in psychology. I went to college to pursue a degree in physical therapy at first, and I went to one of the top physical therapy schools in the country—then I got into it a little bit, and it wasn’t what I thought it was. I did an internship with a PT clinic on campus and I really didn’t like it at all. It just didn’t connect with me. I had to take a lot of psych classes for pre-PT, though, and I thought they were fascinating. So I switched to psych, and I excelled and flourished in that field.
But what do you do with a psych degree? My options were pretty limited: Going for a Ph.D. in psychology didn’t resonate with me, since I didn’t want to be a therapist or a researcher. But I’d taken a number of constitutional law classes in school as well and liked them a lot, so I decided I might as well go to law school—it was a solid option for a next step. I am the second person in my family to get a college degree, and the first to get an advanced degree, so I didn’t get a lot of career guidance from my family—many of whom are or were business owners, so I grew up in an entrepreneurial world. I knew even back in college that I wanted to own my own business at some point.
Vault: What prompted you to leave your real estate law practice and go back to school for a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology—was it burnout? I'm sensing it might have been burnout.
Paula: It was burnout, yes. Because of the influence of my parents’ business, I wanted to go into corporate or business law, but my first job was practicing both corporate and real estate law at a small firm. I later had the opportunity to go to Michael Best & Friedrich, which was recruiting real estate attorneys specifically. I started in the middle of February and, by the end of the month, I had billed 177 hours. That pace never let up for the rest of my career—real estate was booming and, when I eventually went in-house, the pace continued. The years of accumulated fast pace certainly influenced my path to burnout. I didn’t know what burnout was—all I knew was that I couldn’t handle stress in the same way. Looking back, I identified three warning signs I missed. The first was that I was chronically physically and emotionally exhausted. Even when I took some days off, I never had enough in the tank. There was also chronic cynicism—people rubbed me the wrong way. Outwardly I was professional with my clients and at work, but inwardly I was frustrated. And finally, I felt ineffective—that attitude of “Who cares? Why bother? No one’s taking my advice anyway.” I kept wondering, “Why can’t I get better?” But burnout continues to progress if you don’t deal with it properly. So burnout is what caused me to leave—but I might not have left the profession if not for the health consequences. I’m willing to give a lot for my career, I’ve always been a high achiever, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my health.
Trying to create my next steps was a difficult process. Leaving law and going back to school was not the first thing I thought of. I thought about different careers and a friend said something to me that I’ll never forget: “You weren’t very intentional about going to law school—make an intentional decision about what you want to do next.” So I sat down one afternoon and wrote out a list about what I wanted my career and life to be and to become. Where we get into a trap is when we think about career as a title—instead, I tried to think back to what I actually liked to do, and came up with four or five items. My goal was to craft a career that included these items. I ended up hiring a coach who had just finished the Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at Penn; she explained what it was, and I got very interested in exploring the science of positive psychology. I applied to the MAPP program, and it was a transformative experience. I went to the program in search of that “thing” that would have helped me manage my stress better at work. As soon as we started to focus on the science of resilience, I knew I had found the niche I wanted to develop and bring to the workplace.
The timing was perfect—as I was finishing my MAPP degree, the Army asked Penn to develop a program for its soldiers and family members to help them better address the stress soldiers were experiencing due to multiple deployments. Penn created a train-the-trainer program to teach senior NCO’s and officers core resilience skills to then teach back to the soldiers in their units. The program was a tremendous success, and I ended up working on the Penn faculty for almost four years. Many of these resilience trainings were on UPenn’s campus, but we also taught on location. I went to bases across the U.S., in Kuwait, and South Korea. In 5 years, we trained over 40,000 soldiers, and the soldiers continue to teach these skills in their units today. I also helped to pilot an ancillary program for military spouses. My work with the program ended in 2014, and after that I focused on growing my business.
Vault: You design programs for law firms and other companies to help deal with burnout and bolster resilience in their employees. Can you tell me a little about what goes into these plans and why lawyers and law students in particular might have to pay special attention to their mental health?
Paula: One myth about resilience is it’s just telling people to “toughen up,” but it’s really about empowerment. Resilience is a general performance enhancer that can help people better manage stress and develop their wellbeing. Resilience skills are effective at helping reduce depression, anxiety, and stress and to generally help lawyers better manage change. Resilience and being able to reframe stress is an essential leadership quality, and it’s also an important accelerator for team development. I take a systematic approach to developing resilience in law firms and organizations and have applied these tools and frameworks to individuals, leaders, and teams, and at the organizational level. Importantly, resilience can be built by implementing what I call STRONG strategies—Stress Resilience On the Go. These are small skills that I can teach in a few minutes and that lawyers and law students can begin using immediately. It’s about building a positive culture over time.
Vault: You published an e-book called Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint to Burnout Prevention—can you speak to our professional world's culture of busyness and the effects it has on the individual?
Paula: Especially in the legal profession, you’re talking about being in a highly competitive, complex, global environment, where lawyers are expected to be working at a 24/7, “always on” pace—which is hard to sustain over time. I hope my work allows people to start having conversations about some of the big barriers to wellbeing in the profession. We need to address those in order to meaningfully create a profession that is well. Things won’t change overnight, but hopefully small conversations (and tiny noticeable things) will lead to bigger changes.
Vault: Your current work—with all the speaking, writing, researching, and consulting, plus parenthood—doesn't sound like it's short on stress. How does your personal stress management in your current role differ from when you were an attorney?
Paula: First and foremost, I have help. Lucy is my three-year-old, and her father is amazing. I have a wonderful executive assistant, and I’ll be hiring someone to help me develop various research projects. I’ve also been strategic about collaborating with other people. But I’ve also burned out before, so I know what to look for now. I’m strict about managing my stress, eating, and exercise when I travel. The other thing that helps is that this work is deeply meaningful to me. I never felt that when I was practicing law, and having a sense of meaning can help prevent burnout. I have to be careful, though, because I love it so much I can literally work all the time, and that’s not healthy either. I also compartmentalize my time—when I’m with Lucy, it’s her time. I know a lot of working moms who feel guilty, like they’re always short-changing someone—themselves, their significant others, their children. I don’t feel guilty when I travel. I’m serving as a role model for my daughter—showing her that you can have your own business and do good in the world, but that comes with prioritizing and lots of hard work.
Vault: Finally, any advice for law students and attorneys on finding (and following!) their passions in the face of burnout?
Paula: It’s important to be really intentional in what you want to do. Understand why you’re taking the steps you’re taking, and start having conversations with people who are doing things you find interesting. There are lots of unique opportunities in the wellbeing space, in legal tech, in innovation and design thinking, and more. Start building your network now by going to conferences, participating in social media, commenting on blog posts you find interesting, and asking to speak with people who are doing the work you want to be doing. We love to share our stories! Just be intentional about the avenues you want to pursue. You have an interesting and unique perspective in law school, and there are so many different ways the profession is evolving, growing, and changing. It’s an interesting time to be coming out of law school, and the pathways you have to explore are varied.
Learn more about Paula, stress, and resilience on her website.