Creating Compassionate Community in the Legal Profession

People, for the most part, want to be part of a community, especially a compassionate one. We want to belong to something greater than ourselves. We may desire the support of that community when we struggle even if we don’t specifically ask for it.

The legal profession is no exception. We are people. We have stories. We get depressed. We stress. We cry. We laugh. We grieve. We are all more than our struggle, but when we look at our peers, we are often uncomfortable acknowledging that struggle, let alone a person with a life story.

As a macro community, we have survived common struggles. The struggle of law school. The struggle of licensing. The struggle of wearing or trying not to wear a suit comprised of our client’s pain and suffering. The irony is that those very commonalties are the same struggles that often put us at odds with each other in the most uncivil of ways.  A lesser, but crisis level percentage of us share the common struggle of addiction, problem drinking, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

How do we, as a profession, foster a culture of compassion towards each other when we are often at each other’s throats. A culture of community in which we both take care of ourselves and our colleagues. It is through a compassionate community.

What is a compassionate community? The Center for Compassion defines it as a community in which:

“… the needs of all the inhabitants of that community are recognized and met, the well-being of the entire community is a priority and all people and living things are treated with respect.”

There is a lot to unpack in that definition, but the term that jumps out is well-being. The profession has certainly made progress on that front with regards to the mental health prong. We have partially rolled back decades of drinking culture and mental health stigma, but there is still much to do, solo law to Biglaw.

The profession is nowhere near a tipping point, but breaking stigma and systemic mental health discrimination happen one person at a time, one lawyer at a time, one law firm at a time. In my opinion, most importantly, one story at a time.

Compassionate community is what lies in each of us.  The ability to put ourselves in the shoes of another. The ability to empathize with the individual and collective struggle.

We all have that ability in us, but like resilience, it is something that we sometimes have to refine and nurture to expand beyond what we are comfortable living day-to-day. It may seem counterintuitive, but compassionate communities exist in a state of discomfort, testing barriers of empathy and compassion to keep expanding.

So how do we build and nurture empathy as a skillset so that we can foster a compassionate community? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Integrate empathy-building skills as part of your wellness initiative. Sometimes we forget that we have this empathy skillset when we deal with our struggles and daily life. A firm may have an excellent pro-bono practice, and that is tremendous, but that is empathy on a lawyer-client vertical. Consider how to build it, lawyer, to lawyer laterally.

2. Encourage storytelling, whether it’s at a law school level, state or local bar event, your firm retreat, or new associate orientation. Stories do more than entertain. They put forward values and information within the community. When stories engage us on an emotional/empathetic level, it is again, science-driven, that we remember the takeaways better than when lectured to. In the realm of mental health, this emotional connection is vital because it lets others know that they are not alone in their journey, and that breaks stigma. It is also data-driven science that storytelling changes the brain, tie communities together, and drive those comminutes to be more empathic to each other.

3. Don’t need the first two tools?  Here is the two ask rule. It requires nothing but uttering five words. -“How are doing today? Before the interaction terminates, let them know you are an open ear. The two-ask rule. You just became a part of a compassionate community.

There is so much more to building a compassionate community, but now you have a few tools that require few assets, little time and offer a fantastic reward. The ability to step outside our comfort zones and let each other know we care about each other.