Before Assisting Others


Beth Ford
Federal Defender Services of Eastern Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee

Over the past few months, I have traveled a great deal for work. Even though I have heard the speech dozens of times, I always try to listen to the safety briefing of the flight attendants—it just seems like a good idea when one will be in a metal tube 35,000 feet about the earth traveling at 500 miles per hour. Of course, one of the things that the flight attendants always tell passengers is to put your air mask on first before assisting others. In other words, take care of yourself before you try to take care of anyone else.

I have learned in the past month that the air mask rule is directly applicable to the practice of law, to being a competent attorney, and to being an effective leader. In the legal profession, we all seem to think that we are Wonder Women and Supermen. We like to try to impress each other with the number of hours that we work and how we get by on little sleep. Most of us say that we are in this profession to help others but taking care of ourselves is viewed as a sign of weakness or as having a lack of commitment to the jealous mistress.

The Preamble to the Rules of Professional Responsibility say that the essential characteristics of the lawyer include thoroughness of preparation and practical and prudential wisdom. Lawyers should be competent, prompt, and diligent. Specifically, Rule 1.1 says, “[a] lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” How is it possible to perform competently if one is sleep deprived, impaired by alcohol or drugs, or overwhelmed by stress? Answer: it is not possible.

There is a recent American Automobile Association study that found drivers who miss two to three hours of sleep a day more than quadruple their risk of getting in a crash compared to drivers who sleep for seven hours. The accident risk from drowsy driving is comparable to driving drunk. Would you go to court drunk?

I had an “Arianna Huffington” moment about a month ago, and I decided that I was not doing any favors to my office, clients, the dozen or so organizations that I have found myself committed to, or to my family or myself if I continued the craziness. For me, the craziness is thinking that I have to be involved in everything and thinking that I can save time by sleeping and exercising less. It does not work—and finding myself overnight in a hospital 500 miles away from home was a wakeup call. (The good news is that it was dehydration and exhaustion.)

As a result of my body objecting loudly, I have put together a list of things to try to do on my journey to wellness. I will let you know how it goes, and I would love to hear what you all do to strive for wellness. Because in order to be competent lawyers and effective leaders, we must take care of ourselves to be in the position to take care of others. Here’s that list:

1. Put your family relationships first.
2. Make friends who are not lawyers.
3. Learn to prioritize and manage time.
4. Take care of your health: mental, physical, and spiritual.
6. Do nice things for others and show gratitude to others.
7. Take cleansing breaths at the beginning and end of the day. Try a little meditation.
8. Have a hobby or two.
9. Live beneath your means.
10. Give away time and money.

And—of course—always remember, “Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area. Please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.”

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