Lessons in Progress

Making a Plan for Lifelong Learning and Engagement

By Joan Bibelhausen

The seminal report The Path to Lawyer Well-Being identifies intellectual well-being as “engaging in continuous learning and the pursuit of creative or intellectually challenging activities that foster ongoing development.” CLE is a start, what more is there? How does learning help us define and engage with our purpose?

As a new academic year begins, whether or not you are directly involved, we are surrounded by hope and curiosity. If you’re feeling in a rut, it’s a challenging time. The broad range of support through Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL), a free and confidential program for Minnesota legal professionals and their families, is always available.

Learning can also arise from a greater awareness. Try these approaches and see if something resonates with you.


Whatever organizational system you use, somewhere there is a list of tasks; something to do, to accomplish. As you consider each item, what opportunity is there to feel that you have made a connection or a difference? What can we learn from the client or party that helps us feel connected to what we do? Think of that interaction as an opportunity to be present and to engage, for the other person to be heard. Even if you are delivering bad news, think of how you will do that, framing the information within a supportive statement and a plan for hope. Let them know that they may not be happy with what you have to say, and you recognize that and are present. Of course this is not always possible or even appropriate, but sometimes it is and it can make all the difference in how you feel about your work.


In a profession where we deliver bad news and argue for someone not to have something they want; we can become cynical and doubt our purpose and place in the world. Self-compassion can reduce the risk of burnout and other mental health conditions. Supportive touch is one way to engage in self-compassion which allows us to reset and think more clearly. When you’re feeling a stress reaction, take a deep breath, place your hand on your heart, and feel your chest rising and falling. That physical connection allows you to move away from self-criticism. Think about how you talk to yourself when something bad happens, a mistake. Would you talk to a friend that way? If your automatic thoughts are critical, try supportive touch, think of how you would talk to a friend, and treat yourself with that same caring compassion.

Look Up

Often our work requires us to look for the worst that could happen. Whether we strive to protect against the worst or to recover for it, we catastrophize in order to maximize results.  We do not have to become the role we sometimes must play. Flexible optimism allows us to move out of this space at will, but it takes practice and dedication. Here are a couple of exercises:

Imagine the Opposite: Pessimistic thought causes us to view something negative as expected and typical and something good is an anomaly. Optimism allows us to view the good thing as expected and typical. The negative view is the anomaly and we are better able to identify options. When you find yourself thinking pessimistically, can you imagine the opposite?

Positives and Negatives: As kids are returning to school, a common classroom exercise is to identify 3 positive aspects of a situation every time we see a negative one. Try it. We can all go back to school. 


Plan for what you would like to learn. The gap from intention to action can seem insurmountable. What is standing in the way? You simply may not be ready, so how do you go from thinking about it to taking that first step? You may be afraid to be embarrassed by that first step (if I walk into a yoga class, will everyone look at me because I wore the wrong clothes? If I’m exploring a new practice area and ask for guidance will my questions look stupid?). Identify what you would like to learn and break it down. Do you want to do more transactional work? Leave traditional practice? Retire and do something completely different? Where might you start to identify the steps before your first step? 

  1. Think about what interests you. Where can you find materials both within and outside of the law to learn whether this is for you? Gather these resources so they are available when you are ready.
  2. Set a timetable so it’s not always “someday.” If there are people you hope to learn from, start making some appointments for coffee, lunch, etc. You might want to set up a separate calendar with a way to show you are meeting some goals, and spend some planning time in a comfortable space.
  3. Don’t keep it a secret. Create a support network. For advancement within an organization look for opportunities to be seen such as pro bono or committees. More broadly, what skills, connections, and learning opportunities are available in bar and other organizations? Sometimes we have to be reminded to ask for what we need.  


In our profession we react: we have work when someone else has a problem. It can be difficult to be proactive. Because we speak for others, not ourselves, it can be difficult to self-advocate, even with ourselves. It comes down to “what do I need to do my best work?” This can be a scary question because the answer may be “I need to be somewhere else.” Let’s take this in stages.

  1. Change something about your job. Are there ways you can connect more, learn more, move practice areas, and ask for what you need. Who can help you with that? Perhaps your workplace can be enhanced with well-being initiatives. LCL can provide resources. The geographic cure moving just to move may not affect real change. 
  2. Change your job. For reasons inside or outside of your control, you may need to make a change (or an opportunity arises, expected or unexpected). Have you spent more time planning a vacation than your career? This is the time to really think through your values, skills, and interests and how you will be able to do your best work. A coach, counselor, or LCL’s careers group might be helpful here. Law school career services offices are great resources well into your career. 
  3. Change from within. Our profession suffers from higher-than-average rates of substance misuse and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Our stress, because we are often exposed to the most traumatic events in people’s lives, is high. It’s hard to make these internal changes alone. LCL can help. 

However you choose to pursue learning and growth, know that support is available. LCL provides free and confidential assistance to legal professionals and their families on any issue that causes stress or distress. This includes free counseling statewide, peer support, groups, resources, and just someone to talk to. Call 651-646-5590, email help@mnlcl.org, or visit www.mnlcl.org.

Joan Bibelhausen is the executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.