Practicing Radical Kindness in Professional Contexts


By Ryan McLaughlin

Life is short. Emails suck. Kindness helps.

That’s my pithy headline. I’m exploring how email is an easy way to practice kindness and insodoing heal your own anxious personality complex. Before we get there, let’s start at the beginning, with one question for you and one confession from me.

First, I have a question for all of you: do you feel like you practice law with kindness? Or, does that part get sequestered during work hours? In trial, on the phone with a client, drafting an email to opposing counsel, in dealings with the OLPR, etc., is “kind” an adjective that accurately describes your professional modus operandi? If so, tell me more about the quality of this kindness. What does it look like?

The second is a confession about me: this writer, this lawyer turned mediator, this husband, this father to three daughters under 6, this alcoholic proud of four years sober, this 4:30 a.m. guy who does yoga in the basement, this tattoo collector, this Facebook diary-style author, and on and on. My naked confession is that recent events in my life have led me to think hard and humbly about myself as a lawyer and, more importantly and fundamentally, as a human. The Fourth Step in AA is to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” What do I stand for? What are my weaknesses as a person—my vices? What are my strengths? Who am I? Am I kind? Am I humble?

Here’s another confession about me: a week after her birthday, at dawn, on her usual morning jog through the neighborhood, my mom had a massive heart attack and died. She was 50 years old. I was in my first semester of law school. I have the date tattooed on my forearm. There’s a whole journey there, unfolding still. For me, the upshot is this: life is short.

Fast-forward to my life as a lawyer: I struggle with anxiety. Apparently, most lawyers do. According to the ABA, 71% of lawyers surveyed identify as dealing with anxiety. And it’s not just lawyers. I am transitioning away from lawyer-work into mediation, neutral work, facilitation, and coaching. I still feel the anxiety. It’s everywhere.

This article is a meditation on the intersection of kindness and email. Why emails? According to new research, lawyers spend 66% of their day working with email. Email is a common denominator. Our inboxes are also a visual representation of that anxiety: a never-ending pile of work to be done. We’re never there. We’re always behind. Or so it feels.

Kindness—practiced through email—has been one tool I’ve been using recently to feel more connected, less stressed, calmer, happier, more aligned with the kind of person I want to be.

As a result, I’ve been thinking about the intersection of kindness and legal professionalism.

I wrote two articles on LinkedIn. One was called “Why You Shouldn't Use ‘I Hope This Email Finds You Well’ Anymore." Another one was titled “6 Reasons Why My Email Signature Block Now Features the ‘Heart-Hand' Emoji.” Both took the position that we need more kindness. And not stock kindness, but Brené Brown-esque vulnerability.

My curiosity here is self-interested: I want to feel better. I want to infuse more a) authenticity, b) kindness, c) humanity into "professional" life. This applies acutely to lawyers and law-adjacent folk, as we tend to cling very tightly to not only the idea of professionalism, but also worry about giving anything personal (including feeling, emotion, well-wishes) in an email for fear of repercussions—personal, legal, professional, etc. Similarly, I feel that kindness can be a salve for stress, which runs rampant in this profession.

I mentioned my mom. I mentioned my alcoholism.

These are intentional choices and admissions. Something in me feels that it’s necessary to point to the fact that I’m a human first, professional second. We all are. The point seems so obvious. But many times, the obvious things are overlooked, because we’re in a rush to get the next thing done—email sent, time logged, case closed, petition filed. It’s a deluge. You wake up and it begins all over again.

Something in me feels that it’s necessary to point to the fact that I’m a human first, professional second. We all are. 

Email practice is a microcosm. As writer and thinker adrienne maree brown says, “small is good, small is all.” In other words, to discover deep truths, we should look closely at the small, the minutiae. How you manage email might reveal important truths on your life trajectory writ large. Since email is and will remain ubiquitous, it’s low-hanging fruit for discussion and reflection.

You may roll your eyes. Why are lawyers discussing kindness? Why not more serious technical matters?

Recently, a group called “Kind Lawyers” hosted their inaugural “Kindness in Law Forum” on September 8 in Canberra, Australia. The project is a self-described “multi-disciplinary movement of lawyers, mediators, therapists, academics and other professionals who work with lawyers.” Their goal is to change the perception of how law can be practiced. I believe kindness is a formal movement now, in part because, as a society, our anxiety and stress have reached unprecedented levels.

Let’s examine the email. Here is my current paradigm for an email opening:

  1. Standard greeting. Eg. “Good morning or good afternoon or Hi John and Jack or whoever."
  2. Personal comment. Ask something relevant about them, share something personal about me. Eg. “It’s a beautiful fall morning. My windows are open, kids upstairs sleeping, and the double-chocolate chip sourdough roll accompanying my coffee has been reduced to crumbs.”
  3. Address business. “About your settlement offer...”

The important move, for me, is the personal comment. This moves us away from purely transactional. Myrna MacCallum, who was the keynote speaker at this Spring’s Family Law Institute, and the host of the Trauma-Informed Lawyer podcast, spoke of the need to address the whole human being in the practice of law (and life, generally).

The formula is flexible. The point, for me, is to make sure I’m offering something real and human of myself in an email correspondence. Yes, this is a transactional email; and I am also a human being with kids running in the backyard and a neck ache from too many Zoom meetings and dinner plans that need to be creatively concocted in less than 23 minutes. How can we attend to the whole person?

Beyond emails, I am a fan of the first 47 seconds of a professional phone conversation allocated to personal check-in. This applies to meetings as well: “Before we discuss your divorce balance sheet, how are we all feeling?”

Why does this matter? Because if you are working from home, and your child just vomited all over the kitchen floor, and you can hear that from your office, that might affect you. If your sister went into labor the night before and you were up all night, that might affect you. Our lives outside of the email or the call or the meeting affect us. Some say that Covid forever changed the workplace and workforce. Folks are pushing back on employers, articulating more of their needs—pilot projects are popping up around the US, testing 4-day workweeks. To me, this is a resounding validation of our humanity, amidst the backdrop of capitalist pressures to work, work, work!

I was planning to end this article with this quote, these words from poet Joy Sullivan, but I think you should have them now.

“ …the truth of the matter is we’re all up against the clock. It makes everything simple and urgent: there’s only time to turn towards what you truly love. There’s only time to leap.”

I’m advocating that we leap. I’m also encouraging us to start small—with email. Joy Sullivan nails it. The reason to practice kindness—in email and writ large—is because life is too short. There is urgency. Or should be.

Emails suck. Life is short. Kindness helps. 🫶

Ryan McLaughlin is a mediator, coach, and dad-to-three-girls-under-6. For mediation work, he accepts both civil and family matters, from complex commercial litigation to and post-dissolution parenting time disputes. For coaching work, he works with high performers who struggle with stress, work-life balance, achievement anxiety, addictive behaviors, lack of self-worth, and scarcity mindset. In the fathering department, he's attempting finger-knitting, giving baths with no complaints of soap in the eyes, and blocking off all the house plants so the 9-month-old doesn't make a dirtbox of the living room. To get in touch about coaching or mediation, email or text (763) 316-8323.