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Self-Care is Key for Municipal Attorneys

​Combine the stressors of the legal profession with the unique pressures of working for a city or town, and you probably have a municipal attorney who could benefit from some extra self-care.

Perfectionism, the professional instinct to identify risks, and the tendency to envision a situation's catastrophic potential can help attorneys succeed in detail-oriented, high-stakes work. But these habits also take a toll on their mental and physical health and well-being, says Jack Pringle, a partner at Adams and Reese, LLP.

"Whether you call it mindfulness, awareness, insight or mental health, you have to be able to have enough space in your head to consider ways to solve difficult problems," he said. "It's simple, but it's also hard to come by if you're too busy and too overwrought, and you haven't been sleeping or taking care of your body."

Pringle cited getting sufficient sleep and engaging in a refreshing activity, such as spending time outdoors, as ways to support personal resiliency. Fatigue across the entire American workforce is real. Forty-three percent of U.S. workers believe they are too tired to function safely at work, according to a new National Safety Council report, Fatigue in the Workplace: Causes and Consequences of Employee Fatigue, which focused on 2,000 working adults.

As the legal profession responds to technological changes, lawyers face new challenges — such as software that allows nonlawyers to do their own legal work, the potential impact of artificial intelligence on lawyers' job security and a greater focus on cutting legal costs.

For municipal attorneys, many of the same pressures exist but come with issues unique to local government. Cities and towns are already facing governance, taxation, regulatory and city planning questions that have arisen as part of the debates over self-driving vehicles, the sharing economy, small cell technology and drones.

"At the public policy level, it's completely overwhelming because, as always, public policy moves a lot more slowly than technology does," said Pringle.

But the public and a city council, too, will benefit from town attorneys who are well-rested and able to manage stress levels.

"There's nothing inherently selfish about self-care," he said. "People who are healthy, thinking clearly and taking care of themselves are going to be much better in the way they interact with their coworkers, the public, town council members and clients."

Some of the professional pressures aren't exclusive to lawyers and can present challenges in various professions.

"In a profession that is even more extrinsically structured than some, in terms of the affirmation we get from our clients and our superiors, what we do depends on doing well for other people, generally," he said. "When so many things are extrinsically based — compensation, advancement, compliments —You're looking to other people to make decisions (judges, for example)."

What happens when an external judge of success offers no affirmation?

"If everything you're doing is extrinsically motivated, that doesn't leave a lot when things don't go well, and it doesn't leave a lot for the other parts of your life either."

Performance at work is only as successful as it is sustainable. Attorneys, like all workers, must invest as much effort in their own well-being as they do in the well-being of the entities they serve.

Pringle will present a session, "When Thinking Like a Lawyer Gets You Stuck (Mental Health and Substance Abuse)," at the annual meeting of the SC Municipal Attorneys Association on December 7. The deadline to register for the meeting is Friday, November 23.