Bestselling author, renowned keynote speaker, business mentor, and CEO Adam Markel guests in Legal Speak podcast with Heather Nevitt, editor-in-chief of Law.com. Adam and Heather talk about the utter importance of work-life balance and mental health, and wellbeing in the legal profession. Adam shares his dilemma of becoming a successful lawyer while running on “empty” and ending up with an anxiety attack – an experience he is grateful for because it moved him to examine his life. He also sheds light on the huge contrast between “resilience” and “endurance” and shares practical ways on how you can create small pivots within your day so you can live an intentional life. Discover how letting go of old paradigms, having mindful rituals, and mentorship can help you really live your life and not just win a race.
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Resilience VS. Endurance: How Creating Micro-Pivots Could Save Your Life
We’re exploring the issue of lawyer resilience. I have to admit, I was a little turned off by the whole notion at first. The concept of lawyer resilience to me sounds like an advice to suck it up, pull up your socks and quit complaining about long hours and grouchy coworkers.
That’s far from what we’re talking about. In this episode, Heather Nevitt, Editor in Chief of Law.com’s Corporate Counsel and Global Leaders in Law, talks with Adam Markel. Markel, the CEO of More Love Media practiced law for eighteen years in New York and New Jersey. He built his own firm focused mainly on business bankruptcies, finance and commercial transactions.
Though his legal practice was thriving, Markel was not. He was working crazy hours and often commuting into Manhattan from New Jersey and it wasn’t sustainable.
I walked in the door one night. It was one of these cold, rainy evenings. I walked in and I was dripping wet. I looked at my wife and when I saw her face, I could tell that I had done it again. I missed the kids going to bed. I had not been home for dinner, which was pretty irregular fare for me. I missed the opportunity to even kiss them goodnight or read them a bedtime story. I walked right up to Randi, that’s my wife’s name and I said, “If I keep doing what I’m doing, you’re going to be a widow.”
These days, Markel, author of the book Pivot: The Art and Science of Reinventing Your Career and Life, spends a lot of his time on the speaker circuit, talking to business groups about resilience. By resilience, he doesn’t mean endurance. Instead, resilience involves taking care of ourselves physically, spiritually and intellectually so that we are in the best position to perform effectively and passionately.
The strategy may sound easier said than done, but you’ll hear in his conversation with Heather Nevitt some relatively easy ways to incorporate behaviors into your day to boost resiliency.Being a lawyer puts one in the third-highest profession for suicide, depression and addiction. Click To Tweet
As Heather notes, Markel will be the keynote speaker at Corporate Counsel’s GC Conference in New York. If you’d like more information about the event, we’re including a link in our show notes.
Here’s Heather Nevitt with Adam Markel.
Welcome to our show. My name is Heather Nevitt and I’m the Editor-in-Chief of Corporate Counsel, Inside Counsel and Global Leaders in Law, which are all publications that focus on the in-house counsel community. I’m privileged to have with me Adam Markel. Adam is currently the CEO of More Love Media Inc., a company that works with individuals and organizations to build work cultures of greater inspiration, resilience and connection, which we all can use. Welcome, Adam.
It’s such a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
I want to tell you a little bit about our episode before we get into the discussion. We’re going to talk about the utter importance of work-life balance, mental health and wellbeing in the legal profession. Adam, ALM has started a project addressing this important issue within the legal industry. It’s a project called Minds Over Matters. You’ve talked about this extensively, statistics show that being a lawyer puts you in the third-highest profession for suicide, depression and addiction. Often, this is because of the overwhelming pressure and stress that inherently comes with being in this industry. You know the stress of this profession as well as anyone. You built a million-dollar law firm and then you reinvented your own career path and made what you described as a life-changing decision. Can you please tell us a little bit about that?
I’m going to take us back into the belly of the beast, I suppose. I was an attorney. I was a practicing attorney for eighteen years. My specialty, I suppose at the beginning was bankruptcy law. I started out doing a lot of business bankruptcies. I got to see what was going wrong inside businesses that would lead them to the place where they’d have to file bankruptcy. I did that work for a number of years in New York and in New Jersey. I was also admitted in federal court. My practice ultimately morphed into more finance, commercial work, and then handling some of the litigation that flowed out of some of those commercial transactions as well. I was in a unique place in many ways. I was always lucky enough to have clients. In the beginning, they weren’t always paying clients. My wife used to kid me and said, “You can have all the clients in the world that you want if you don’t charge them.” At the time, it was frustrating to hear her say that, but looking back on it, it was quite true. I had the usual hesitation as many of us do at the beginning of our practices in billing, how to bill and how to manage client expectations and manage people and all of that.
That went along pretty well for a number of years. We were building a family. We were living at the time in New York when I was going to St. John’s Law school. Then we moved across the river, which is a sacrilegious thing to do when you’re new to move to New Jersey in the Jersey Heights. We moved across the river and bought a home and started having a family. In fact, we had two kids while I was still in law school. We have four total. They’re healthy, wonderful big kids, now adults. Things were going along pretty well, but I started to feel at the midway point, maybe seven or eight years in, I started to feel this low-level anxiety showing up for me in the mornings, especially when I would wake up. I’d put my feet on the floor and I wasn’t tired.
I was able to sleep at night, although at a certain point in my career, I had so much on my plate. I had many things going on. I had many balls in the air and many people take care of it. I took that seriously that taking care of all of my responsibilities, even more than I could handle. Frankly, I always had more than I could handle. Many of us know what it’s like to be on that growth edge. I would wake up in the morning and I would feel a sense of dread about the day. I would feel anxiety. I will tell you there were some symptoms as well that were there, but I was ignoring them. I was often tired in the afternoon. Coffee was what became the solution.
I had trouble getting to sleep at night for a while and ended up taking Ambien to do that. That was a short stint for a year or so. It was still something that I was going through. There were these things I would get angry pretty quickly. I’m smiling at the moment while I say that because they think lawyers listening to this, it’s like, “What’s wrong with that? What’s unusual about that?” If you’re outside of the legal profession for any length of time, you realize that anger is not necessarily something that becomes a part of everybody’s day. It certainly was for me. My fuse was shorter. I was generally more irritable and that went on for a long time because I was doing everything I had to do to take care of my responsibilities to my wife, the kids, the house, the cars, the clients and all of it. Until I was waking up in the morning and feeling I wanted to get back in bed. I would look in the mirror and I started to lose my hair. Physical signs of my vitality were dissipating a bit. I was looking in the mirror and thinking, “I don’t even know this person anymore.” I’m watching myself disappear, at least some part of myself. That childlike enthusiasm was dissipating as well. I got to a point, Heather, where I couldn’t do that any longer.
I came home late one night and this is culminating after a series of events. That included me going into the hospital with what I thought was a heart attack. It was a false heart attack that turned out to be an anxiety attack, but it had all the symptoms of the real deal. The doctor told me, “You’ve experienced an anxiety attack.” It was then that my wife and I knew I had to make a change. I had to do something different. I promised I would when I left the hospital that day. I remember looking up at the beautiful blue sky in autumn in Freehold, New Jersey. I said, “Thank you for giving me another chance to do something about this.” I quickly forgot about it because I got knee-deep in everything that was on my plate to do. Six months later, I was back at it, working 80 to 90 hours a week, spending 3 to 4 hours in the car, commuting into Manhattan several days a week. It’s all the same symptoms, but now, they were even more pronounced.
I walked in the door one night, it was one of these cold, rainy evenings. I was dripping wet. I looked at my wife and when I saw her face, I could tell that I had done it again. I’d missed the kids going to bed. I had not been home for dinner, which was a pretty irregular fare for me. I’d miss the opportunity to even kiss them goodnight or read them a bedtime story. I walk right up to Randi, that’s my wife’s name. I said, “If I keep doing what I’m doing, you’re going to be a widow.” She took a breath, that uncomfortable breath. I’m even feeling it right now and she didn’t remind me. I’ve been so blessed to have her as my wife for many years. We just celebrated our anniversary. She looked at me and after taking that deep breath, she said, “We’ll figure it out.” I didn’t have to have the “midlife crisis.” I didn’t have to hit the wall the way a lot of people can. I certainly could have. I didn’t need to move to my feet to quit my job. I had an opportunity to do something different in the moment. I had the opportunity to plan a midlife calling instead of having that classic midlife crisis.
What’s amazing these days is that not only do I get to speak to people all around the world about this concept of pivoting or this concept of reinventing some area of your career or maybe some other areas of your personal life, but I get to see many lawyers, many of my former colleagues in the process. Often, the first question that I sometimes will get asked is, “Do I need to do what you did? If I want to be happy, if I want to have a balanced life, if I want to know have more of what it is that I say that I want to have, do I need to do what you did?” Which is to leave the profession. My answer is categorically, no, you don’t. In fact, if I had the tools, if I had the knowledge, the awareness, even that I currently have back when I was practicing, I could have done some things or made some micro pivots and maybe even some larger changes to the way I was conducting my practice so that my practice could have been an integral part in my future. I wasn’t equipped at the time for that.Grab the opportunity to plan a midlife calling instead of having that classic midlife crisis. Click To Tweet
What I love now is that I get to meet people who are in the throes of it. The unfortunate part of the profession is that statistically speaking, you’re much more likely by being a lawyer to be in that category of people that have challenges with addictions or are dealing with anxiety or depression. Often when we talk about productivity, lawyers have to be productive all the time and many ways judged by that productivity, not just by the clients, but by the people you’re working with, your partners and colleagues and judges and everybody else. You got to be on your best game. When you’re not sleeping well, when you’re not taking better care of yourself, when you’ve not developed skills of resilience and even developed new habits to be more resilient, your productivity falls off. Oftentimes, there are even ethical issues that can result from not being at your best. There’s a long answer to your question, Heather. That’s a little bit of my history.
There are a lot of people out there that live this life. They feel exactly what you’re sharing. I think the importance of someone sharing it with others saying, “You’re not alone in feeling this way.” You aren’t taught in law school how to cope with these types of situations with the burden of making sure everyone is taken care of. We learned how to practice law. We learned how to write a brief, but we don’t necessarily learn how to manage our life or manage other people. I appreciate you sharing that. It’s super relatable for a lot of us. I wanted to come back to something you mentioned. You mentioned the importance of resilience. What is the difference between endurance and resilience? I feel like sometimes the two are confused where you think, “If I can get through this, I’ll be okay.” A lot of us are checking the box type of people. Is that more on the endurance side of the equation than the resilience side of the equation?
That’s such a great question. It reminds me of this old movie that I remember seeing when I was a kid. I’m dating myself, but 1976 was the first Rocky movie. Heather, do you have any idea how many Rocky movies do we have?
I don’t, but I know the first one.
I think there are eight movies, but I could be wrong. The first one was incredible because you have this character, Rocky Balboa. He’s so inspiring to us because he keeps getting knocked down. In the final fight, he gets knocked down, but he gets back up. He wins our hearts, but he loses the fight and he’s banged up. He didn’t look too good at the end. In many, ways the legal profession is very much like that. In fact, early on one of my mentors when I first started practicing law, equated the work that we were doing to that of a prize fighter. It’s an interesting thing that you asked that question about endurance because Rocky is that classic model of endurance. In many ways, that is what’s rewarded in the culture. In part what I would love at some point to be able to speak to lawyers about is the culture that they’re creating, the culture that the curating in their organizations because they’re an organization like any other business. The culture is everything. The culture is stronger than willpower. Yogananda said, “Environment is stronger than willpower.” Culture is stronger than willpower.
If the culture is one that rewards the Night Owls, then you get the Night Owls Award. The problem with that is that it burns people out and I think the legal profession has been a little late to the game and maybe not because when you’re talking about mind over matter, you’re talking about the things that your periodicals are addressing. Then you are thinking ahead to what does the longevity of the profession look like? What does the longevity of the partnership look like? It looks like taking care of the people that are there, enabling them to be at the very best, to be their most productive and to be able to perform at their highest levels. When you look at what would be a great example in a different arena of what creates high performance, look at Olympic athletes or professional athletes. They do not work out all the time. They’re not constantly in the ring of competition. They do that for a period of time and then they recover.
In fact, Harvard Business Review has studied corporate athletes, corporate executives with top-performing athletes and produced a very interesting study on this. All the other research that I’ve seen suggest the same thing. It’s that performance is about recovery. When you think about endurance, why is it a myth? I agree with you that it is a myth. If we think that we continue to run ourselves, run our tank, in many ways, we’re running on empty. It’s like that old Jackson Brown song, we’re running on empty, thinking somehow or another that is going to be able to perform at high levels. The statistics, that data and the research suggests the exact opposite. Ultimately what happens when people start to run themselves down and don’t have intentional recovery built into their habits is that their performance starts to fall off. Their productivity, their happiness, their mental health, all of these things start to deteriorate as a result of the fact that they’re working an old paradigm, which is to endure it. Be the last man or woman standing and that means you’re going to win the race.
Old school lawyers and certain generations, including my own, we want to be the first sitting in your chair in the office and the last to leave after the partner did. I think with this new generation, the Millennial generation, they say, “We need more flexibility and we don’t want to be judged if we are sitting in a chair in an office.” The discussion is coming up more and more because of this new generation in the legal profession.
I think there’s information that contradicts this as well, which is when you hear people like Elon Musk talk about working 110 to 120 hours a week. In many ways, there’s another aspect that is part of the cultural landscape today. That’s aspirational. If you are in the startup space, maybe not in the legal space, certainly working 110 to 120 hours is what is expected these days. It becomes almost an aspirational lifestyle and burnout will happen that much faster. People will be getting burned out by the time they’re 30 years old if they’re running on that paradigm, which may work well for billionaires, who are running companies and want their people working 110 hours a week and smiling as they’re doing it. That may be one thing, but long-term, it’s for sustainability.
When we talk about the legal practice and the legal profession, what’s great about it is it does have a long view. It’s been around forever and it’ll be around forever. That’s a good thing because we need lawyers and lawyers are so much part of the fabric of how this world works according to a rule of law. This longevity is important. To me, what I would have loved to have known as an attorney coming out of law school was this is a long game. This is not a sprint and we want you to be here in 10, 20, 30 years productive, happy, enjoying and even loving your life as you’re also helping many people doing what it is that you went to law school to do.
Because lawyers are very task-oriented and task-driven people, can you give us some practical tools that you’ve developed in your research to help lawyers become more resilient? Are there practical things they can apply every day?
Absolutely. In fact, we have an assessment tool. I’d love to be able to share it with you as well to see where you are currently on the resilience scale, as we call it. To see where you are is important because of that awareness and even the stark reality that maybe you’ve taken yourself for granted for a period of time and it’s showing up in different areas. Maybe your brain isn’t working as optimally as it could and maybe it’s not working as well as it did in the past. It could be that your body has changed. Obviously, there are these physiological changes we all go through as we get older and mature, but there are things that come from neglect. There are things that come from simply not taking better care of yourself. Assessing is a key ingredient in this.Performance is about recovery Click To Tweet
The assessment part is important that we take stock and I always look forward to being able to help people to do that when they don’t have another tool at their immediate disposal for it. The second thing I’d say is that our lives are our products of the things we do on a ritual basis. Stephen Covey talked about habits. I typically speak about rituals and I do that. I use that word ritual, not in the sacred or the religious sense, but more along the side of consciousness because a habit is something where I pick up my toothbrush and I’m left-handed. I brush with my left hand and I don’t even think about it. That’s a habit. The way you drive home or other things we do without thinking about it.
When we put consciousness into the mix, we start thinking about things on purpose or intentionally, that’s more ritualistic. When we think about resilience, there are four things that I’ll share with you. I’m looking forward to this very much. It will be the four traits that create resilience, the four things that over time we’ve found and the research bears out that these characteristics, these traits are what produces long-term resilience. This longevity that we’d love to have, this ability to be living, working, breathing, happy, feeling great in our lives, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years in the practice of law or anything else for that matter, has to do these rituals that we create to become resilient. As an example, what do you do when you wake up in the morning? What’s the ritual that you have upon waking? What’s the ritual that you’ve got mid-morning? For many people, it’s going to grab another cup of coffee, walk down the hall and chat with a colleague because I used to have this habit where I didn’t get productive in the day until about 4:00, which is why I would miss dinner. At 3:00 to 4:00 PM, I was finally done clearing my desk, clearing out emails or calling clients back or any of the other things that are lesser. There are things I could have done more on autopilot in some ways and I saved the tough stuff.
I’ve delayed the tough stuff for later in the day and I’d get super productive, which meant that it interfered with my home life. It interfered with something important to me. Resilience is holistic. When we think about resilience, it’s not what you said earlier, that it’s purely endurance because endurance is a physical thing. In some ways, it can even be a mental thing, but resilience is holistic. It’s mental, it’s physical, it’s emotional, and it’s even spiritual. For me, one of my deep-rooted values is family. My wife and I wanted to have four kids. We didn’t just have them. We wanted to have them. Not be home for dinner directly interfering with something at my core that was important to me. I would say that anything that interferes with those things that you’re feeling, whether it’s time with your family or time with your aging parents or time spent for yourself to meditate, to read, to walk, to do something for yourself. When there is that conflict, it has a way of eroding us. It exhausts us.
The rituals that you have at the beginning of the day, the middle of the day, the middle of the morning, the early afternoon, the evening, these are things that you can simply do by default, which many people do. They don’t think about them, they just do certain things habitually. You can create more conscious habits. For example, I spent seven years as an ocean lifeguard, which is part of a very significant history for me in terms of learning about leadership. I was eighteen years in the practice of law and I’ve been more than ten years as a CEO. In my role as a CEO, for example, we had a staff of about 80 in two different offices and at 3:00 PM, every single day, everyone in the company, people that were even on the client care teams, the ones answering phones, everybody had to get up and take a twenty-minute walk because all the studies. Our company was based in Southern California. I will just go out and stand in front of a palm tree. Go out and look at the sky, breathe some fresh air, but do something for yourself for twenty minutes that is not work-related.
If you’re going to walk and many people did walk with their colleagues, you can’t talk about business on that walk. It’s got to be something else. Heather, these are the small changes. We’ll call them micro pivots, but they’re the little changes that you can make to the way that you approach a day to the conscious effort that you put in to create moments of recovery for yourself in the day. You can come back that much stronger, that much healthier and that much more able to take on the endless demands of clients and partners and the business itself. We know the business is changing like every other business, it’s been disrupted, it’ll continue to be disrupted. You’re managing all that, whether you’re working as a general counsel for a large company or a small company or you are in practice yourself or with partners. The environment is constantly changing and we get to show up as an even better version of ourselves everyday. Our mantra is you’ve got to learn how to create resilience at the moment. You’ve got to learn how to create resilience before you actually need it. That’s how you not only increase your performance and productivity, but there’s this great sustainability that can come in. If I knew those things, if I had been thinking about them more, practicing them, consciously creating them even when I was still practicing law, I probably would still be in the profession to this day.
The work will never go away. It’ll always be there if you can incorporate these little pivots within your day. I love that idea. They’ll become more routine and you’ll be comfortable doing them as the work continues because you’re never done with the day. You’re like, “I’m finished. I’m going to go home.” It will always be there. Keeping that balance throughout the day, I’m sure it is super helpful in that situation. I want to let our readers know that we are honored to have you as our keynote speaker for our General Counsel Conference. If you want to hear more about what Adam has to say and more tips, he’s going to be talking about leadership for general counsel and strategic business alignment, which is a very important topic for the modern GC. He can go into some more very helpful anecdotes and tips on with his pivot strategies to help you get through the day and get through your life as a lawyer. I wanted to let everybody know about that. Adam, I appreciate you being part of that conference.
We were talking about the sort of history, the career path here and the pivots in our career paths. I started out on the beach as a lifeguard. What I find interesting is that there are lessons that came from that environment that are powerful in the legal space. It’s life and death, that’s the context. In fact, we made hundreds of rescues every weekend. We were constantly on guard. I spent eighteen years as an attorney on guard in many ways, on guard for clients, on guard for any number of other things. Part of what we’re going to do in September is dive into these lessons from the lifeguard stand. It’s a little counterintuitive. We’ll absolutely be talking about resilience. I’m going to give this assessment to everybody that’s there so they can find out where they are on the resilience scale as well as a whole lot of hacks, little tips, whether it’s the water you’re drinking, the time that you rest versus the time that you work and any number of other things to help create that more mental, emotional, spiritual, physical resilience on the job for sure. We’re going to talk about leadership. What is it that creates opportunities within the organization for greater leadership?
I think that will be great. As your mantra goes, to love your life. To wake up every morning and no matter what the day brings, love your life. I love that. I try to apply that in my own world. Before I leave out, there was one question I wanted to ask because you mentioned early on about the midlife crisis cliché. What can young lawyers do to avoid that word crisis in the middle of their career life? Is there something you can share so don’t get to that point? What can they do early on to prevent them from being in that place at that time?
Converse, Heather. You said crisis, I’m thinking immediately converse. Converse with someone about it. That’s the thing. Mentors and mentorship within this profession is important. The best advice I could give to any young attorney would be to speak to other people, speak to the ones that have a little more salt and pepper, maybe wherever it shows up. It is like looking for a colleague and say to her, “You’ve been doing this a while. How is it that you’ve managed to do that? Is there a secret? I’m at a stage where it’s not easy and I’m questioning where I’m at.” I think this is the part of the cultural conversation that we started earlier, where if in the culture you’re rewarding people for asking questions, for being vulnerable about what they don’t know, not just about the case, but more along the lines of, “I’m in a bit of a thin ice here. I’m exhausted. I’m questioning some things and I don’t feel great.”
That ability to ask a question, be vulnerable and receive mentorship and ask for mentorship back, I think it’s important. Maybe it’s something that we’re programmed to think early on in our lives that when we ask questions, it means that we’re less than or that people will judge us for not knowing something. That would be my advice. Be vulnerable. Converse with other people, especially your colleagues. That way you can get some great advice at the moment, even if it’s right then and there, you don’t feel great, but somebody can give you an uplifting word. It changes that moment. It’s a miracle really.
To understand most people have been there and feel the same way. Lawyers often feel like islands or that if they show that they’re struggling in any way, that it’s a sign of being weak. I completely agree with the idea and that’s why we’re talking about it. You’re sharing your personal experiences to help others know that there is a way to do the profession, not have to leave the profession and be successful at it, but also love your life and be a little bit more balanced. I really appreciate you being here with us. I’ve learned a lot and I hope our readers have too. I look forward to seeing you at the conference. Thank you again, Adam. This has been super insightful. I appreciate your time tremendously.
It’s been my pleasure. I’m looking forward to see you.