Take a Breath, Take a Break

Pandemic has brought us a fast transition in my public defense office to working remotely all or part of the time. While this gives flexibility to work in sweats, or to work during the hours in which we are personally most productive, it also expands the workday as people send updates and communications earlier into the morning and later into the evening. As the urgent challenges of indigent defense change and we rapidly respond to COVID-19, I’m grateful to everyone who is taking the time to send information as quickly and transparently as possible, at whatever hour it is received.

But it’s a lot.

It has been easy for me to slide into working and checking my phone around the clock. There’s plenty of sound research establishing that working 24/7 is not good for us.  I’ve written about this previously here. There is no question that we need to disconnect and stop working for a stretch of time each day. Here are a few tips for avoiding the slide into working 24/7, even as we are fighting furiously to get people court access and release from jail in a time of crisis:

  1. Turn your phone off or to airplane mode for set hours—I am trying to do this from 8 pm to 6 am. Choose a span of hours that works for you, but find a way to take a break. Stop the emails, stop the news, truly unplug for a stretch of time.
  2. Use delay delivery for emails that are not so time sensitive that they need to be read and considered during off hours. Delay delivery is in the menu bar when you are composing an email in outlook; it allows you to write the email and schedule a delivery time of your choosing.
  3. Take breaks—short and extended—when you need breaks. There is every indication that we are going to be in crisis mode for an extended time, and we will each need to take breaks to sustain this work. I particularly like the analogy of a choir that holds a strong, clear note for a long time. The group has the ability to do that because each person breathes when they need to, while the others carry the sound forward.

In the meantime, don’t forget to breathe. Here’s a simple 10 minute simple breathing video that can be easily shortened to 2 or 4 minutes. Just watch as much as you want and breathe along.

Let Me See Your Third Thing

Jeff Sherr recently posted on vimeo a terrific video on the importance of having a third thing. Most of us in public defense spend time on our work, and we spend time with family and friends. Some of us try to develop or sustain spending time on a third thing– a recharging, recreational third thing. Jeff traces this concept back to his mom’s advice to him as a child: to pursue multiple extracurricular activities in addition to school and family.

Not only does a third thing expand our learning and experience, but it helps us diversify in a useful way. To put it bluntly, with three things going, they probably won’t all suck at once.

Renate Lunn has written about the importance of having a third thing here on NAPD’s blog, where she wrote: “Having a Third Thing makes you a healthier, happier human, and a better attorney. Healthy, happy people tend to have the energy to do the work and the emotional energy to listen to clients, and remain calm in the face of judges and prosecutors. Outside hobbies give us new perspectives, introduce us to new people.”

Lauren Anderson, an amazing public defender in New Orleans, who I know and love lauren fbthrough Gideon’s Promise, posted a beautiful post on Facebook (shared here with her permission) about how music recharges and refuels her.

One magical characteristic of a third thing is that it can inspire other people just by sharing it. I am energized when I see Lauren post photos of herself at concerts, or dancing in parades. When I see Renate on a circus trapeze or Jeff doing improve, I feel renewed optimism for a bit more balance in my own life. If they can find the time and energy for a third thing, so can I.

For the ten years we lived on our little apple farm in Sonoma County, my third thing was farming. Gardening, canning and pickling was a tried and true happy place for me. Bringing fresh honey or apple butter to friends was reliably delightful. Knowing that I’d picked the fruit and made the jam in my trial PB&J sandwiches reminded me, in the deepest of trial tunnels, that there was life outside the trial.

farm as 3rd thing

Since we moved to Santa Barbara two years ago, I’ve been casting about a bit to find a new third thing. As the child of an artist and a musician, I’ve wondered if art would be my next third thing. Perhaps the museum days I take three or four times a year will become more frequent. Or my daughter and I will continue to enjoy theatre and art events together. She has blown my mind in recent months, sharing with me poetry like Ode to the Little R  and Magneto Eyes Strange Fruit, and patiently explaining to me how they related to the song If It’s True in Hadestown. Revelation. Revolution! Last year, I may have texted co-counsel on a capital case from the intermission of San Francisco Ballet’s Frankenstein to gush “we need to spend more time studying Frankenstein! This is the best mitigation presentation ever!” Ava Duvernay is right in saying there’s a direct line between art, imagination, and justice. (Video of her saying this much more eloquently is here.)

A year ago, Dave and I were getting ready for a workshop on well being and we put out a request on Public Defense Zen that asked people to send us photos of themselves doing their third things. The resulting slide is my favorite of any slide we’ve ever put in any presentation. I feel overcome with appreciation each time I see it, for the incredible work these public defenders are doing, and the ways they are trying to care for themselves to keep doing it. Each time we project this slide, I think if they can find time for these amazing third things, I can too.

PD 3rd things

If you are a leader in public defense, support people having a third thing. From the earliest stages of recruiting, ask people what they do to recharge. Examine ways to use flex time or other schedule flexibility to encourage people to engage in a third thing. If you train or mentor others, weave in discussions of recreation and having a third thing.

I hope you’ll help advance this movement to inspire and support each other. Post a comment and/or photo below to share your third thing!

Roaring into these ‘20s, more or less.

It’s the time of year when the lists are unavoidable. Best of. Worst of. Top 10. Bottom 10. The only things drowning out the lists are the gym and diet promotions. In the spirit of self-assessment, I like many of these lists. I’m a believer in setting intentions, so here goes. A list of 10 intentions, more or less, for my public defense work in 2020.

More of these list: To cultivate and grow with investment of time and energy.

  1. More time with my family. Real time without intrusion, distraction and preoccupation about work, aka renewed attention to work boundary management.
  2. More time for a rejuvenating, challenging, new/old outdoor #thirdthing: sailing.
  3. More gratitude and appreciation. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by kick ass people, I’m going to tell them more often.
  4. More genuine, helpful support. Looking for times to say and mean “I’ve got your back” to colleagues. Not waving it off with “it’s fine” when this type of real support comes my way.
  5. More clear communication, of the “clear is kind” variety, that avoids easy answers and saying what people want to hear, in favor of honest feedback and clarifying questions.
  6. Responding “I’ll think about it” to every single request of my time, rather than getting swept up in enthusiasm that leads to overcommitting and taking on too much. Choosing carefully the times I travel away from my family and the projects in which I invest my time. Less projects, more fully realized.

Less of these list: Unhelpful habits, stories and patterns, to release and reduce.

  1. Perseveration. Putting down the giant Santa Claus bag of regret about outcomes that were crushing, when I wish I’d somehow had the skill to accomplish something different. That shit is heavy and it’s time to put it down.
  2. Toxicity. Reducing the unhelpful complaining, judging, gossiping, and bellyaching that I contribute to workplace toxicity.
  3. Interrupting the imposter syndrome story in my head, that plays an endless track of never forgotten blunders and mistakes and humiliations, to assert that I really don’t know what I’m doing, I’ll make terrible mistakes, and they will have enormous consequences to people I represent who put their trust in me. Replacing that story with a story of growth and learning and being enough.
  4. IMG_0408A friend posted this “Today’s Practice: Release” for the new year,  and it caught my attention and got me thinking, just as I was writing this post. What’s the thing I am most motivated to leave behind? To rip up, burn, extinguish?

The SHAME of inevitably making mistakes, when you’re stuck in a story that you Should Have Already Mastered Everything. Burning that one.



What does expanding self-care beyond the self look like? by Renate Lunn

We’re fortunate this week to have this post from Renate Lunn, the Training Supervisor at New York County Defenders Services in Manhattan. Previously, she was a staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society in New York City. In this post, Renate offers wonderful insights and wisdom about the importance of broadening self-care to include caring for others. This is especially important for leaders and supervisors.–Jenny

“How do they do it?” I ask myself trudging back to the office from court. As a supervisor, I’m fortunate enough to have a low caseload. Nonetheless, whenever I go to court for my own cases or someone else’s, something happens to a client that makes my heart pound, my teeth clench, and my mind swirl with angry rants.

If I feel these biological changes on the occasional times I’m in court, what is happening to the bodies of my colleagues? How do they manage every day? How did I manage life as a trial attorney before becoming a supervisor? Now that I’m a supervisor how can I support my team?

I’m grateful to Jenny Andrews and David Klaus for addressing these questions on their website BeSustained.org and blog posts. In our community, we talk about stress and burnout in spurts usually in response to a crisis— whether a trauma or the crisis of attrition in an office. Jenny and David are making sure we pardon the pun, sustain the conversation.

I first explored the effects of stress and trauma on me and my practices in a series of blog posts about 3 years ago, here, here, and here. Recent events, including a new role as a supervisor, have caused me to revisit my thoughts on how public defenders deal with trauma.

I’ve become more critical of the term self-care and propose that we expand self-care beyond the self. Implied in the phrase itself is the notion that the person experiencing the trauma, stress and fatigue bears the burden of responsibility for fixing it. Although trauma is caused by power structures that cause systemic injustices, “self-care” implies the solution is for the person crushed under the weight to push it off of herself. Or rather to create a magical, flexible bubble where her empathy can radiate out but the sorrows and rage only trickle in at a manageable rate.

It’s unrealistic to put all our individual selves in charge of protecting ourselves from this broken system. We need to support each other and management needs to support staff. Jenny has started referring to burnout as moral injury, “because it stops placing responsibility for solutions on the individual,,.and recognizes that systemic obstacles are the true causes of much of the chronic stress that we are experiencing.”

Also embedded in the concept of self-care is a certain privilege. The privilege of having everything else in your life in place to allow you to take care of yourself. In my conversations about the unique stress of public defense, I have often forgotten that not all public defenders have the same home lives and outside resources. Some have more economic worries than others. Some take care of loved ones outside of work hours and might not have the luxury of having family that can pick up the slack at home while they indulge in self-care. The exhaustion from dealing with mircroagressions that people of color encounter intersects with the stress of the job in ways that the bubbliest of baths and a scented candle can’t relieve.

As a supervisor, simply suggesting self-care is irresponsible, as it sounds like it absolves me of any responsibility for ensuring that my workplace supports its staff.

So what does expanding self-care beyond the self look like?


Supporting each other is vital. Or as @PrisonCulture succinctly points out on Twitter: “the only way to sustain the *self* is to collectivize care. #fin”  Group self-care includes: participating in a text chain that starts with someone saying, “my client just died and I don’t know what to do with my grief,” letting someone ugly cry in your office, or babysitting your officemate’s child. The Facebook group Public Defense Zen is a great place to connect with supportive defenders around the country.

Direct Supervisor-Care

As a supervisor, it is easy for me to forget what life is like with a full caseload. Without the reminders of the risk of moral injury in our jobs, I risk offering simplistic and unrealistic advice. It’s important for those in management to spend time in the courthouse and client meetings. In addition to fostering empathy with staff, management can see the structural challenges that leadership might be in a position to ameliorate.

In one-on-ones with the attorneys I supervise, I ask them how they are taking care of themselves to do the work in the long haul and how I can support them. It’s tough balancing keeping a professional distance and supporting what happens in the time away from the office that allows people to bring their A-game to the office. Usually people just tell me about their gym routines, which leads to more office small talk about the gym and some positive peer pressure. It also demonstrates that I care enough about my colleagues to want to work with them for many years to come.

As a supervisor, I also avoid sending emails and texts to colleagues during off hours. If I remember something I want to share in the evenings, I type up a draft, but don’t send it until the next morning. Jenny has exhorted the benefits of turning off the work phone on evenings and weekends.  

Public Defense Senior Management Care

We need to make sure folks running defender offices provide health insurance that covers therapy, and support making time to attend therapy on your lunch hour is supported.  Offices can provide when possible a space to decompress or meditate. My agency, New York County Defender Services, has a wellness room where mothers can pump and anyone who needs to can take a cat nap or meditate in a massage chair for a few minutes.

Achieving pay parity with prosecutors and making sure that staff earn enough money to thrive in this job without taking on second and third gigs is essential to fostering resilience. No one in a public defender office should stress about paying bills.

Eating healthy, having a #ThirdThing and taking bubble baths are great and all, but they are not enough. We need to expand our concept of self-care to include caring for each other.

–Renate Lunn

Please reach out to us if you would like to write a post on public defense wellness. We welcome your contributions.

Well Being as Part of Competence in Public Defense

I have come to believe that showing up strong and energized is one of the most important things we can do for the people we represent.

I didn’t always see it this way. In the first few years, when I showed up every Friday with a pile of misdemeanor cases on for trial, and tried a boatload of them, I also had a not insignificant number of late nights in the bars with my colleagues and naps on the therma-rest under my desk.

My about-to-be-fifty-year-old body doesn’t tolerate that sort of schedule anymore, just like it doesn’t tolerate trials fueled by vending machine lunches of picante corn nuts combined with peanut M&Ms (even though that’s a completely delicious and satisfying lunch, at least in the moment).

I now see my well being as central to my duty of competence. It is harder for me to stand tall and refuse to back down from an important legal fight when I’m so exhausted I fear my own knees might give out. I’m not as able to be open and receptive to the stories and needs of the people I represent when I am so stressed out that I feel like I can’t handle one more thing. I’m not able to hear communications about ways that I can learn, grow and improve if I’m anxious and irritated.

The skill we need to develop and use the most in every aspect of our work as public defenders—listening—requires some reserve of energy and emotional balance.

We know our profession struggles with substance use, depression, anxiety and secondary traumatic stress. (I’ve written about this here and here.) The impacts of these struggles can include moral injury (the word I prefer to burnout, as explained here). The impacts also include diminished work performance and struggles with basic competence. 40 to 70 percent of disciplinary proceedings and malpractice claims against lawyers include substance use or depression, and often both. (D. B. Marlowe, Alcoholism, Symptoms, Causes & Treatments, in STRESS MANAGEMENT FOR LAWYERS 104-130 (Amiram Elwork ed., 2d ed., 1997).

While basic competence requires us to provide competent representation (ABA Model Rule 1.1) and requires diligence in client representation (ABA Model Rule 1.3), basic competence also requires more than just keeping up with training and casework. It requires well being.

The ABA includes well-being as an indispensable part of a lawyer’s ethical duty of competence. The 2017 ABA Well Being Report defines lawyer health not solely by absence of illness, but by a positive state of wellness. It includes lawyers’ ability to make healthy, positive work/life choices to assure not only a quality of life within their families and communities, but also to help them make responsible decisions for their clients. It includes a wonderfully broad definition of well being that encompasses emotional, occupational, intellectual, spiritual, physical and social thriving.

well being ABA chart

morning beach hike
Morning hike.

I love the ABA definition of well being as “a continuous process toward thriving across all life dimensions.” Time working often feels like it competes with time to do things like being with my family, exercising, or shopping for nutritious meals.

While there never seems to be enough time, it’s useful to me to stop seeing work and well being as in competition. And to remember that competence includes well being. The time I take to do yoga or go hiking isn’t just for me. It helps me show up strong, focused and ready for the challenging work of public defense.