Practicing law as an attorney, especially a sole practitioner, is stressful in and of itself. With all that is going on with shuttered courthouses, the reduction many attorneys are seeing in new cases, and the inability to maintain the routine from prior to COVID-19, attorneys are suffering from seemingly unmanageable stress. Rene Heinrich, a sole practitioner in Northern Kentucky, has personally dealt with the same stress many attorneys are seeing today and has taken up the mantle of educating other lawyers on the coping mechanisms for stress and finding a way through these difficult times.
Tad Thomas: Rene, I know you’re a solo practitioner in Northern Kentucky. Can you tell us a little bit about your firm and your practice?
Rene Heinrich: I opened my doors back in 2007, right after my second child had been born. I was looking for the ability to manage my own life and lifestyle instead of having to answer to somebody else. I run a firm that focuses on family law and related issues. I also do some personal injury work, guardianship work, and some other types of law that involves helping families through tough situations.
Tad Thomas: How did you get interested in dealing with stress?
Rene Heinrich: I never really had any mental health issues in the past. No depression, no nothing. In my early forties, about 4 years ago, I started waking up in the morning with overwhelming anxiety, which was something that I didn’t even know how to define or what it was at the time. After a few weeks, I finally went to the doctor who put me on some antidepressants. While those worked for the anxiety, they also really took away my drive. I realized that I was sitting at my computer screen kind of staring at it and sometimes just playing online games instead of really focusing on work.
The anxiety was gone, but my business was suffering as a result. Luckily within a week or two, I noticed, and I started looking out for other non-medication-related ways of resolving stress. I came upon yoga, meditation, and mindfulness and started learning about those. I also started training with some people, and was fascinated. Eventually, I completely weaned off of all that medication, quite a while ago, and continued incorporating yoga and meditation into my life.
What I realized though, as I continued to go on my own journey, is the more I shared what I was doing with other lawyers, the more people were really, really clamoring for that information. It was like other lawyers were sponges soaking up anything that I would talk about, and what I’d learned. I really saw a need just in the reactions from others. Then, I noticed lawyer suicides. I’ve had one of my mentors kill herself about a year ago and the community lost several others over the last few years I knew. You and I also have some great people in common that we know who took their own lives sadly and tragically.
“I’ve become very aware of the fact that we have a tendency in this practice, regardless of what area of practice we’re in, to take care of other people a lot quicker than we ever take care of ourselves.”
Tad Thomas: There’s going to be a lot of people reading this in the middle of COVID-19 with lockdowns and everything that law firms are going through right now. We probably have higher levels of stress than we’ve ever had in our business, which is already pretty stressful. What would you suggest for an attorney that wants to follow your path and find a way of dealing with the stress?
Rene Heinrich: I think there are a lot of little things you can do quickly and easily. First of all, there are some great meditation apps out there. Headspace is one that I recommend. Ten Percent Happier. Calm. All three of those are excellent apps that will teach you how to meditate, so don’t be afraid to try it.
“Meditation is something that can really help your brain out and there is study after study, from a scientific standpoint, that just talk about how wonderful it is and how it affects and heals your brain. Commit to just 3-5 minutes every day. It makes a huge difference.”
I also think that we need to kind of lean into and find some grace in this time of quiet. We are really used to always rushing around and never having enough time and kind of half-assing a lot of things just because we are trying to put out all these fires in our regular day. Life has handed us a lot of free time right now. So, this is a great time to maybe just sit down and daydream a little bit about how you want your practice to change and what you like about your practice and what you don’t like about your practice. It’s also a great time to say, “I’m overwhelmed by my practice so I’m going to step back a bit and binge watch Peaky Blinders.” Just don’t beat yourself up by whatever decision you make.
For me, I am in the middle right now of rebranding my website. I know I talked to you; you are starting a new business. I think there are other people that are just Netflixing at home and sitting down and just having some quiet time with their families and giving themself that time. There is going to be plenty of time for courts to open back up in a few months and for all of the craziness and the backlog to get in there and we are going to be needed on the front lines of all of that. I think we just need to give ourselves some time to really breathe right now and not feel like it’s such a detrimental thing to have time on our hands. COVID-19 has kind of given us a gift in a way.
I also think one of the things that I talked about in a seminar that I gave not too long ago is, there are little mindfulness activities that you can do that can reset your brain simply. Mindfulness is the practice of being very aware of what you are doing. As an example, I am a very—do three things at once—kind of person. Mindfulness for me was very tough because my brain is always going, I am always thinking two steps ahead trying to figure out what I have done wrong and how I can make that better going forward. Well, mindfulness is just being in the moment and accepting that you are in the moment and not thinking about anything past your moment.
There was a person that I worked with a few years ago who taught me that one of the easiest things you can do to teach yourself mindfulness is to be mindful when you are washing your hands, which I’ve thought about quite a bit during this COVID-19 stuff. When you go into the bathroom to wash your hands, think about the feeling of the water running on your hands, think about the temperature of the water running on your hands, think about how the soap is lathering or not lathering, think about that feeling of the water hitting your hands. It was a practice that I started a while back, very simple. It also helps with the 20 seconds that we are all supposed to be using right now to wash. What you learn when you do are mindful is that the moment you start to narrate, or at least I do, what your body is doing or what you are doing, the next thing you know, you have washed your hands for the allotted time. It stops your brain from this automatic pilot that we get into sometimes. I am sure that most people can say that they have driven home before and have no recollection of that entire drive because we are somewhere else, we are not being mindful.
If you can just be mindful in these 20 seconds and start with those little pieces, you will notice that you are starting to use a different part of your brain than you do on your regular days. As a lawyer, unless you are having a mindfulness practice pretty often, it’s stretching that brain muscle that really helps us out in trying to balance our brains and balance all of the flight or fight responses that we have naturally. Because we are humans, we get very triggered unknowingly and that’s one of the reasons I think my anxiety situation started coming about.
“We are animals, and get triggered by things that sometimes don’t make a whole lot of sense to us in the modern-day world. Mindfulness is something that can really help stop the panic in the moment.”
Tad Thomas: Rene, thank you so much for sharing. Your personal track is going to be beneficial to all the other lawyers that are going to read this. So, thank you for your time.
Rene Heinrich: It was nice talking to you, Tad.
Rene can be reached at www.nkylawfirm.com. She’d be glad to hear from you and your experiences.
Attorneys who are having issues dealing with stress are encouraged to reach out. There are many resources available whether from your state bar association or just from fellow lawyers. There are many people willing and available to help you.