There I was, one day in March 2018 during my final semester of law school, barely able to walk, in constant agonizing pain and adjusting to losing one-third of my vision. I had recently turned 27 and had suffered not one, but two major strokes in the last week. Inevitably, I began to think that my legal career, which was just about to begin, was already over.
A week before spring break that year, I had been out at the wineries in Texas Hill Country celebrating my 27th birthday with friends. I went to bed that night but woke up shortly thereafter feeling incredibly sick to my stomach. I rushed to the bathroom, only to lose the ability to move my right arm and leg seconds later. Loss of vision soon followed. Scared to death, I screamed for my two roommates, both 3Ls as well, who rushed me to a hospital ER.
I lay in an ER bed for several hours before a neurologist finally detected that I actually had suffered a stroke. After being admitted to the hospital for two days, I suffered another stroke—this one five times larger than the first. The doctors prepared my parents that I may not survive through the night.
After several terrifying days in the intensive care unit with numerous tests and constant monitoring, I was finally released, only to be back one day later. I had started to develop a painful tingling sensation on my entire right side, which became so strong that I was unable to eat or walk.
I was told that I had developed a rare pain syndrome called thalamic pain syndrome that may occur following a stroke. The doctors explained there was no cure, and that only through proper pain medication and management would I be able to live a normal life.
As a result of the strokes, I spent countless hours going to doctor appointments and vision, physical, occupational and speech therapy, and even had to relearn how to drive. Through all of that, however, I fought to graduate law school at the University of Texas, sat for and passed the Texas bar exam, and started at Kirkland.
Regardless of the type of law or the firm size, we all struggle with that elusive balance between our professional and personal lives. If I have learned one thing from my strokes, however, it is that life is truly short—we cannot and should not let our health slip away while working towards our professional goals.
I hope my story serves as an extreme example of the importance of taking your health seriously.
Making Important Lifestyle Changes
It is important to note that recovery from a stroke does not take weeks or months, it takes years of appointments and rehab. Balancing these medical issues with staying mentally healthy while working as a junior attorney was a feat unlike anything else that I had ever experienced.
As an attorney at one of the top law firms in the world, working in a fast-paced environment, I understand how difficult it is to keep that balance between our personal and professional lives during busy periods. At times it seems as though there are not nearly enough hours in the day.
I am far from alone, though. The American Bar Association has published numerous studies on the issue of deteriorating health among law students and lawyers.
Stress, alcohol abuse, poor diet and physical inactivity—all common plagues in the legal community—are major risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which is the No. 1 killer of women and men in the U.S. The good news, however is that these negative habits are all under our control and simple lifestyle changes can reduce the risk for heart disease and stroke by as much as 80%.
I have made many lifestyle changes in my life to improve my mental and physical well-being and reduce my risk of future heart issues. When it comes to my mental health, I have found that meditation and therapy are both important.
In the morning, I wake up, respond to early morning emails and listen to a guided meditation session a few times a week. A good therapist can help immensely by giving you practical advice on how to overcome anxiety and cope with stress.
As for my physical health, attending a yoga class at a studio is often hard to squeeze in, but I have adjusted to doing online yoga classes in my living room when I am short on time. Additionally, I try to walk daily for about 20 minutes—that is my “me time” each day where I can catch up with friends or family on the phone.
All of these things help clear my mind and allow me to better focus on work and my personal life, resulting in me being a happier person and a more productive attorney. Attorneys are not the only ones who I recommend making changes—law firms should also make changes.
How Law Firms Can Help
Even prior to working from home due to Covid-19, I was able to focus on my mental and physical well-being because of Kirkland’s “no face-time requirement.” I did not have to physically be at the office at a particular time each day, which allowed me to create my own schedule and attend a workout class or a therapy session.
I was always available for work demands, but I never asked for permission to leave early or come in late. As someone recovering from a major health issue, I could privately focus on my health.
I challenge firms to better support the mental and physical heath of their attorneys, which also has the indirect benefit of contributing to their success as attorneys. Particularly when adjusting to a post-Covid work environment, firms should consider adopting wellness programs, like the one my firm has in place, and implementing no face-time requirements.
Firms should also consider implementing a mandatory one- or two-week vacation policy where attorneys do not have access to document management systems, which would be similar to vacation policies at investment banks.
The last suggestion I have is for firms to provide performance coaches. In the competitive environment of law firms, asking for help from your peers and mentors to navigate difficult situations may be impossible or inadvisable depending on the topic, so a third party that is familiar with law firm environments would be an incredibly helpful resource that better supports the mental health of attorneys.
Whatever steps lawyers or law firms take, the biggest focus should be on taking preventative action. Preventing the deterioration of our mental and physical well-being is the key to our success as lawyers. I’m lucky that I’ve had a supportive law firm there for me during my health situation. But if the pandemic has taught us anything it is that mental wellness is something that the workforce in general cannot ignore because it impacts the success of their employees and therefore the overall success of their businesses.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
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Brittany Scheier is currently a third-year associate at Kirkland & Ellis in Houston where she practices mergers and acquisitions. As a 2021 national spokesperson for the American Heart Association, she is speaking publicly about her experience as a stroke survivor, and telling her story of overcoming her health issues to become a practicing lawyer.