Before the COVID-19 pandemic, attorney Joseph Milowic III”s daily routine consisted of taking the train from Queens to Manhattan, spending the bulk of his day working in his Quinn Emmanuel office alone, and then going home.
Since the pandemic, the introverted Milowic has found joy and peace of mind in a home work environment that supports his natural temperament.
“I like being home with my family and my dog,” said Milowic, who now works from his living room table. Not having a commute and having more time to walk his dog, exercise and see his daughter and wife has been good for him.
But for every Milowic, there is another lawyer whose current environment is not supportive.
“There is a spectrum of what attorneys are experiencing because of COVID in the category of funk that ranges from stress to suicidality frankly,” said Elena F. Rand (LawScope Coaching), a former litigator and also a licensed psychotherapist.
Milowic and Rand examined how to help attorneys of all temperaments on the recent CLE webinar “Avoiding The Funk: Strategies For Surviving Working From Home During COVID And Beyond.”
Milowic shared his personal story of how he deals with depression and obstacles in his life and career.
As a “fear-driven and perfection-motivated” young associate, Milowic went through a number of different symptoms, including exhaustion and lethargy, that he did not realize were depression. He spent his nights ruminating on thoughts and waking up not feeling rested. “It was a constant feeling of will this day end?”
He sought medical treatment and was misdiagnosed with pre-diabetes. “They did not know I was dealing with depression,” said Milowic, who later founded the Lawyers Depression Project.
He regularly checked his glucose and routinely pricked his finger, but his health worsened. “I was losing interest in everything. I felt hopeless. I felt everything was meaningless.”
Anxiety kicked in and he experienced panic attacks more regularly. Just hearing a ding on his computer from a new email would cause him to lose focus and become anxious.
After a year of experiencing symptoms and self-reflection, he deduced that the problem was his job, which came with long hours and litigation work he did not enjoy.
He emailed his diabetes specialist to announce he was quitting his job the next day and found everything “meaningless.” Milowic’s specialist heard his cry for help and responded that he needed to come in and see a psychiatrist.
It turned out to be a turning point for him.
The psychiatrist quickly checked all the boxes on major depression. Initially unaware of this condition, Milowic was relieved to know he had “something diagnosable.”
His doctor prescribed him an antidepressant to alleviate the symptoms. Within weeks, he felt better, stopped ruminating on negative thoughts, and found meaning in his work and life.
The renewed vigor for his work led to some workaholic tendencies for the next decade and he later found himself in depression ruts and with less tolerance for his antidepressants. “I was just trying to work through the funks.”
When it became more persistent and at his wife’s urging, he visited a therapist, who helped him with his thought patterns and setting boundaries, and a new psychiatrist, who found the right medicine for him. Meditation also has helped him focus on the moment.
“Now I am very much into prioritizing my self-care and my well-being and I prioritize my peace of mind, family and love at the top,” said Milowic, a self-professed “work in progress.” “I am trying to do things aligned with my values that bring me pleasure and joy that are important to me.”
Milowic acknowledged that COVID is likely easier for introverts, who prefer quiet and small groups, than extroverts who recharge by socializing.
Elena Rand, an “introvert shamelessly disguised as an extrovert,” observed that there is a huge difference between chronic destructive isolation and being an introvert. She explained that introverted people get a kick by recharging, enjoying pensive time and resting. In meetings, extroverts are more likely to talk and blurt out answers as introverts think the answers. “A piece of reflection is key to their being able to function,” said Rand.
She noted that extroverts are “a lot of the people who are really, really struggling.” They tend to engage with people as a way of energizing. “They thrive and become their best selves in the context of other people.”
For extroverts, Rand recommends having a structured day, which includes designated start and end times. “I think that’s a really important first step. You don’t have to be orthodox about it, but aspirational.”
Rand emphasized that stress is not just mental, but a biochemical process occurring within our bodies. “It is a physical reaction to a perceived threat,” said Rand. “We are either in fight or flight. We are either procrastinating or fighting with each other.”
Being compassionate with others and ourselves is essential, said Rand. Setting boundaries is important but know that you will give something up to meet that end. “If you need to take a walk because your mind and health depend on it, find a way to articulate a gently-crafted boundary to do that.”
Lawyers should also have designated times to pause or reflect. It can alleviate anxiety when dealing with a full inbox of contentious emails. It is acceptable to respond, “I will get back to you shortly” rather than react immediately.
Having sent a few emails he wishes he hadn’t this last year, Milowic agreed with Rand’s advice. “You don’t always know what is happening in the other lawyer’s life.”