Denver Bar Association
June 1999
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Swimming Through the Seaweed

by Richard Wagner, LICSW


Editor’s Note: The following is an exerpt from Swimming Through Seaweed: Emotional Hazards in the Culture of Law as seen in the February 1999 Bench Bar of Minnesota. To view the entire article, see:

Members of the legal profession are surrounded and sustained by a "culture of law." A heightened awareness of this culture can help lawyers preserve what's positive while ameliorating the negative.

"We don't know who discovered water" someone once told me, "but it wasn't a fish." Those who are swimming in something are often the least likely to see what surrounds and sustains them. This article is an attempt to identify a main ingredient of the culture of law in which lawyers often swim: time management.

The practice of law is a noble profession and populated by intelligent, hard-working men and women. Time can work against a lawyer's capability to maintain productive professional and personal lives. As a therapist, my attention is drawn to those aspects of law practice that adversely affect a lawyer's mental health: the seaweed, so to speak, of the professional sea in which lawyers swim.

Many lawyers and law students experience time differently than most people do. For those in the legal profession, time is compressed, intense, valued for its capacity to produce, linked inextricably to money or research, and defined by deadlines. Time, for lawyers, is often experienced more as a "movement towards" something rather than something in itself. For many lawyers, time--like water to fish--envelops them and exerts a constant pressure.

Dr. Stephen Reichtschaffen of the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, distinguishes two different experiences of time: "on time" and "in time." He uses the term "on time" to describe that experience of time that comes with schedules, deadlines and appointments. This is the experience of time that most of us have most of the time. This "on time" experience is necessary for accomplishing tasks and getting things done.

This way of experiencing time has an important, useful place in our lives. Time is oriented toward the future. In the law, much of what happens occurs in this "on time" experience. This includes court dates, deadlines, responding to faxes, billable hours, and so forth. The pressure exerted by the press of time, under the best circumstances, can be an additional boost to productivity and a challenge to creativity.

This experience of time can have its down side. Time can be seen as a commodity that is "used" rather than sensed. In this experience of time, one is more conscious of what needs to be accomplished than what one is experiencing at any given moment. Sometimes a lawyer's "on-time" experience promotes anxiety: a heightened sense of vigilance and scanning and difficulty calming down. Here, time is too scarce and the tasks too demanding.

For some lawyers the effect is depression, the opposite of anxiety. Here, time looms large and becomes heavy. Time seems to slip away as the lawyer stares at her work or plays computer games, while becoming increasingly mired in guilt and self-reproach.

An "in time" experience is focused on the moment and on the experience of the moment. Here, time is not apportioned in minutes on the clock but by the inner experience of the moment. Time stands still. One becomes unconscious of time. Usually one's richest moments occur during "in-time" experiences: playing with your daughter, having coffee with a friend, sitting by a lakeside. Dr. Reichtschaffen quotes the statement, "To choose the simplest definition of time, one could say it is what measures a transformation."

Unfortunately, if one is predisposed to hard work and "on-time" experience of life, it is difficult to cultivate "in-time" moments. The culture of law works against these moments. My clinical notes are full of reports by disgruntled spouses who complain of their partner lugging a laptop to their child's baseball game or missing dinner many nights.

My point is not to suggest that "on-time" experiences are "bad" and that "in-time" experiences are "good" but that a balance of both needs to be present in one's life. Perhaps, the time devoted to the important activities of the day should reflect the balance that one hopes to achieve in one's life overall. For if you don't have it in every day, or at least in every week, you likely won't get it in your life.

Once Sigmund Freud was asked what made for mental health. The person asking the question assumed he'd receive a long technical answer but Freud replied simply, "To be able to love and to work."

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