Articles | 04/02/2018

Death Among Us: How to Be a Happier Lawyer

On a cold Tuesday afternoon, just three years after I graduated from law school, I heard code red called in the ER. The code was for me. I was 30 seconds from death: veins collapsed, no blood pressure, 30 pounds under weight, metabolic acidosis prevailed, 32 ounces of blood lost daily, and no ability to sit upright or walk. I was 28 years old and knew nothing about how my reactions cause outcomes. Not knowing almost killed me. Years of stress and anger had taken their toll.


Two decades after code red was called, I’ve finally learned that negative: thinking, acting, behaving, and images physically weakens us and positive: thinking, acting, behaving, and images strengthen us. My adrenal glands, which produce cortisol to respond to stress, had exhausted themselves. My adrenal cortexes were dead and so was I, nearly. The emergency room doctor later reported to a mutual friend that he was sure I was going to die.


At that time, I had no vision of what my life could be or how I would come to impact future estate planning clients and now attorneys, their firms, and their lives. Understanding, absorbing, and living success principles will change your life as they have mine.


Sound like a bunch of mumbo jumbo? That’s up for you to decide for yourself, but don’t hold colleagues back when you see them thrive because you don’t get it – yet. Living within success principles will empower you to take charge of your life and your firm, helping you to create what you want – and ultimately help more people.


The Principle of 100% Self-Responsibility


Event + Reaction = Outcome is the fundamental success principle formula that will impact your life most. It’s foundational and essential. After all, if you’re responsible, you’re in control and can determine the outcome. Taking 100% responsibility for your life is empowering.


Events are just the way things are. You can’t control what happens to you (the economy, death in the family, illness, tax hike, traffic jam, gender bias, etc.), but you can control your response to those events which means you can control the outcome.


Lack of Awareness


Back in the days I described above, I created my own stress level and plummeting health by the way I reacted to events.


  • For example, during my first year of law school, my then boyfriend was a college senior, my (soon-to-be) mother-in-law was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and my (soon-to-be) father-in-law died two weeks later after her diagnosis. I ruminated on and exacerbated the fallout from those events over-and-over again for several years.


  • At the same time, my mother went off the deep end into some undiagnosed mental illness, becoming toxic. I allowed myself to be manipulated for years instead of separating myself from her.


  • Did I mention I was in my first year of law school at the time? I reacted to that as you likely did.


I couldn’t control these events and at the time didn’t know I could control my response.  Now that I own my reactions and take 100% responsibility for my life, I can control my responses and, thus, I control outcomes. This means the nasty neighbor, the financial challenges of two children in private colleges, the XYZ, and the ABC no longer get to me.


Do I have my moments? Of course! I haven’t transformed into Mother Teresa or Gandhi, not even close. But, I’m sooooo much better at responding as I choose, rather than emotionally bursting as I have in the past. Being able to respond as I choose is life-changing.


3 Responses You Can Control


In the entire world, you can only control three responses:


  1. Your behavior aka actions, which includes what you say as well as how you say it
  2. Your thoughts, including self-talk and beliefs
  3. The visual images you hold in your mind


You create your own experiences by how you react to both opportunities and challenges. What’s cool is this means you get to control your life, the quality of your relationships, workload, income, and health by controlling your behavior, thoughts, and the visual images you hold.


Lawyer Unhappiness


We’ve all seen the statistics for lawyers – high drug, alcohol, depression, unhappiness, and divorce rates. We score much higher than the general population. Why? I suggest self-imposed pressures. We feel trapped with a long list of things we think we “have” to do and another list of things we think we “can’t” do.


  • I submit you would be well served by substituting the word for “choose to” for every “have to” or “must.” You don’t have to do anything. Yes, I know what you’re thinking; there will be consequences of not doing something, of course. But there’s still a choice, and that’s dang empowering. For example, “I have to go to that committee meeting tonight” versus “I choose to go to that committee meeting tonight.” Feel the difference?


Try another one, I have to keep practicing family law versus I choose to keep practicing family law.


  • Next, replace “can’t” with “choose not to” and observe how that feels. For example, “I can’t take Friday afternoons off versus “I choose not to take Friday afternoons off.”


What about this one? “I can’t make $500,000 a year” versus “I choose not to make $500,000 a year.” Yes, you even have a choice about how much money you make.


When we aren’t taking 100% responsibility for our lives. Many of us feel trapped, overworked, and unhappy in the work we’re doing. We feel angry at opposing counsel or lousy clients or feel frustrated by our own failures or limitations because we have no idea how to run and build a successful law firm business.


Images Make It Real


When you visualize over-and-over again a fight with your spouse or opposing counsel, your body doesn’t identify any difference between when you’re in a fight (and cortisol needs to come to the rescue) and when you’re driving home, picturing the fight as well as what you wish you had said. That’s how your body gets exhausted. Cortisol comes to the rescue even when you’re just imagining the fight.


Will you develop primary adrenal insufficiency (Addison’s Disease) like I did? Not likely. Your body and mind will break down where your weakness lies – maybe depression, anxiety, alcoholism, or disease.


Self-Responsibility as Empowerment


This isn’t a doom and gloom diagnosis. You are not doomed to be miserable or doomed to be diseased. Personal responsibility is personal empowerment. You create your future through your reactions: your behavior, thoughts, and visual images. There’s no judgment from me and I encourage you to eliminate any self-judgment or self-blame – and separate yourself from those you judge you.


Choose self-responsibility. Consider that you always have a choice; you are never trapped. For example, there are thousands of people who have taken situations like your own and succeeded but not just succeeded, they’ve prospered. What’s the difference between those folks and you?  Thinking, actions, and the pictures in your head. Change those things, you change your life and law firm.


Law Business Strategist Wendy Witt, JD practiced trusts and estates law for 15 years. She helps attorneys think entrepreneurially, increase revenue, and create the law firm/life they love. You can find out more at; you can reach Ms. Witt at



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