Katherine Itacy, Esq. Detroit, MI
During orientation week at Roger Williams University School of Law, our Dean of Students spoke a bit about the importance of maintaining one’s health and physical appearance as a practicing attorney. I remember the biggest take away from that speech being that if you look unhealthy, overweight, or disheveled to your clients, they’ll view you as being sloppy, disorganized, and/or unable to handle the stress of the job. And if you present yourself in that way, they’ll be less likely to believe that you can properly and zealously represent their best interests. As the Dean put it, if you look like you’re one cheeseburger away from a heart attack, the client is probably going to be pretty nervous about you being healthy enough to see their case through until the end. Since all of this could potentially cost you clients or job opportunities during your legal career, the advice was sound and appropriate to mention at the beginning of a student’s entry into the legal profession.
Still, the Dean’s advice didn’t seem all that applicable to me at the time. I was just three months out of college, and had just finished eight years of competitive track and field, during which time I was putting in at least three-to-four hours of strenuous exercise every day. I’d managed to earn two majors and one minor during my four years at Penn State, all while being a teacher’s assistant, research assistant, and competing in Division One NCAA athletics. In my mind, I was a master of self-discipline, multitasking, and time management, so staying physically fit while taking care of business was not going to be a problem for me.
And for the most part, I was indeed able to balance physical fitness with the daily requirements of law school. I handled the new levels of stress fairly well, even taking on internships, research assignments, trial team and moot court without completely giving up all physical activity. I even bought an under-desk pedal exerciser during bar prep so that I could continue to work out while still devoting most of my waking hours to passing that exam.
But then came the real world - practicing law. All of a sudden, working out, eating well, and getting enough sleep were nothing short of fantasies. I had real-life criminal defense clients to help, and civil rights organizations to assist. Others’ freedom, physical safety, and quality of life were at stake. And within one year of being sworn into the bar, I’d hung my own shingle, which meant that I was not only 100% responsible for each case that I handled, but also entirely responsible for my own financial livelihood. So what if I missed a meal here or there? How important could a good night’s sleep be when my clients were facing decades in prison, social isolation, and/or home-lessness? How could I take more than a few hours off each week when I had a business to run?
In my mind, I was performing triage – I devoted my immediate time and attention to the people who needed my help the most, and to my obligations as a business owner. I kept thinking that if I had the willpower to suffer through strained/ failing health, I could still do the work that I loved, and would have time to fix my health later, once I’d finished helping those in greater need. The problem was, as many of you know all too well, there will always be others in more dire circumstances than yours. If you wait to take care of yourself until you’ve sufficiently taken care of others, you’ll be waiting forever. Unfortunately, I was doing irreparable damage to my body that would have effects for years to come. By looking at things with a “who needs my energy more” analysis, I used all of my energy and strength on others, leaving none to take care of myself.
The thing is, I loved my work. I felt like it was my calling in life. I derived a great deal of purpose and strength from being an advocate for others: those most despised by the general public, those without the financial resources to pay for a zealous defense, those who were discriminated against, and those who didn’t have a voice of their own (or at least an audience willing to listen to them) to effectively fight for themselves. The truth is, I was really good at caring and fighting for others’ best interests, but I was terrible at caring about my own.