How This Law Firm Partner Helps Women Attorneys Make Partner Without Burning Out
On this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle discusses the concept of Leading with Mindfulness with Cheyne Scott, Partner and Chief of Diversity and Inclusion at Chasan Lamparello Mallon & Cappuzzo, P.C. Cheyne discusses a pivotal moment that changed her approach to life and her journey to creating The Spiritual Litigator, where she helps women and minority lawyers make partner without burning out. Listen to the full interview below or read the highlights of Cheyne’s interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.
On the Pivotal Moment That Changed Her Approach to Life
I looked at the highway and thought…I'd rather just walk into it than do this
I've been practicing for 10 years now. The first few years of practice, I had some trouble dealing with the stress and anxiety and at the time didn't realize that this was something that's completely normal for lawyers to deal with.
I had a complex employment case, so I do mostly employment litigation. It was a lot of documents, a lot of motions from the adversary. I wasn't winning any of the motions. I decided that the judge hated me, that the adversary hated me. Everybody must hate me. And I was working just an insane amount, like through weekends. So I think I worked a total of maybe 14 days nonstop, no break, no anything. So one day I was sitting in the office after essentially doing a full 14 days with no rest. And I looked out at the highway and thought to myself, I'd rather just walk out into route three than to do any more of this.
It scared me so I decided to take that day and just go home. As soon as I got home and got in bed, the room started spinning and I had no idea what was going on. I was actually very terrified. As I got up, I started throwing up and I couldn't stop. So I'm sorry if you're eating lunch right now. I called a friend who took me to urgent care. They tried to give me anti-nausea shots. I could not hold anything down. They said you've been throwing up so much you need to go to ER. So I went to the ER. At this point, I couldn't walk at all. I had nothing left and I had to be wheeled in a wheelchair and they started asking me all these questions.
Have you been drinking? Are you on drugs? No. The answers are no. And then they finally said, have you been stressed out? And I said, yes. So they put me in an IV, they pretty much revived me from the state that I was in. And they kept telling me that, look, you have severe vertigo right now. And the only cause that makes sense is that you're stressed out.
That's the only thing. You're not on any illicit substances. And so I'm still not understanding it cause I have an IV in my left arm and I, like, with my right hand, I'm calling to cover court the next day. Like I'm listening halfway, but then I'm still not okay. I'm not dying today. So somebody needs to cover court tomorrow.
So I resisted it completely. The first couple of days I was like that can't be the reason there must be something else. And then finally I accepted it and as I was still trying to work, but could not see, it was like, literally my body was like, stop it, stop it.
So when I finally processed it, I was out of work for a week because the vertigo was so severe that I could not see my vision was so blurry. I couldn't even do work remotely. When your body tells you it's time, it's time.
Once your body wants to send you a message that you continue to ignore, it will shut you down. And it had to literally make my vision so that I could not work for me to actually listen. And so then I said, okay, maybe you're right. Maybe the doctors are right. Maybe this is stress. And that's when I started the Google adventure.
On Finding Resources To Help Burnt Out Lawyers
There Were No Resources About How to Continue Being a Lawyer
I started looking up what stressed out lawyers do. What are the solutions? I Googled and they said, leave, get out, save yourself. Don't be a lawyer anymore. And I said, no, that's not the option. Okay. What are the alternatives? Because I'm not leaving. And that was my whole mindset. The whole time was, we're going to have to figure something out because I'm not going to stop being a lawyer. This is not an option for me.
And I want to be really careful with that because I don't want anybody to feel like they have to make that same decision if they are in a place of burnout, because you have to do whatever works for you. For me, my intention was to stay. Tell me what I need to do to manage this and stay and not end up in the ER again.
So I finally found out of all the Googling that was not negative, some of it said, hey, mindfulness and meditation. That's where I found mindfulness. I started meditating and doing yoga and journaling. Once I started doing these things, I started feeling better. It wasn't an overnight thing, but it was just like, if you go from waking up and like hardly being able to get out of bed and then waking up and being like, oh okay, we don't feel terrible today. This is nice. And I also want to say that I got a therapist too, so it wasn't just meditation and go, like I needed a therapist at the time. And I think that there should be less stigma about that. I have a therapist and a life coach. I have no problem saying that.
And so we started out, let's get Cheyne out of bed. And then it was like, how do we maintain this? And that's where mindfulness came in. After that week, then, okay, let's find a therapist, let's find mindfulness techniques, we'll find different YouTube channels. And that's when I finally realized. It was my thoughts the whole time. And then it started to grow into maybe I need to teach people this because I can't be the only person.
So that's what got me to The Spiritual Litigator. That was the journey that got me to start the blog. And that's where I've been ever since.
On Why Being a Lawyer is So Important
I Always Knew I Wanted To Be A Lawyer
So I was one of those weird people that always knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I was voted most likely to be a lawyer in eighth grade. This was something that I just knew.
Then, after law school, graduating into the backend of the financial crisis, there were still no legal jobs. I grew up in Michigan and I went to school in Michigan, and the place that I was working with, that I'd been a law clerk with, only hired two out of their eight summer associates. And so I was like I'm still going to be a lawyer. So I always had that mindset. You're not going to tell me I can't be a lawyer. So I sent out 200 job applications to New Jersey where I didn't know anybody, I've never been there before. And then I ended up getting two interviews and one job offer from that.
So I've always been like, we're going to do this lawyer thing. I'm not sure how, but we're going to do this thing. And we'll just keep working on it until we get there. So that was the same mindset I had when I burned out. It was like, okay, there's a solution here that I'm going to find. And it took me a little bit to get there. I wish I hadn't had to go to the ER, but without it, I don't think I would have found the tools that I have now.
On How She Got a Problem-Solving Mindset
Compassionate Parents and Realizing Stress Exists No Matter Where You Work
I think it comes from my parents. Really. My dad was an HR professional. He was actually Personnel Director for the City of Ann Arbor for several years. And then my mom, she taught as a professor for 45 years. So they were both long-term employees and they were both very much like, figure it out (from a compassionate place).
You can either have stress at McDonald's or you can have stress at a law firm. You're going to be dealing with humans one way or the other. So make a decision and go for it. So that was really what was in the back of my head where it's, we're not going to say we're going to stop, but like, how do we keep going?
On the Creation of The Spiritual Litigator
Meditation and Yoga Were Not Enough, Also Got To Work On Your Thinking
So I burned out in January of 2016, and then I think I got the LLC like a month later. I was ready to go. I got the LLC and I started the website in its infancy and it was just really just blogging about my experiences. Maybe this can help. And then it started evolving throughout the years. Cause it wasn't just meditating or doing yoga. It was like, there's something missing.
Okay, I'm meditating, I'm doing yoga, but people are still annoying me. And I'm still really frustrated when I lose motions and I'm still really triggered by a rude email. So what's the problem.
And that's where I found the life coaching process of you got to work on your thinking also because you can just sit and breathe all day. But if you're not changing your thinking, nothing's going to change.
On the Model She Uses To Help Others
You Can’t Change Circumstance But You Can Control Your Thinking
I found The Life Coach School and the model I use comes from the creator of The Life Coach School, Brooke Castillo. And it just talks about how there's all these circumstances in your life that you have zero control over: the judge, clients, adversaries, your boss. All these things, you have zero control over. And then what creates our experience is what we think about them. And then we have feelings because of those thoughts. And then we take actions and then we have the results in our lives.
So you could take the same paragraph of an email from an adversary and have the thought, oh my gosh, this person is the worst. Why are they doing this? They must think that they can get away with this. Or you can think, I'm going to reply in 24 hours cause I don't reply to emails like this for 24 hours. And there's no extra drama from that thinking of just, okay, I'll worry about this later.
What I found was this was the key. The model was really the key that helped me deal with everything that I thought was a problem in the practice of law that really was just routine practice of law circumstances.
On How to Practically Break Down Your Thinking
Ask Why Until You Get to The Root Thought, Challenge it, Then Make Rules For the Actions You Will Take
First, you have to actually break down what you're thinking in that moment. So if your thought is, I have to respond [to a rude email] well, why? Ask yourself why until you get down to what it really comes down to.
I have to respond. Why? Because I have to. Why? Because if I don't, they're going to file a motion. So what? If they file the motion, then I'm a bad lawyer. That's not true. So once you go down to the root of the thought and you're like okay, let them file a motion. We're lawyers. We do motions. This is not a problem.
From there, once you get your thinking together, then you're like, okay, I'm going to think differently about this. I'm going to think this does not require an immediate response. And once you do that, all that anxiety, like really drained from your body, like you can literally feel it. And then from that, you're changing your action. You're like my rule is not to respond to rude emails for 24 hours, unless it is emergent.
Your brain will lie to you about what's emergent. But when you really look at it. Maybe 1% of the emails you get in a day are emergent.
Unless it says the judge needs something, there's a temporary restraining order we have to respond to, if it's something that the managing partner needs. Absolutely. But that's 1%. The rest of those things can wait until tomorrow and you can actually put it in your calendar first thing in the morning. So you get it out of the way.
On How to Not Let Things Fester
Allow Yourself to Briefly Sit With The Feeling And Think it Through
It seems like something that's just happening to you. Like the email was like attacking you from the computer, but that's where it comes down to the thinking that you're actually engaging in.
So you first have to catch yourself and say, hey, what am I thinking about this? And then what feeling is this thinking creating? So if you're thinking this person is such a jerk, this person is so disrespectful. Like you feel that. And that's where the fester comes from. And really sometimes you've got to sit with it and just breathe into it and be like, this is how I feel right now.
And I'm saying like, don't take all day thinking about it. I'm saying literally set a timer for five minutes and just sit with it. And some people will say, Cheyne, I'm not going to do that, but what are you going to do instead? You're going to fester and it's going to mess up the rest of your day. All the other things that you have to get done, you're going to keep going back to the email, keep going back to the email.
But if you sit with it and then you say, that's okay. People are allowed to write whatever they want to write. They can be whoever they want to be. And once you take a step back and recognize it has nothing to do with you, you really free yourself from it.
And so I fester less because I know that's their problem and not mine because I've had people actually write super rude emails and then five minutes later, say, please respond. No. Cause they are having their own negative emotion and they're trying to pull you in so they can justify it. But if I'm not cooperating with it, they have to take that negativity with them somewhere else. They're going to have to process that somewhere else. So they're festering somewhere else, where I've moved on.
On How To Make Partner Without Burning Out
It’s Thinking Differently About the Work
The interesting thing about the practice of law is it's like a pie eating contest where the prize is more pie. As you do more work, you just get more of the pie, you get more work. So if I burned out at four years and you're supposed to make partner at around the eight year mark, I'm thinking to myself, I'm going to have a lot more work in four years. So we're going to have to figure this out.
So the more work that I did with mindfulness and with self coaching, the more I recognized that the workload could not create my stress. It was the way I was thinking about it, processing it. The way that I wasn't scheduling anything and that it was just flying off the seat of my pants. And it just gave me the tools to be more intentional about my calendar, more intentional about my workload and to coach myself on the cases that stress myself out.
But at the same time, focusing on the ones I loved and really being in a place of gratitude for the cases that I loved. I know sometimes when people hear gratitude, they're like, oh, it's a little corny. But it works. You have millions of things in your day to feel terrible about and you also have millions of things in your day that you can feel good about.
It's really an intentional choice that I try to make every day to feel like, okay, let's try our best to focus on the things that are working. That doesn't mean I don't have bad days. I certainly do, but it's okay. I can focus on this case that I really don't like, because you're never going to escape those, or I can focus on the one that I'm really excited about. And that's what I try to do.
On Incorporating Mindset Into Her Firm
Make Time To Mentor, Have Humility, and Show Up Imperfectly
I didn't have imposter syndrome because I was like, I finally have figured something out. Then I started being the adult in the room and realizing oh, you're asking me, cause I'm in charge. I didn't like that. Cause I was like, I don't know what I'm doing. Why are you asking me?
So I think being a leader in a law firm takes some humility and it also takes some coaching yourself to recognize that you can do this. You're there to teach. You're there to counsel. To point them in the right direction and maybe do it in a way that works for you that maybe wasn't done for you. And I don't mean that in a negative way. It's just that I think we all have to manage our time and then make that time to mentor the next generation.
Some of that time is going to be unbillable. So you're going to have to put that time aside, if you choose to. Some people will choose to be a partner in a law firm and not really mentor that much and that's their style. But I'm like daily, trying to set time aside to call someone and say hey, let's talk about this.
It's not easy. But I do try to say, we're gonna talk about this memo. We're going to talk about this assignment. And really just trying to give them tips that maybe were not available to me. Not necessarily because someone chose not to teach it, but we really as leaders forget, we take for granted the knowledge that we have, and just assume everybody knows how to do things.
It's about showing up imperfectly because I think one of the greatest things that I learned after burning out was you can show up imperfectly as an associate. And now as a leader, I can show up imperfectly and I can actually say, Hey, I made a mistake here and you see it. I'm not going to hide it.
I'll tell you a story and I posted about it on Instagram, maybe a few weeks ago. When I was a summer associate at a law firm, not the same law firm, different law firm. We had a "ask the managing partners" night and I asked, can you tell me about a mistake that you made that you overcame or learned from? He just went to the next question. He didn't even address it. He was like, no, I'm not going to answer that. And that still sticks with me to this day. It's been like, what, 12 years since I summered there.
The pursuit of perfection just makes people make more mistakes.
I miscalendared a status conference and we got this notice from the court saying defense counsel failed to appear. And I see that my associate's on the notice and I call her immediately and said, yep, this happens. And you make a mistake and it's okay. Try your best not to make it twice. I know exactly what went wrong. I know exactly why I miscalendared it. And here it is. I'm not going to pretend this didn't happen, but I think pretending mistakes don't happen and going for a plus all the time, it's just not realistic. And that's where we really burn out.
I see a lot of great young talent, young lawyers that are doing really great work. You see their excitement and it mirrors what you felt 10 years ago. I was so excited to just sign my name on a letter. I just remember the partner at the time saying you can come to court with me. And I was like, oh, do I get to stand up and say the firm's name? And she was like, what is wrong with this child?
Like I was super excited and some of that is still there, but after 10 years it gets diminished. It doesn't matter how mindful you are. This is a tough profession. And so to see that excitement on their faces and to see that they really want to improve and really want to learn, it really like renews some of what you lost.
On The Systems That Help Lawyers Within Her Firm
Leadership Support, Open Door Policy, and No Judgment
I want to be clear that the culture wasn't the problem. The billable hours are what they are, but that wasn't what was causing it. It was really my inability to manage the caseload without freaking out. Taking everything personally that was happening with the client or with the judge or with the adversary. But I will say that the firm was not the problem, thankfully, and that's why I'm still there.
They were super supportive when I burned out. There was no, like, where are you? When are you coming here? I need a doctor's note. There was none of that. It was very much, take whatever time you need. They were so concerned for me. So that was number one, a good thing.
We have a really good open door policy at the firm where we tell people like, please feel free if you are in a place where you are having a hard time, please feel free to come and talk to us. Like we're always available. And we're always here to listen and we want to help as much as possible. We don't hide the ball here. We're going to tell you, Hey, make sure you look in this statute, make sure you look in that book. There is no judgment. There are no jerks here.
On Her Work as Chief of Diversity and Inclusion
Creating Sustainable Processes by Focusing on Pipeline, Equitable Work Distribution, and Feedback Loops
It's a new position, so we're still working on that. But one thing that we really want to focus on is creating a pipeline for attorneys of color to come through the firm. I think it's one thing to hire lateral or hire someone, but it's another thing to actually retain someone.
So there's the hiring and then there's retention and that's where firms really scratch their head around. They're not putting systems in the place that they can actually retain minority talent. They're not training people. They're not making sure that people have an understanding that certain comments are not acceptable, and have been working with the local law schools to try to get people in for summer internships.
It's a slower process, but it's a sustainable process. And that's really what I'm looking at. If somebody clerks with us over the summer and then they go and they clerk for a judge and they come back. They're already going to be hitting the ground running when they start here and know the firm culture, know how to interact with lawyers.
It's like we call these things soft skills, but they're generally the most important skills you can never learn. So I don't know why they're called soft because they're really important.
I've done a lot of research on why firms can't retain minority talent. A lot of that comes from the work distribution, allowing inappropriate comments from partners or from clients. And so it really comes down to if you bring somebody in, whether they're an intern or an associate, making sure we are invested in every single associate's success, paying attention to work distribution, making sure that they're not just getting work from the minority partner, making sure that they're getting work from everyone.
That they're not feeling isolated and that they're given good feedback. The hardest thing as an associate, it doesn't matter what your background is, is figuring out am I doing this right? When I was an associate, I used to think, can't somebody just tell me if I did a good job or a bad job? But now that I'm a partner, I will literally get an assignment and think, oh, this is amazing! This is exactly what I needed and then just never tell them.
And I'm like, oh, I get it now. So really the feedback has always been, you're getting more work. So that's your feedback. But being more intentional about - Hey, we're going to set time aside to talk to people. And that is a really hard thing to do, but we've been really trying to implement that more.
In a perfect world there would be like a set time, but I think it's more organic at this point. So maybe it'll be a series of assignments and then saying, hey let's set a half hour aside on a Friday, or can we sit at lunch and go over this? And it depends on what the assignment was. So you're going to need an hour if you're going through a 40 page summary judgment, but if you're going through a three page memo, you just need a few minutes to discuss it. And it's really tough because you have your own workload and you're trying to manage that and they have their own workload. So they're trying to manage that too.
So just finding that middle ground, but actually being intentional about it and telling them, hey, this is coming, we're going to set some time aside. Sometimes they will remind you, which is a good thing. It's always okay to delicately remind the person like are we going to talk about this? Oh, yes. I've not forgotten.
On Helping Women Attorneys Make Partner Without Burning Out
Education and Coaching on Navigating Major Challenges For Attorneys Working in Systems That Are Not Set Up for Their Success
It has evolved through the years. A lot of the training and seminars have just been very organic where somebody reaches out like Lawline. I was really excited about that. I've also done training through other companies and that's always been fun, but The Spiritual Litigator is really focused on helping women attorneys make partner without burning out. The statistics are not great for women and especially not for women of color. And so I think as of 2020, 15% of associates were women of color, 4% of partners were women of color, less than 1% were black women.
So it's really teaching women who have been socialized in a society that can be patriarchal and women of color who have been socialized in a patriarchal and unfortunately, in some places, a racist society and in a workplace that was not systemically built for their success. How do you handle the imposter syndrome and the self-doubt that comes for all attorneys? But it specifically affects women differently because of these added layers.
Really trying to help them learn that look, nothing's wrong with you because someone told you that you couldn't sit in the front row because they thought that you were the client. Nothing is wrong with you if you are feeling even more self-doubt about yourself because you think you have to work twice as hard to get respect, this is what you've been socialized with. And the world is what it is. So now what? Let's look at what your biggest challenges are as a lawyer and let's change your thinking around that without saying that your thinking is invalid because it's not invalid, these systems exist. That's really what I focus on.
On One Thing She Would Improve in the Legal Industry
Legitimate Belief in the Importance of Attorney Mental Health
Legitimate belief in the importance of the mental health of attorneys. So not the thing that we do whenever there's something tragic that happens where we post things and we tell people, hey, if you ever need anything, and not to say that there's anything wrong with that, but whenever there's a famous suicide or something like that, people start posting things and then it starts to fade away.
It's important to obviously have a balance because, yes, you're running a business. But having compassion and actually legitimately believing in the importance of mental health in law firms can really make a difference so people know they are valued and they're not going to be thrown to the curb.
On What it Means to Be a Lawyer Who Leads
It’s About Managing Your Own Mind Before You Start Leading Others
Being a lawyer who leads requires first managing your own mind before you lead others. When you give advice that you're not aligned with, that you're not actually doing, when you're out of integrity, people can feel it. It's important to actually take a step back and figure out what type of leader you want to be before you start leading others.
Meditation, Journaling, and Asking “When’s the Last Time You…?”
I actually have a Google doc called "When's the last time that you...?" It's a chart of all the things that I generally do that make me feel better and then I keep track of when I've done those things. I look at it when I'm feeling terrible and I'm like, okay, when's the last time we read a book, got a pedicure, slept in on a Saturday? These little small things. That's something that I try to look at every couple of weeks.
The things that I do daily, meditate no matter what. Even if it's five minutes and it's not super complicated, it's just either setting a timer and breathing, or it's the insight timer, which is free or meditationoasis.com. That's what got me started on meditation.
And then I journal every single day and I've been journaling since I was nine years old so it's pretty intuitive for me. But getting stuff out of your brain and onto paper makes such a difference because you are believing everything you're thinking, and that's why you're so emotionally upset and frustrated. And this person's a jerk and this case is the worst and all that. But you get it on paper you're like, ah, it's okay. Well, this is all right. So meditation and journaling are the two things that are like daily for me and then the other things I have on a list to keep track of.
On a Piece of Practical Advice to Other Lawyers Who Lead
You’re Not Alone and It’s Totally Normal to Have Self Doubt
The first thing is to recognize that you are not alone. I don't mean that in a cheesy way, but one of the main reasons that I burned out is because I convinced myself that I was the only person who was experiencing this, that I should have figured it out by now. That I'm totally getting fired.
But you're not alone. There's nothing wrong with having those thoughts. It's very normal. I think of it like a barking dog in the neighborhood. You don't like the barking dog in the neighborhood, but you can either be really upset about that barking dog or you can just be like, I'm going to keep myself busy with other things so I don't even notice the barking dog. So eventually, like you notice it less and it gets quieter. I guess that's the way I think about it.
You're always going to have self-doubt because that's just the human brain and it's totally fine to have a human brain. Don't beat yourself up for having it.
Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession.
Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.
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About the Author
Written by Sigalle Barness
Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.
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