6 o’clock already? I quickly save the file I’m working on, scribble a Post-it to remind myself to call my client’s mom, grab my backpack and head out the door. My dedicated fellow defenders continue to type furiously, answer calls, and prepare for the next day’s cases. I get to the theater in time to see the director suggest to a performer, “Stay still. Longer. Keep going even after it gets awkward.” I sit in the audience, entranced. The lonely figure on stage is completely still except for her eyes which dart around looking for her missing friends. I lean forward, physically and emotionally drawn in.
I thought about the scene in the theater several months later, as I was sitting in a courtroom getting dizzy as the prosecutor paced in circles in front of the jury. When it was my turn to address the jury, I stood confidently still, making eye contact with each juror and continued with silent stillness, even as my gut was screaming, “THIS IS THE MOST AWKWARD THING EVER!” When I began my opening, I knew I had each juror’s attention.
Shortly after that, I came out and admitted to my colleagues why I darted out of the office early once a week, I was performing physical comedy — ok I’ll say it —  clowning in a community circus. After realizing that the skills I developed to communicate with circus audiences improved my communications with jurors, I embraced my love of circus arts. Now I view my weekly aerial silks classes as an essential component of my self-care, and an unexpected path to better defense of my clients.
Last year, I wrote three blog posts about vicarious trauma: starting the conversation by admitting to times when I’ve felt on the brink of burnout; defining the terms vicarious trauma, secondary stress trauma and compassion fatigue; and discussing how the effects of trauma ripple through our offices. One way to prevent burnout, or work through the stress of our job is by nurturing a hobby, or what I call a Third Thing.
Eight years ago, I was at an inspiring training program for defense attorneys. Surrounded by excess alcohol and tales of divorce and disconnect, I was determined to find a path that allowed me to be a terrific defender, without losing myself and those that I love. I was in a stable partnership, and I wanted it to last. There was one faculty member struck me as a kindred spirit, so over a beer one night, I asked him how he managed to stay healthy and sustain personal relationships in the face of this stressful job.
In my moment of fear and concern, this Yoda of Public Defense gave an answer to a scared and lost defender. As he shared wisdom born of misstep, reassessing, and improving, a ray of light shone through the night sky illuminating my new mentor. The light grew, and covered me in hope that I could find a path to being a stellar defender who also enjoys life beyond the law. The background noise of people splashing in the pool and laughing over beer pong faded.
He answered:
Always have a Third Thing.
His parents had a rule that he involve himself in three-extracurriculars so that if one of them didn’t work out, chances are something would be going well in another one. If his basketball team lost one week, the school newspaper might publish his story the next. He said he continued this in adulthood and his three things were family, work and theater.
For most of us work and homelife vie for the position of First Thing and Second Thing. We might not all have children or romantic partners, but we have extended families, roommates, close friends, and pets to whom we devote ourselves outside of work. Just the phrase “work-life balance” conjures up an image of work on one side of a pivot point and homelife on the other like a seesaw that perpetually totters back and forth. Stability is virtually impossible to achieve with this seesaw.
Adding a Third Thing paradoxically, makes balance easier to achieve.  A three-legged stool is much more stable than a two legged one, or even a four-legged one. Troubling cases and a daughter who’s in the throws of the of terrible twos are a little more bearable, when through practice you finally got your bowling score over 200. Or focusing on painting a still life might be just the break your mind needs when you’re brain races between your caseload and drama with your roommates.
Having a Third Thing makes you a healthier, happier human, and a better attorney. Healthy, happy people tend to have the energy to do the work and the emotional energy to listen to clients, and remain calm in the face of judges and prosecutors. Outside hobbies give us new perspectives, introduce us on new people.
Going to a physically different space, takes your mind to a different place. It’s hard for me to stress about cases when surrounded by acrobats and jugglers training. Likewise a band rehearsal scheduled for 7:00 p.m. or an 8:00 p.m. creative writing class will get you literally and figuratively out of the office. For those who cannot leave the home, a separate room or corner for creative writing, painting, engineering, meditating, music, or other personal exploration, can give joy and relief.
If you can venture out of your space, you also get to meet different people– people who see you as something other than a lawyer, or parent, or whatever your primary roles are throughout the day. Once you realize that other people can see you as a powerful singer, or as the go to three point shooter you develop a more expansive sense of who you are. Defending our clients doesn’t have to be the only thing that defines you, and sometimes wrapping up your identity in one thing can be dangerous. What if you fail at that one thing? Does that make you a failure as a person? Of course not! But it’s easy to believe that if you just define yourself by your profession. As an added bonus, socializing is good for your health! If health is not enough of an immediate pull, initially think of these new people as your potential jurors. Gradually, I hope that they will become much more as bonds and friendships grow.
It’s not enough to have your own Third Thing. Encourage others in your office to find a Third Thing, and then ask them about how it’s going. Approached by young attorneys a few years ago about burnout and self-care, I suggested they each find a Third Thing. Out of that conversation, one woman took up playing mandolin, another ceramics, and a third joined a soccer team. Looking around my workplace and seeing these lawyers as artists and athletes makes me feel like I’m working in a dynamic, creative environment, not just another office. Just like we don’t like to see clients defined by their rap sheets, we shouldn’t define ourselves (or each other) solely by our important calling.
Having a hobby allows you to approach work problems with renewed creativity. Nobel-prize winning scientists are more likely than their peers to have artistic hobbies, notes Adam Grant, author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Galileo was able to spot mountains on the moon that other astronomers missed, because he was trained in drawing techniques that led him to recognize some patterns as mountains. Improv classes help some lawyers think on their feet in the courtroom. Jazz has inspired lawyers’ thoughts on family law, client communication, and trial practice.
But wait, isn’t the purpose of the Third Thing to help you escape from your job, not just be another way to pressure you to constantly improve? Well not exactly. The Third Thing isn’t about escape (though that can be part of it), it’s finding an activity that is meaningful, challenging, and causes you to grow as a person. If you grow as a person, you’ll grow as a parent, friend, partner, and public defender.
Admittedly, finding the time for a Third Thing is easier said than done. Enlisting the support of those close to you is crucial. My husband and I recognize that our Third Things make us more content (and therefore more pleasurable to be around), so we gladly pick up the slack for each other on the homefront on Third Thing days. If your friends or co-workers grumble, point out that most articles about preventing burnout recommend nurturing a hobby or creative outlet outside of work.
So what’s your Third Thing?
Not sure? Take a walk. Go to a craft store. Go to a place you have always wanted to see. While exploring, find something that makes you feel joy. In that, you will find your Third Thing.