Posted by: Jeffrey Owens on Jan 7, 2019

Long, long ago, the original Roman calendar had only ten named months, beginning with Maritus and ending with December. The month Maritus was derived from the Latin “of Mars,” representing the Roman god Mars, who is the god of war, and was placed at the beginning of the new year to signify the time for the resumption of war. Imagine attending a New Year’s Eve party in ancient Roman times, sitting around a carved wooden table celebrating the coming wars and their inevitable death and destruction.

It was not until 700 BC when the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, named the two winter months, Januarius, “January,” and Februarius, “February.” Januarius is Latin for “of Janus,” in honor of the Roman god Janus, the god of gates and guardian of the passage of time, who is depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions. Februarius, from februum, meaning an offering or a means of purification

Then, in 45 BC, when Julius Caesar’s new Julian calendar took effect, the Senate fixed January 1 as the first day of the year, and the day that we now celebrate our New Year. I, for one, am encouraged at this progression of thought and symbolic celebration. For now every year, on the first of Januarius, we celebrate the passage of time rather than the resumption of war, with one eye set on the lessons of our past and another eye fixed on the opportunities of our future.

This annual exercise of reflection and forethought is an important interlude in life that is often skipped or ignored. And so, for this president’s message, I invite us to reflect on our lives and commit to a better future. I have suggestions stemming from my experiences and hope you might find them useful.

Improved List Serve: The ITLA list serve is a tremendous resource and allows young solo practitioners to gain knowledge and competence from our veteran members. Indeed there is almost universal agreement that our list serve is valuable and contributes to our membership retention. I think it can be better. Take a moment this year to review the list serve rules and etiquette policy on the ITLA website. The most straightforward summation of that policy is that list serve comments should be respectful, professional, and above all “assist members in the practice of law.” That’s pretty clear. Further, I challenge each of us to match posted inquiries with helpful and responsive advice, essentially to follow the adage, “take a penny, leave a penny.”

Improved Mental Health: The American Society of Addiction Medicine released a study in 2016 that looked at the prevalence of substance use and other mental health issues among lawyers. Just over twenty percent (or 1 in 5) of lawyers experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders. In contrast, only 11.8% of a broad, highly educated workforce screened positive on the same measure. For attorneys 30 years old or younger, the percentage jumps to nearly 32% (1 in 3), with 44% of respondents reporting that problem drinking began within the first 15 years of practice. Among the same sample of respondents, 61.1% reported anxiety and 45.7% reported depression. Common barriers to treatment included not wanting others to find out they needed help and concerns regarding privacy and confidentiality.

I found this data to be disquieting, but not all that surprising. It serves as a reminder that we must take care of each other. If you are in a firm with five or more attorneys, there is a statistical probability that one of you abuses alcohol. If you are an older attorney, please keep an eye on younger lawyers and know that they are more likely to develop problem drinking that could easily extend into their later years of practice. Also, I would urge younger attorneys to look after each other and, as uncomfortable as it may be, ask questions and show concern. Who knows, you may change someone’s life.

Improved Relationships: In the early 18th century, poet Robert Burns came upon a very old song housed at the Scots Musical Museum. The song began with the lyrics – “Should Old Acquaintance be forgot, and never thought upon.” Burns transformed this song into a poem that is still sung today and summons us all to reflect on the long-standing friendships of our past. It turns out that this exercise in harboring to mind old relationships is a good thing. Harvard researchers have studied a group of over 700 individuals for nearly 80 years, the most extensive longitudinal study of its kind. While the study is ongoing, they have concluded that the key to a good life is relationships. In fact, healthy meaningful relationships actually protect us from life’s discontents, delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of overall health than social class, IQ, or even genetics.

So in 2019, I challenge myself and each of you to examine our relationships. First, take a look at our professional associations. Do we show sufficient appreciation for the hired staff without whom we would be inefficient at best and downright lousy at worst? What about the courtroom staff and the various court reporters who are essential to the fair and accurate prosecution of our clients’ claims? Do we take the time to engage them in a meaningful way?

Second, take stock of personal relationships. The Harvard study found that people with happy marriages in their 80’s reported that their moods didn’t suffer even on the days when they had more physical pain, and those who felt securely attached to their partners were less depressed and had better memory functions. Regrettably, our choice of profession means that we must take extra care of our social relationships and relationships at home. Many years ago my spouse and I adopted a mandatory weekly date night policy — no matter where we are and what is going on in our lives, every Saturday evening we pause to go have dinner together, just the two of us. Looking back, I am confident that this weekly routine has had a positive and lasting influence on our relationship. Moreover, according to the Harvard study, this habit not only enriches my present health and happiness but also increases the likelihood of a more promising future. So, whether it’s date night, a night out with friends, or merely saying thank you, remember this year to take care of the relationships that are taking care of you.

These are my goals, and I hope that you consider engaging in your own exercise of reflection and forethought this “Januarius.”