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Navigating a Pandemic & Building Community with Stellar Women

Mary Rechtoris

Every year, our community looks forward to getting together at Relativity Fest. This is especially true for our Stellar Women community. We’ve hosted luncheons with Women in e-Discovery to connect in person with our members. But with Fest being virtual in 2020 and 2021, we had to rethink avenues for connection—both at the event and beyond.

One way we worked to build our community is through our quarterly workshops. During these events, a panel shares insights on a topic like articulating your value. And we engage in a discussion with our attendees to share their own experiences. For Fest, Stellar Women writer Blair Heidenreich and I continued our ongoing conversations around setting boundaries and mental health and wellness with EDRM.

Interested in checking out our earlier conversations? Listen now.

We sat down with the following panelists to share experiences from the last year. They provided tips for navigating trauma and setting boundaries, and what community may look like going forward.

  • Emma Clark, Partner, Keystone Law
  • Patricia Diaz-Rodriguez, e-Discovery Consultant & Senior Director, Ankura
  • Mary Mack, Chief Legal Technology & CEO, EDRM
  • Kaylee Walstad, Chief Stratetgy Officer, EDRM

Facing Different Levels of Trauma

This year has presented many unprecedented circumstances, so much so that Mary and Kaylee noted that they long for precedented times. In the UK, something unprecedented happened 18 months ago with furlough's introduction.

A furlough is when a company forces employees to work fewer hours or take an extended unpaid leave. Being furloughed results in uncertainty for many. A Westfield Health study found 64 percent of 1,500 polled individuals who have been furloughed are worried about their future, with this figure rising to 68 percent among furloughed parents. At the onset of the pandemic, countless professionals found themselves out of a job. Companies hiring, at that time, were few and far between. Within their network, Mary and Kaylee worked to connect industry professionals with others to discuss employment opportunities.

Some of us have lost a job, been furloughed, or struggled with personal or work-related issues. We've all experienced some level of trauma stemming from the pandemic. In her work in employment law, Emma has seen many lawyers experience vicarious trauma. This is a term she heard during a presentation at an Employment Law Alliance event.

Vicarious trauma is a transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experience. Experts have traditionally associated this term with those working in the medical, fire, emergency, or law enforcement fields.

“What has transpired is lawyers are experiencing this type of trauma,” Emma said. “As lawyers, we naturally are problem solvers. While we don’t experience this trauma directly, we experience the vicarious trauma which may have similar effects to our clients.”

“No matter where you live across the globe, everyone has experienced a type of trauma,” Kaylee noted. “I live 15 minutes from where George Floyd was murdered. Seeing the sky burning was highly traumatizing for my family and me.”

Sharing our experiences is important. This may be in conversations with loved ones, events with peers, or listening and reading about others' journeys. We all have experienced the pandemic but have experienced it in different ways. One workshop attendee encapsulated this well saying, “we are all in the storm, but we are not in the same boat. Some of us may not even have a raft.”

Reevaluating Our Lives—Personally and Professionally

With many of us spending the better part of the past 18 months in our homes, we’ve had time to reflect. What makes us happy? Is this the career I want to continue pursuing? A Prudential Financial Pulse of the American Worker survey found once the pandemic threat subsides, 25 percent of workers plan to look for other opportunities.

"I've seen more people change career paths or jobs. That may be due to people being more authentic to who they are. People are having a bit more self-care in that way," Patricia said.

Where some people are considering career changes, others are considering how they work. Plus, the way that we work and interact with our colleagues has changed.

"Before we might be waving at each other on the escalator or having brief counters," she said. "Now we can see people's children or pets. Those are conversations we may not have had before."

I too know this to be true. My dog/child/soulmate Corky has made it on many a Zoom call, and even had her first on camera debut at Relativity Fest. (Go to 2:08. You won’t be disappointed.)

Setting Boundaries

When work and home being so intertwined, setting boundaries can be trying for many. It is hard to justify relaxing on the couch when your laptop is right around the corner and emails keep cropping up.

“In this industry, if you get a request at midnight and you respond, that’s normal. And the pandemic has made that worse,” Patricia said. “Then, you wake up and you do mom life like make breakfast or whatever. Then, you take two steps into another room and you’re at work. I didn’t realize how much I missed that commute time to decompress.”

For many of us, that commute time to and from the office offered some much needed “me time.” Now, what are we doing with those extra minutes? We likely are adding more to our to-do list and logging on earlier. If you don’t take that time, you may run yourself thin. This is what happened at the beginning of the pandemic to Mary and Kaylee.

“We all feel like we can do everything, and more is better. To do more, we did two support calls each week,” Mary said. She noted that a good friend told Kaylee and her they looked burnt out. Their workload was not sustainable.

“He explained to us that you need to have the piece of yourself that you keep to yourself and don’t give away. Otherwise, you’re like an empty vessel,” she added. Mary and Kaylee restructured their weeks to align better with their energy level and needs.

My friend and colleague Blair has always said we need to do the activities that keep our cups full, and this is true. Burnout is very real, and taking time for ourselves—whether that is reading a book, taking a walk, or saying no—is crucial.

Evolving for the Future

With the world around us changing, it begs the question on how and if our industry will follow suit. Many corporations and law firms are demanding employees return to the office. Some companies require in-office attendance five days a week. Emma believes these firms likely won’t be able to maintain this mandate and will need to evolve. In the UK, lawyers want to work an average of 2.1 days at home each week. This number was just half a day before the pandemic.

However, working remotely does have its challenges, especially for junior lawyers. They have an appetite for learning. Often, remote work is not as conducive to mentorship opportunities.

“So much of what you learn as a junior lawyer is by watching and listening to senior attorneys. Law firms need to become a lot smarter in how they support and manage junior attorneys,” Emma said.

A lot will look different moving forward. Some of us may opt to work in an office whereas others may prefer to continue working remote. We are all tasked with finding ways to connect with each other. Mary and Kaylee host support calls every week. For Stellar Women, we created a LinkedIn group to share our highlights of the week with one another.

For me, it’s been helpful to prioritize my physical and mental health and lean on my network. Even though we’re 18 months into the pandemic, we’re still navigating unchartered territory. The good news is, we’re figuring it out, together.

Artwork for this post was created by Kael Rose.

Catch Up on Relativity Fest 2021 While Recordings Are Available

Mary Rechtoris is a senior producer on the brand team at Relativity, where she's always collaborating and looking for new ways to develop and socialize stories.

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