As I have very little respect for traffic laws, it’s a bit amusing that I’m surrounded by lawyers. My dad, my aunts, my uncles, some close pals, and my fiance all decided to pursue a career in law. For that reason, I understand the unique challenges that accompany the role. Law is a field founded on confrontation, that attracts both perfectionists and pessimists--high achievers that work hard, play hard. It’s a world where stress and busyness are a badge of honor, and where working long hours with a beer is just part of the gig. Brett Renzenbrink, a local award-winning lawyer explains, “the massive majority of lawyers are in circumstances that make them prone to anxiety, stress, stress disorders, substance abuse and suicide.” The statistics agree.
In 2017, the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published a study in the Journal of Addiction Medicine. It included data from 12,825 attorneys. The researchers found 28 percent of attorneys are struggling with some level of depression, and 19 percent struggle with anxiety. Younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice have the highest incidence of these problems, and the problem starts as early as law school. Dr. Andy Benjamin of the University of Washington conducted a study of law students that estimated 40% suffered from depression by the time they graduated. In fact, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.
Brett is making it his life’s mission to change this aspect of the legal profession. We met at Coffee Emporium to chat. Brett believes that no lawyer needs to sacrifice his or her true self in the quest for professional success and happiness. He recently published a book called 4L. The purpose is to help young lawyers build their book of business in an intentional, authentic way, while actually enjoying the process. Brett explained, “The massive majority of lawyers fall in to two categories, either frustrated and unable to control their professional destiny, or people who are successful but who have done it in a way that they don’t enjoy.”
Brett started the book as a project for his old firm in the format of blog posts. At one point, he had 65k words penned, but he wasn’t sold on publishing. Much of what Brett was writing was radical, especially for a profession that has changed very little over hundreds of years. A profession where stress means your valuable, and uniformity is praised, not creativity or uniqueness. Everything changed for Brett the morning after he made partner. He woke up completely unable to move one side of his face, and completely unable to close his one eye. After dozens of doctors appointments Brett finally learned he was experiencing Bell’s palsy.
“I went to doctor after doctor and all they could tell me is that stress is the only thing that might correlate with Bell’s palsy. It’s especially prevalent in pregnant women and in women before weddings, aka in high stress situations.” It took Brett almost a year to heal. He couldn’t work, he couldn’t function normally. “I really believe this happened because of subconscious stress I wasn’t acknowledging, and this was how my body manifested it.”
Through this difficult period, Brett found two major shifts in his life. He decided that never again would he take the small things for granted. For example, the ability to blink, an act that very few of us ever think about. Secondly, he decided to take a hard look at his professional life. He knew in that moment he needed to publish this book.“I decided that I no longer wanted to live by the idea that if I’m stressed I’m valuable or successful. If I’m stressed and unhappy it not only hurts me, but it hurts my family, my friends, and my clients. I decided to truly be authentic 100% of the time. If people don’t like it, that’s OK. When you go through something like this, it gives you a different perspective. It gives you the ability to be more vulnerable in life, both personally and professionally.”
So, he published the book. While the book is written for lawyers, the principles are applicable to numerous professions. One of the book’s main message is that while at work, we shouldn't have to jam our identities into a box. By bringing our whole selves to our jobs, we’re able to live fuller lives, find more success, and give more to those that we are serving. Instead of hiding differences, Brett encourages readers to embellish their personal nuances--those things that make you, you. Don’t change or mute yourself. Your differences are your strengths. Invest in your health, and it will help you succeed personally and professionally. Brett explained that he sees the legal profession, and so many others, as the sale of people products. You're selling yourself, and your services. And to be truly successful in selling yourself you need to be yourself, actualized, and fulfilled in the process.
“This isn’t just a book I’m trying to sell, it’s a manifesto of my new professional core principles.”
10% of all book profits will go back to lawyer assistance programs that address mental health and substance use disorders and prevention. You can buy the book here, and learn more about Brett here or here.