1. the solid surface of the earth; firm or dry land
2. often, grounds, the foundation or basis upon which a belief or action rests
3. rational or factual support for one’s position or attitude
4. to place on foundation; fix firmly; settle or establish; found
5. to instruct in elements or first principles
6. something that serves as a foundation or means of attachment
- definitions from Dictionary.com
As some of you may know, my dad is a farmer. I grew up on a farm just south of the very small town of Shabbona, Illinois. Shabbona?! Where the heck is Shabbona? It is located about 20 minutes south of DeKalb, Illinois, the home of Northern Illinois University. (Now…some of you are probably still thinking: DeKalb?! Where the heck is DeKalb? Well…it’s about 1½ hours west of Chicago and about 45 minutes southeast of Rockford.) Now you’re probably thinking: “So what, Heather? What do I care?” Well, I’ll get there. Just stay with me.
Anyway…I’ve now been in private practice as a general practitioner for six years. My first position out of law school was at an excellent general practice firm in Aurora, Illinois. After about two and one-half years at this firm, I returned home, so to speak, and began working in a general practice firm in DeKalb, Illinois. At both firms, I gained a great deal of experience—with regard to many specific areas of law, the practice of law in general, and, perhaps most importantly, the kind of lawyer that I am and the kind of lawyer and person that I want to be.
In 2005, the stress and long hours that are necessarily a part of being an attorney began to get to me. The financial strain from the outrageous amount of law school debt also continuously weighed me down. I became very unhappy in my practice and even considered leaving the profession. I met with the Director of the English Graduate Program at Northern Illinois University and considered going back to school to get a Ph.D. in English. But it just didn’t feel quite right to leave the profession, at least not yet. It had been too long of an educational road to just dump it so quickly and I had wanted to be a lawyer for as long as I can remember. Further, I just didn’t want to waste all of the time, money and energy that it took to get through law school and the bar exam without putting up a fight.
So I did a lot of soul searching and what I finally realized was that I actually really enjoy being a lawyer. I enjoy the higher-level of thinking and the analysis that must be done on a daily basis. I love taking on a big case that has spun out of control and working through the issues to reach a positive result for my clients. I love having a pile of work on my desk and checking things off my to do list as they are accomplished. I love the competition and the challenge of it. And, although this might sound corny, I really enjoy helping people on a daily basis. We, as attorneys, are in an excellent position to be able to help the less-fortunate in a variety of very important ways and I think we have an obligation to do so.
So why was I so unhappy with my chosen career? During this soul searching, I realized that the answer to this question actually came in two parts. First, it was clear that, although I loved being an attorney (at least on most days), I really disliked the attorney that I was at that time. I was practicing as an Associate in a firm and forced to practice in a way that wasn’t right for me. I was unable to spend the time that I believe necessary on volunteer activities, pro bono work and other things, such as active participation in the ISBA. It just wasn’t a good fit for me.
Second, I had allowed myself to get to a point where I had lost myself into the profession which, added to the long hours and stress of being a lawyer, was the perfect recipe for burn-out. I was completely burnt-out to the point that I was ready to give it all up. I kept thinking—there has to be more to life than this daily grind. Do I really want to live the rest of my life like this? Absolutely not.
Right around the same time that I was going through this identity crisis, the Fates intervened to give me the answer to this second problem. It was harvest time in 2005 (i.e. roughly around late September through November, depending on the weather) and circumstances arose that made it necessary for me to lend a hand to my dad in harvesting his crops. (See…I told you I’d get back around to why I mentioned growing up on a farm.) Although I couldn’t take off work at the firm to help, I spent my weekends helping my dad harvest his crops. (Yes…I did drive the big ol’ combines all by myself.)
Now, I had grown up on the farm and, like a typical self-involved youth, had never taken much interest in what my dad did as a farmer. I would drive the tractors on occasion and bailed hay every summer and helped with the piglets and bottle-fed calves and had a horse named Apples, but I really never paid much attention to the actual crops that my dad farmed. After all, I was going to be a lawyer, not a farmer. But, when I was sitting up in that huge combine during harvest of 2005, watching it pull in the corn stalks and learning how it all worked, it hit me. This is exactly what I needed. I was outside, away from a desk, away from the phones. I was getting back to my roots. It was liberating. It was, quite simply, an escape from the day-to-day grind.
When the spring of 2006 came around, my dad had just had rotator cuff surgery and he could not plant his crops. I took my two week vacation from the firm and planted my dad’s corn (with his constant and direct supervision, of course). Once again, I felt the same peaceful feeling that I had felt during harvest the year before. (Don’t get me wrong, farming is back-breaking physical work, especially when your muscles are used to sitting at a desk all day long. It’s also quite stressful and the hours are long because you’re always rushing to beat the weather. Think of it as a jury trial that lasts two weeks in the Spring and then is continued for two weeks in the Fall. This one case is your only income for the year and you don’t get paid until it’s all done.) It was very hard work, but it was almost like meditation for me, probably because it is so different from what we do as lawyers on a daily basis. I realized then and there, while sitting in the tractor and concentrating on making sure that the rows I was planting were as straight as could be (that’s very important, by the way), that I needed to make some major changes if I was going to be happy in this profession that I had chosen for myself.
First, I decided that I needed to find a way to open my own firm so I could practice law in my way - in a way that makes me happy and in a way that I feel is right. I opened my own firm in August of 2006. I am crazy busy all of the time and there is still quite a bit of pressure and stress, but it’s a different type of stress. Now I’m doing it on my terms and my time is my own. I have never minded high-pressure and hard work; in fact, I actually thrive on them. But I needed to be able to practice law in the way that fits me and works for me. Now I take the cases that I want to take and handle them in the way that I think is best. I am able to become more involved in the ISBA through the Young Lawyers Division and the Committee on Women and the Law. Being active in the ISBA is very important to me and to my practice and now I am allowed to put the time into it that is needed. I am a Board Member for the Kishwaukee United Way and for Opportunity House. I have started to take pro bono cases and I still have a thriving practice. I have never looked back or regretted my decision to open The Law Office of Heather M. Fritsch. In fact, I have never been happier.
Second, I decided that I am going to begin farming with my dad on a regular basis, and perhaps take over the farm when he retires. When I was sitting in that tractor that day last Spring, it just hit me that this is what I needed to do for me. And then I was immediately horrified when I realized that I had been thinking my whole life: “Poor Dad. He has no sons to take over the farm.” Well…so what? Why can’t I do it? So I decided I would. At first my dad laughed at me when I told him this and thought I was crazy. In his mind, he was thinking: “Why would she want to do this when she’s a lawyer?” But I think he realizes now that I am serious and that this something that I really want to do. He has started to teach me more about the process of farming and the machinery. I’m learning more than just the “how” of things—I’m starting to learn the “why” of things. It is extremely fulfilling.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to give up my practice. I’m simply going to do both. This may sound strange to some people, but I really truly think that farming with my dad helps me be a better lawyer. It allows me to get back to the basics and unwind my mind from constant analysis and critical thinking. It gives me a fresh outlook and renewed energy. Basically, farming grounds me.
In a profession in which so many lawyers suffer constant burn-out, I think it is important to remember to ground yourself. Think of yourself as if you are a house (no…I’m not saying you’re fat…just listen….). When a house is built, a considerable amount of time is spent on the foundation. Without a strong foundation, very few buildings can withstand the elements. Similarly, if we as individuals forget to nurture ourselves and ground ourselves (i.e. build a strong foundation or base), we may not be able to withstand the stresses and pressures of being a lawyer. I made this mistake. I lost myself in the process of becoming a lawyer and this led to physical and mental/emotional burn-out. I was one step away from leaving a profession that I had wanted to be in since I was in third grade.
Although my personal experience contains great literary symbolism—i.e. finding a way to ground myself by working the ground—I am not suggesting that you need to go buy a farm to ground yourself and find balance. But if you are feeling disconnected or uprooted, you do need to find a way to ground yourself. I think how you ground yourself is something that is unique to each individual. Just find what makes you happy, what gives you inner peace, and then give yourself the permission to do it on a regular basis. Actually, go beyond that—schedule yourself to do it on a regular basis. If you have been doing a lot of mental work, which we do for many hours at a time as lawyers, and you feel burnt-out and unable to concentrate, then it makes sense to re-ground yourself. Take a walk. Work out. Play with your cat or dog. Go for a swim. Meditate. Do yoga or t’ai chi. Work in a garden. Basically, find a way to balance yourself. Don’t let yourself get lost in the law because it is truly a fulfilling and wonderful career. Just remember to find your place within the profession and then remember not to lose yourself in the process. If you’re anything like me, everything will become a bit clearer once you are grounded and connected once again.