Jeena Cho always struggled with anxiety and depression. As she progressed through her career as a lawyer, that became intertwined with her work.
“I didn’t really have the tools to be able to manage the amount of human suffering we come across as lawyers,” Cho said.
She has spent almost a decade discovering learning to use those tools. And for the last few years, she’s been helping other lawyers do the same.
Cho started her career in 2003 as an assistant state attorney in Tampa. The work took a toll—because of the victims, and also the harsh sentences doled out to some defendants who seemed trapped by the system.
“No one gets involved in the criminal justice system on a good day,” she said.
She recalled seeing undocumented immigrants being sentenced to significant jail time for driving without a license, which they cannot obtain in Florida.
“I was just so traumatized by that,” said Cho, who immigrated to the United States as a child.
The stress accumulated over time.
“I went through a period of burnout, I was depressed all the time, I was having nightmares,” Cho said. “I just wasn’t processing the job well.”
But addressing her feelings while working at the State Attorney’s Office would have been “unthinkable,” Cho said. It was a competitive environment.
“That’s very common in the legal profession in general,” she said. “We’re lawyers, we’re prosecutors. We’re supposed to be hard core.”
So Cho moved out to California, where she started a bankruptcy practice with her now-husband, Jeff Curl, in San Francisco.
She enjoyed bankruptcy law. But the switch didn’t fix it all.
“I just got used to it. I think I just assumed that this is how it is to practice law. That this is the norm and I just have to grit my teeth and practice,” Cho said.
Being a bankruptcy lawyer still involves taking in clients “on their worst days,” she said. There’s oftentimes some traumatic event that leads a person to file for bankruptcy.
“Over time, I felt more and more anxious … about meeting with clients, even about seeing friends,” she said. “It was almost like I was a third person observing myself going through these motions.”
But she didn’t think much of it, she said, figuring working harder might help.
Then her physical health started to show the effects—headaches, stomachaches, hair loss. Managing the symptoms while trying to get through each day became an increasing challenge.
“Inside, there was this feeling of not being altogether there, just waiting for the shoe to drop,” she said.
Driving to a hearing one day, she scared herself.
“I thought, ‘it would actually be nice if I got in a car accident because then I could call the court and say I can’t come,’” Cho said. “As soon as I had that thought, I was startled. I realized that’s not a thought I should have.”
Still, Cho hadn’t thought depression was a problem—she was still getting out of bed each morning, eating, functioning normally to any outside observer.
It took lunch with a friend to change her perspective.
That friend, a psychotherapist, suggested Cho might have an anxiety disorder, and recommended an anxiety management clinic at Stanford University. She learned she was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder.
“When I was first diagnosed I had this deep feeling of shame and embarrassment,” Cho said. “What does this mean for my ability to be a lawyer … are people going to try to use this information against me?”
But she sought treatment through Stanford’s clinic anyway. It was a 13-week program in a group setting, including cognitive behavioral therapy. She said she realized in that program that she had been lacking the tools to handle a stressful profession.
“I had this sort of epiphany that there wasn’t something wrong with me,” she said.
She learned that working with people in traumatic situations—whether they are accused of a crime, or have fallen into major debt after a death in the family—has real effects on one’s own mental health. Now, she said, she gives herself the space and time to process those experiences and talk them out when needed.
“I learned a lot about vicarious trauma,” Cho said. “Helping people who are in distress has a direct impact on your well-being.”
She’s married to her law partner, and they’ve gone through the learning process together, she said. So they each understand when the other needs time to recuperate.
Since then Cho co-authored a book, “The Anxious Lawyer,” and began speaking about her experience before bar associations and even several large law firm audiences, teaching mindfulness and meditation.
“Now, I spend a lot of time checking in with myself—How am I feeling today? How am I feeling in this moment? Before, I would think that’s too self-indulgent.”
She said her former attitudes toward self-care are likely held by many in the profession. As a prosecutor, she said, she would never have approached her employer about her mental health, for fear of being laughed at.
“I had one boss who said, ‘There’s no room for your feelings in this room,’” Cho said. “It’s painful.”
But the profession may be rounding a corner, she noted, as law firms begin to take an interest in mental health, and some even have therapists on site.
“As a profession, we really need to help each other care for our own well-being,” she said.