Well friends, tomorrow I leave for trial. Most of the rest of the team is already there. I managed to push my arrival as late as possible but I can’t delay any longer. There is little that induces more dread and anxiety in me than having to be on a trial team for weeks at a time. Being on the team behind the scenes on a trial is a strange set of circumstances because, while large scale civil jury trials are emblematic of what my firm does, it is precisely during these times that we stop behaving in the way that got us there in the first place.
Take a group of highly intelligent driven individuals who typically work in an orderly and self directed manner, relocate them to a soulless office space near the courthouse, have them endure weeks of inadequate sleep in order to live out nightly emergencies and brainstorms, and then turn the pressure up some more. Everyone starts out well dressed and considerate but by about ten days in it’s starting to look a bit like Lord of the Flies. I’ve had some truly dreadful past trial experiences. We do things better and more efficiently these days but I think I was so traumatized by my earlier experiences that I have some kind of PTSD about the whole thing now. About a week before I have to leave I start feeling sick with dread about it all. I’ve barely been able to concentrate the last two days. Even now I’m delaying packing until the very last minute just in case of some last minute reprieve.
So what specifically is so terrible (other than just the inherently bad idea of sleep deprived lawyers and their staff stuck together under fluorescent lighting for weeks on end)? It’s partly a sudden and jarring lack of autonomy. In my normal work life I have huge autonomy over how and when I work. I have no set start or finish time, can work from home as much as I like, and chose how I prioritize my workload. Trial however involves very early mornings and extremely late nights when everyone must be on site just in case you are needed. There is a nightly production of waiting for trial counsel to leave before you can even think about doing so yourself, all the while desperately maintaining a facade of calm productivity. It’s so contrary to how we normally operate.
I could handle all that better though if it weren’t for what I like to call the Unholy Trinity of Trial: lack of sleep, lack of exercise, and poor nutrition. Of these, I rank lack of sleep as the greatest evil as it begets the other two. No one can really stop you from sneaking push ups in your office or dashing out to the stairwell for a few heart pounding flights up and down. Likewise, some steely self discipline and good planning goes a long way towards countering the poor nutrition problem which is perhaps better described as an overabundance of the wrong kind of nutrition. Not getting enough sleep though ruins all that is good in the world. You can get up (extremely) early and workout on 4-5 hours of sleep for a few days, but as time goes by you get deeper and deeper in the sleep deprivation hole and then all you end up doing by trying to exercise is increase your chances of getting sick. As everyone should know by now, lack of sleep also makes you hungrier and for the wrong kinds of foods. Worst of all, lack of sleep makes all of us stupider and less efficient. It will never cease to amaze me that when we need to be at our sharpest and most mentally agile, “we” persist in engaging in the one thing that slows our minds and dulls our reasoning
Compounding matters for me, inadequate sleep is one of the biggest triggers for my anxiety. Correspondingly, my best tool for managing my anxiety is exercise. You see the dilemma. Oh, and then there’s the fact that I’m away from Husband and the puppy and miss them desperately. I also can’t run right now and can’t really walk well enough yet to do that for some gentle exercise outside without making my heel swell up. There’s a whole lot of stuff to dread but I’m trying to keep it in perspective. The truly terrible days will probably be limited to only a few. There will be some dark days which will mean much more reasonable start times and thus more sleep. (Dark days are when court is not in session for one reason or another, whether a holiday or the judge’s schedule. It’s literally dark in the courtroom but figuratively not dark at all in my world.)
Most importantly, it will be over in a matter of weeks. I remember being in the middle of one of the most miserable trials ever (either tied for first place or a close second in the trial misery stakes) on the phone to Husband crying so hard I could barely speak. He advised, Treat it like a deployment. You can’t think of anything that exists outside of the deployment. You can only know you are in it and that it will end. For those who don’t know me well, Husband’s deployments were in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early to mid 2000s. I almost feel embarrassed to mention this story as there is no comparison in hardship whatsoever between some bad weeks in a highly paid office job and a deployment in a war zone. It was however tremendously good advice that helped me get through a miserable time. It doesn’t serve you to think about your friends and family at home and all the many things you would rather be doing. Sometimes you just have to put blinders on and suffer through.