In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month and Well-Being Week in Law, Proskauer’s Senior Manager of Wellness, Tracey Saliski, brought Brianne Gallo and me together for a discussion about finding purpose in life and work through participation in public service at Proskauer. It was a privilege to present on this topic with Brianne, who is a psychotherapist and licensed master social worker on the team of Guide+Thrive consultants that support Proskauer’s wellness initiatives. I am pleased to share this recap of our presentation.

Brianne: Today’s well-being topic is “embracing one’s purpose,” and I’d like to start our conversation by defining what we mean by “purpose.” I find that the Japanese concept of “ikigai” is a helpful way to think about purpose. The word “ikigai” combines the terms “iki” – meaning “life” – and “gai” – meaning “worth.” Taken together, it means “that which gives your life worth.” In other words, it is your reason for being. It’s what gives your life meaning.

Erin: You have shared with me that people can find their “ikigai” at the intersection of 1) what they love, 2) what they’re good at, 3) what the world needs, and 4) what they can be paid for. If we imagine a Venn diagram with those four circles intersecting, I think we’d find the words “pro bono” written in the center! Pro bono is an opportunity to apply your skills toward something you love – something you care about – in service of others who have a need for free legal representation, all while being paid to do it as a Proskauer employee. In other words, “pro bono” is “ikigai” – doing pro bono work gives your life worth and meaning.

Brianne: Exactly. Participating in public service at Proskauer is a great way to add purpose to one’s life and career. Having a sense of purpose both inside and outside of the workplace is essential to our well-being, not only because it gives us a reason for being but also because there are scientifically proven physical and mental health benefits that come from knowing and striving to fulfill your purpose in life. For example, it has been shown that people who feel a sense of purpose are more likely to experience increased longevity, reduced risk of mortality, and better abilities to manage and reduce physical pain. Having a feeling of purpose in life can also reduce your risk of depression and suicidal ideation, and can even prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

Erin: That sounds like all the more reasons to volunteer and do pro bono work! Personally speaking, I feel blessed to have identified several causes that I am particularly passionate about, and to have a career that allows me to use my skills to advance those causes. But sometimes it can be difficult to figure out one’s purpose. What’s your advice for someone still trying to identify their purpose?

Brianne: I recommend that people start by focusing on curiosity and interest. What are you naturally curious about? What are the things that really interest you? Ask yourself questions like, “What is one thing that I can talk about for hours with my family or friends? What is one thing that I enjoy doing even if I don’t always succeed at it?” From there, begin thinking about what drives your passion. Often our passion stems from our own experiences of pain or times when we have felt compassion for others. Ask yourself, “Is there something difficult I’ve overcome in my life that I’d like to share with the world? How do I want to serve society?”

Erin: I often say that I am a “pro bono matchmaker” because my role is to help connect people to pro bono matters that they find meaningful. Proskauer has a wide range of public service opportunities available across many different subject areas – immigration, veterans’ benefits, special education, voting rights, gun safety, criminal law reform, gender justice, and more. I am always happy to have a one-on-one conversation to help someone explore these options and find a public service project that would increase their feeling of purpose. We also offer extensive training and mentoring so that people can learn new skills and feel comfortable taking on pro bono cases in areas of the law that may be unfamiliar to them.

Brianne: You raise a good point – if you want to feel purpose in life, it’s not enough to just be passionate about something without having expertise or taking action on that passion. It’s when we combine our skillsets with a cause we care about, and we take concrete steps in support of that cause, that we achieve a feeling of purpose. When we have a strong sense of purpose, we also increase our level of resiliency – our ability to overcome the challenges that we encounter in our daily lives and in our efforts to fulfill our mission.

Erin: I think you’ve just highlighted yet another way in which finding purpose through doing pro bono work enhances our well-being. We can develop vicarious resilience by serving pro bono clients who have encountered many challenges in life but have nevertheless continued to thrive. When I am feeling stressed or discouraged, I think about my pro bono clients who have been role models of strength in the face of adversity, and about how meaningful it has been for me to play a role in helping them overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. I also think about how meaningful it is to be part of a community of like-minded people at Proskauer who share my passion for public service.

Brianne: I think that’s a great example of how meaning in life comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself.

Erin: I am thankful to everyone at the firm who is involved in our pro bono and corporate social responsibility efforts. Together we are finding purpose in making a difference in the world and in our communities.