Where to Begin
As the buzz builds nationally for improved mental health and decreased substance abuse in the legal field, firms of all sizes are considering how to best provide well-being programs in-house. While it may be our lawyerly nature to spring into action when tasked with solving a problem, when creating well-being programs and policies, meaningful discussions are a great place to begin. First assessing your firm’s need for well-being programming and reviewing existing policies and practices may help to funnel resources to the areas of greatest need. This article shares six topics for firms to discuss to build a strong foundation for in-house well-being programs.
ABA Calls Law Firms to Action
First, when initiating discussions about well-being programming at your firm, it’s helpful to orient your leadership team and later your workforce to what initially ignited the well-being buzz in the legal field. The national conversation about lawyer well-being began in earnest in 2017 when the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being released a lengthy report entitled “The Path to Lawyer Well-being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.” (bit.ly/2x3WRHm)
In it, the task force urged all stakeholders in the legal field, including legal employers, to take action to improve well-being in our profession. This call to action was a response to the findings of the first national study on “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys” published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine (bit.ly/2GhpjI9). The study revealed that attorneys have alarmingly high levels of “problematic drinking” and significant mental health distress including high levels of anxiety and depression.
What the ABA is Asking of Firms
Second, when considering options for well-being programming, it is beneficial to understand the specific recommendations the ABA offers for improving well-being at the firm level. To “improve the substance use and mental health landscape of the legal profession,” the ABA’s Working Group to Advance Well-being in the Legal Profession launched a campaign asking legal employers (including law firms, corporate entities, government agencies, and legal aid organizations) to consider promoting the following “seven point framework for building a better future:”
(1) Provide enhanced and robust education to attorneys and staff on well-being, mental health, and substance use disorders.
(2) Reduce the expectation of alcohol at firm events by seeking creative alternatives and ensuring that nonalcoholic alternatives are always available.
(3) Partner with outside providers who are committed to reducing substance use disorders and mental health distress in the profession.
(4) Provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources, including free, in-house self-assessment tools.
(5) Develop proactive policies and protocols to support assessment and treatment of substance use and mental health problems, including a defined back-to-work policy following treatment.
(6) Show that the firm’s core values include taking care of yourself and getting help when needed by regularly and actively supporting programs to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
(7) Use the Lawyer Well-being Pledge, and the firm’s commitment to these principles, to attract and retain the best lawyers and staff.
It may be useful to print the colorful infographic that depicts the seven point framework (bit.ly/2Myasxc) and use it as a conversation starter for well-being programming at your firm.
Address Beliefs that Hinder the Success of Well-being Programming
Third, before launching well-being programming, it is important for firm management to examine the beliefs they as individuals and collectively as a team hold about well-being. It is useful to explore and discuss the following topics:
Well-being and the bottom line: One of the most important beliefs to probe regards how firm management perceives workforce well-being impacting the bottom line. Historically, firm management teams have held the belief that well-being programs, while nice, are not necessary for financial success. Many firm owners or management teams read the ABA’s seven point framework and wonder, “Is this going to cost us money but give us no benefit?” Legal employers may be hesitant to spend time or money on well-being programs without a better understanding of how they promote financial success. If discussions reveal that there is no management team “buy in” for well-being programming, it is advisable to bring in an outside expert to educate firm management about the impact employee well-being has on the bottom line.
Substance abuse and the bottom line: Bringing in an outside expert on mental health and substance abuse disorders to talk with firm management may bring to light numerous ways alcohol and drug impairment impacts the firm’s financial picture. For example, working under the influence of drugs or alcohol increases the likelihood that an attorney makes an error that results in ethical violations, malpractice claims, and decreased client satisfaction—all of which impact firm image and the bottom line.
Well-being as a risk management issue: It may also be helpful to consult with in-house or outside risk management experts who can help frame well-being as a risk management issue. In so doing, well-being may transition from a “nice to have” into a “must have” element of firm infrastructure. Perhaps funds earmarked for risk prevention education may be used for well-being educational programming and mental health/substance abuse CLEs.
Self-care and productivity: Bringing in an expert to shed light on the connection between attorney well-being and professional resilience may be eye opening and paradigm shifting for firm leaders. Many attorneys hold the belief that taking care of themselves decreases productivity and impedes success. A number of us have built successful careers and businesses through self-sacrifice and believe that this is the only way to succeed. Our legal community is just now beginning to embrace the idea that working from a place of resilience grows success. I regularly educate firm leaders on the surprising neuroscience research showing that well-being practices that grow professional resilience—things like meaningful self-care, mindfulness, meditation, exercise, eating well, rest, and taking a break after a stressful event—also improve our productivity and cognitive functioning.
What Policies and Programs are Already in Place?
Fourth, take time to review policies and programs your firm currently has in place that support well-being. Then discuss ways to level up their efficacy. It is important to review not only the written policies and protocols, but also look at how they are implemented.
For example, if your firm has paid vacation but staff aren’t using their vacation hours, it may be helpful to understand why not. Or, if your firm has a “wellness week” but only a handful of support staff and zero attorneys attend the week’s offerings, discuss what is inhibiting attorneys and support staff from taking part.
What’s Working at Other Firms?
Fifth, many law firms for which I consult begin our discussions with this question: “What’s everyone else doing?” Many firms are finding it’s a lot more efficient to follow the pack than blaze the trail in creating in-house well-being programs. Robynn Moraites, director of the NC Lawyer Assistance Program, also often hears this question from firm leaders. She reports, “Many firms are now asking what other firms are doing. For better or for worse, because this is such a new horizon, not much precedent has been set. Firms are learning along the way what works in their culture and what doesn’t. In three to five years we will have really good feedback about what works and what doesn’t based on the initiatives firms are starting to implement now.”
It can be helpful to learn what other firms are doing and discern whether their approach may work at your firm. Robynn shares some of the initiatives firms are trying: “What I am seeing for the first time is law firms going beyond an EAP or a wellness newsletter. I’m seeing general counsel and managing partners taking seriously the idea of well-being for their lawyers—not only from a risk management standpoint, but also from a firm culture standpoint.” She adds, “Firms are getting serious about figuring out how to create meaningful engagement around well-being by regularly offering in-house mental health CLEs, mindfulness programs, and other well-being programming that’s relevant and interesting and promotes firm-wide well-being.” Other programs that firms are offering include on-site chair massage and yoga classes or free gym memberships. Some firms pay for one-on-one resilience coaching for attorneys, and some larger firms bring resilience coaches or therapists in-house to have mental health experts at the ready.
Resources for Firms
Sixth, when you are ready to move forward with in-house well-being programming, you may wish to hire an outside consultant to help guide the process, facilitate discussions, and provide expertise. If you are looking for well-being ideas, the ABA Presidential Working Group to Advance Well-being in the Legal Profession published a substantial toolkit for legal employers loaded with practical suggestions (bit.ly/2LTItqX), along with a companion “nutshell” version: bit.ly/2B3W1Me. ABA Immediate Past-President Bob Carlson says, “The toolkit offers practical guidance to help attorneys and employers acknowledge problems, encourage help-seeking behaviors, and foster civility throughout the profession.”
If while reading this you feel overwhelmed, pause and assess a reasonable next best step. Firm management may start by having management-level discussions about the topics recommended in this article. Associates may bring this article to firm leaders to initiate a discussion of their interest in well-being. Support staff may share this article and their concerns about well-being with supervisors. While this may be a time for discussion, assessment, education, and even some experimentation, it’s likely that the benefits of moving slowly and intentionally will advance your firm’s well-being programming quickly in the long run.
Laura Mahr is a NC lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness based well-being coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Her work is informed by 11 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, a love of neuroscience, and a passion for resilience. Find out more about Laura’s work at consciouslegalminds.com.
If you would like to connect with other lawyers interested in learning about mindfulness and resilience in the practice of law, join Laura as she presents at these upcoming events:
AILA Midwinter CLE Conference, January 24, 2020, Curacao, agora.aila.org/ Conference/Detail/1636.
“Mindfulness for Lawyers: Building Resilience to Stress Using Mindfulness, Meditation, and Neuroscience” (online, on demand mental health CLE), consciouslegalminds.com/register.