By Laura Mahr
Last September I spoke at the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Program’s (CoLAP) national conference on improving professional connections in the legal field through mindfulness and on building resilience to compassion fatigue. As a first-time attendee and presenter, I was honored to meet advocates for lawyer wellbeing from around the country, including LAP providers from almost all 50 states. After spending over a decade as a lawyer advocating for the needs of my clients, I was moved to be in the presence of this passionate group of individuals whose focus lies in advocating for the needs of lawyers.
In my hallway conversations at the conference, I discussed with others the Lawyer Wellbeing Movement that is gaining momentum across the country. Terry Herrell, the chair of the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession, references this “movement” in her article “How the ABA is Trying to Advance Lawyer Well-Being” (lawpracticetoday.org/article/ aba-trying-advance-lawyer-well). In the article, she says the movement is, “catalyzed around the striking data published in articles about two large-scale studies—one on lawyers and one on law students—that found that both groups experience substance use and mental health disorders at rates that significantly exceed those of the general population.” She further notes that, “both populations also were similarly reluctant to seek help for such problems.”
NC LAP Director’s Perspective on the National Lawyer Wellbeing Movement
I asked North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program Director Robynn Moraites her perspective on the current state of affairs regarding lawyer wellbeing. “There is a bit of a wellness revolution going on right now in the profession,” she said. “The fact that we are having real conversations about lawyer wellbeing is a great improvement. Not only in North Carolina, but nationally. Historically, most large firms have left these issues to in-house employee assistance programs (EAP), which are rarely utilized. Recently, lawyer wellbeing is recognized not only as a risk management issue, but also a productivity issue. There is real support from top management at firms of all sizes to take a closer look at quality of life and firm culture issues, resulting in firms walking the walk and not just talking the talk about ways to support lawyers’ mental health.”
NC Firms Take Part in Shaping Lawyer Wellbeing Movement
I asked Ms. Moraites to talk specifically about steps North Carolina law firms have been taking to proactively address lawyer wellbeing. She responded, “In 2016, LAP had the opportunity to present a Risk Management Roundtable, detailed in a 2017 Lawyer’s Weekly article, (nclawyersweekly.com/2017/ 10/12/setting-the-pace-on-lawyer-health). In the meeting, nine of the largest law firms in the state came together to talk about attorney mental health, addiction, and wellbeing. Coming out of that meeting, many of the participating firms began adopting the model policy promoted by the ABA. In addition, we (LAP) have been conducting trainings with lawyers and support staff from firms large and small. Law firms across the state have sponsored in-house mindfulness CLE programs.” “In addition,” Robynn added, “the State Bar—the Continuing Legal Education (CLE) Committee specifically—has shown incredible support and foresight in approving mindfulness and other stress reduction CLE programs. There are some states in which mental health CLE is not even permitted.”
NC Firms Bringing Mindfulness Trainings In-House
As Ms. Moraites mentioned, several pioneering law firms have brought Mindfulness and Neuroscience for Building Resilience to Stress CLE courses in-house. I created this course and my business, Conscious Legal Minds, to help the legal field better understand the connection between mindfulness and practicing law, and to introduce lawyers, judges, and law school students to innovative mindfulness and neuroscience tools to help cope with stress. In the past three years, firms of varying sizes—urban and rural—began contracting Conscious Legal Minds to tailor mindfulness CLE courses for them in-house. Some firms include the training at their annual lawyer retreat, others offer the course over a series of weeks at lunch; some offer the course for lawyers only, others include support staff; some firms choose for me to conduct the mindfulness training in-person, while others prefer virtual trainings, and some choose a combination of virtual and in-person.
What Firm Managers Have to Say About in Promoting Lawyer Wellbeing
I recently asked four of these pioneering firm leaders, “What role do you think firm management has in promoting lawyer wellbeing through trainings and other benefits?”
James Farrin, president and CEO, Law Offices of James Scott Farrin: I think it’s our responsibility as managers to empower all of our employees, and do what we can to promote their wellbeing. Research shows that attorneys can be particularly vulnerable to stress, and some fall victim to substance abuse and depression. Mindfulness training is relatively inexpensive, and it can give us skills that not only make us more resilient and more productive in the workplace, but also allow us to handle our personal and family lives better. Why wouldn’t I want that for myself, my employees, and my loved ones?
Brian Gilman, COO, Smith Debnam Narron Drake Saintsing & Myers, LLP: A primary responsibility of management in any organization is the safeguard and development of its personnel. As lawyers and staff spend nearly every day at the “tip of the spear” of stress incumbent in the practice of law, promoting wellbeing in our most valuable resource is easily identifiable as a management priority.
Cliff Homesley, partner, Homesley & Wingo Law Group PLLC: Firm management sets the tone for the priorities of the firm. Though we all like to efficiently deliver client services, have a satisfying work place, and make a good living, there are fundamentals behind those things that must be emphasized. The first being quality of life for the firm and its clients.
Linda Johnson, managing partner, Senter, Stephenson, Johnson, PA: Practicing law is stressful for all members of the firm. Our practice areas—estate administration and guardianship administration—bring a lot of drama and stress to the office. I wanted to find ways for all of us to manage the stress while working.
Why Firm Managers are Bringing Mindfulness Training In House
I was also curious about what interested each of these firms in bringing the Mindfulness and Neuroscience for Building Resilience to Stress CLE course in-house.
James Farrin: Our law offices brought mindfulness training in-house because legal work can be stressful, especially in a busy and demanding environment. Anything that we can do to decrease stress and increase coping skills should help with employee morale and retention and result in better service and outcomes for our clients as well. I had done some meditating previously and thought that it helped me personally, so I thought that some of our attorneys and staff could benefit from mindfulness training as well.
Brian Gillman: We brought mindfulness training to our firm because the pervasive changes experienced in the legal industry since 2008 have only served to increase our focus in identifying resources to assist our attorneys and staff in balancing the demands of a successful law practice with those in our personal life. As our management team became aware of the compelling impact of mindfulness techniques, we quickly began exploring ways we could introduce them at our firm.
Cliff Homesley: Mindfulness is basically a common-sense concept of living in the present moment. This is ultimately the only way to properly address client needs and to interact with our coworkers. We inherently live in the past or future, so it takes training to be able to stay present.
Linda Johnson: I brought the mindfulness training to my firm because I believe that firm management needs to be extremely committed to the lawyers and staff members’ physical and mental wellbeing. An individual cannot function and do their best job for the client if they are not mentally and physically healthy. Our jobs are very demanding, and we need to take care of ourselves and our staff members.
Benefits Firms are Receiving from Sponsoring Mindfulness Trainings
Finally, I asked each of these leaders about some of the benefits the firm received from sponsoring Mindfulness and Neuroscience for Building Resilience to Stress CLE trainings at their firms.
James Farrin: Reduced stress and better focus. It’s easier to move on from a difficult call or encounter and be present for the next one when one practices mindfulness.
Brian Gillman: The response of naturally skeptical attorneys to the mindfulness concepts introduced at our annual attorney retreat exceeded our expectations. We all learned simple techniques that were easily incorporated into our day, and both the level of need and the impact of mindfulness was evidenced in immediate requests for more training.
Cliff Homesley: It was an opportunity for self-examination and to learn to manage priorities so that we can give attention to the most important needs.
Linda Johnson: It was such a great team building event for the office. I believe that each of us learned skills from the training to apply during our work day. It was a great education for learning about mindfulness.
Where We Go from Here
I’m inspired that in North Carolina, advocacy for lawyer wellbeing includes law firm management and mindfulness programs, in addition to historically more conventional key players and more traditional wellness programs. As more and more firms step in as stakeholders for lawyer wellbeing, it is encouraging that established stakeholders are working together as well. “There is increasing collaboration between various stakeholders that have lawyer wellbeing foremost in their mission in our state: the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism, Lawyers Mutual Insurance, the Lawyer Assistance Program, Bar CARES, the LAP Foundation of North Carolina Inc.” notes Ms. Moraites. “While there is certainly always more that can be done, North Carolina continues to be a leader in fostering and promoting multiple approaches to address this important topic.” New leadership from a variety of players across the state—not to mention increased numbers of individual lawyers seeking mindfulness and resilience-based executive coaching—bodes well for our state holding its own, if not leading the way, in the National Movement for Lawyer Wellbeing. I am staying tuned to see where North Carolina firms go as we follow these trailblazers down the path toward a more mindful, collaborative, and resilient Bar.
Laura Mahr is a NC lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness-based 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 and 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, and a love of neuroscience. Find out more about Laura’s work at consciouslegalminds.com.