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Health and Wellness

Meet Your Law Firm’s New Director of Lawyer Well-Being

Taking the issue of lawyer wellness to a new level.

By Link Christin

To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Yet a 2016 survey by the American Bar Association found that lawyers are under profound health stress. Up to 36 percent of the 13,000 practicing lawyers surveyed were classified as active problem drinkers. Between 19 and 28 percent were struggling with stress, anxiety or depression.

The findings sparked an industrywide focus on lawyer well-being, resulting in a 70-page report that included concrete recommendations on what law firms should do to improve working conditions.

Based on my recent conversations with law firms across the country, both the ABA and firms are starting to take the issue of lawyer well-being to a new level.

The issue is important enough that a number of firms have recently hired a “director of well-being” (or its equivalent). This new role is charged with cultivating a healthy work environment as well as general work-life balance. Other firms have placed the responsibility under existing roles such as the director of lawyer development. In addition, these firms have formed committees focused on initiatives targeted to holistic lifestyles and sustained physical and behavioral health.

Firms Have a Huge Economic Stake

Not only is this the right thing to do, but law firms are discovering that promoting well-being can be a tremendous economic boost.

Increasingly, young associates have defected after three or four years because of poor work-life balance. Firms have invested heavy sums developing and training these young lawyers only to have them leave because the work culture in today’s law firms does not support this generation’s needs. As I have written previously, this new wave of young lawyers obviously view a balanced, healthy life as a priority, and are often abandoning BigLaw once their crushing student loans are repaid.

The legal profession is trapped in a work culture that is out of balance from top to bottom, and we are seeing the results of not dealing with stress, anxiety and one’s professional life in a healthy manner.

The issue is not limited to young associates. One big challenge for many firms is to maintain the productivity of the lawyers who have 20 to 30 years of experience, manage major clients, and often have a multimillion-dollar book of business. These lawyers have arrived at the top of their profession. Their responsibilities are tremendous and widespread. But the reality is, they are seldom happy and may be:

  • Suffering from depression.
  • Having panic attacks.
  • Burning out.
  • Having strokes or heart attacks.
  • Struggling with substance use.

The legal profession is trapped in a work culture that is out of balance from top to bottom, and we are seeing the results of not dealing with stress, anxiety and one’s professional life in a healthy manner.

The traditional structure and culture of BigLaw may continue to provide significant profits but at an increasingly dangerous personal and business cost.

Cultural Change and Education

How can these new directors help? There are three primary strategies for them:

  1. Eliminate the barriers to well-being. Offering yoga, meditation and healthy meals can be a good, if modest, start. The bottom line is that most lawyers strive to meet billable hours, client demands and new client development expectations, resulting in long days and intrusions into weekends. A robust family and personal life are nearly impossible. Few lawyers I have treated or spoken to have described a balanced life within a law firm.
  2. Educate and promote the coping skills and positive behaviors that result in well-being. This requires working to eliminate the stigma associated with confronting behavioral health issues, as well as the stigma of verbalizing a need for work-life balance. Without the firm’s leadership and education on this, admitting to these conditions and reaching out for help are perceived as signs of weakness.
  3. Put counseling or treatment in place for those who are struggling. Those who are struggling to ask for help or treatment need to have a safe path. They have to feel confident in the firm’s good-faith efforts to help them during their troubles and to safeguard their jobs if they build a program of recovery.

The Right Person for the Job

Currently, law firms are examining what sort of skills are needed for this role. Should it be someone with a mental health background, a legal background, or something else entirely? It’s likely that a general wellness or life coach would not be appropriate. Lawyers deal with discrete, specialized issues and often they are not susceptible to solutions through general counseling.

A director of well-being must have credibility with the firm’s management and with the lawyers themselves. That suggests that the best person for the job could be a lawyer. The role needs to address structural issues in the operation of the firm and in the corporate culture that are inhibiting well-being. The director must not be intimidated by this undertaking. Firm culture must be clearly defined, and partnership goals should be tangible and realistic under this shift.

For example, should there be as much alcohol at company parties? What about the firm’s 24/7 work culture, where there are no boundaries between work and personal time? Should the firm move away from billable hours to working on a project basis?

Many firms are making such changes. A director of well-being needs to engage at a level where those sorts of decisions can be welcome and cultivated.

Well-Being Requires a Trade-off

Creating and embracing a legal work environment that is supportive of well-being is a tall order. The current work culture is deeply ingrained and, for many firms, tied closely to the historic profit model. Associates are often viewed as fungible economic assets. Although large firms are often able to entice new lawyers with generous salaries, it is typically just a matter of time before the associates realize that they may not have any time to spend the money.

Work-life balance is going to cost money. The firm might not be able to sustain billable-hour requirements and other structured demands may no longer be feasible. Starting salaries for associates may be reduced. The 24/7 availability might no longer be guaranteed. Associates need to be willing to make these trade-offs just as much as the firm.

If it leads to a better quality of life for the associate and a greater retention rate for the firm, it might be worth the change.

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Link Christin Link Christin

Link Christin is Executive Director of the Legal Professionals Program at Caron Treatment Centers, and works extensively with impaired lawyers through the treatment and recovery process. A former lawyer and firm partner, he also educates and provides training to law firms about these issues. He is a licensed and board-certified alcohol and drug addiction counselor.

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