COLUMBIA, S.C. — The legal community’s efforts to help ensure that attorneys stay well, both mentally and physically, has become a movement during the past few years.
While there has long been help for attorneys suffering from or at risk for substance abuse, firms in the Carolinas are now taking a holistic approach that goes beyond substance abuse to address the entire well-being of attorneys.
That is, you can be an attorney and still have a well-balanced, fulfilling life without the all baggage that is often associated with the legal field.
“The history of mental health and substance use impairments among the profession brought about programs to address those issues,” said Beth Padgett, the director of the South Carolina Bar’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers program. “The wellness emphasis came about as a way to prevent these negative outcomes and has grown from there.”
Treating the toxicity
In 2016, the American Bar Association surveyed more than 12,000 attorneys and found that more than 20 percent of them drank at levels that could classify them as problem drinkers, while 28 percent reported having depression. Almost 20 percent reported suffering from anxiety and almost 12 percent reported having suicidal thoughts during their careers.
To combat these statistics, the ABA in November began a wellness pledge campaign, asking law firms around the country to promise that they would start programs and practices to encourage attorneys to practice self-care, and to address head-on any mental or substance abuse issues they are facing. The ABA also recommends that firms identify the stakeholders and “the role each can play in reducing the level of toxicity in the legal profession.”
Firms should work to eliminate the stigma associated with “help-seeking behaviors,” the ABA says, adding that law firms should take small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession.
Many attorneys are constantly on edge and simply don’t enjoy life, Padgett said.
“They are perfectionists and are always looking for the next problem,” she said. “They don’t want to be caught off guard by their opposing counsel having information that they don’t have. They are always digging for the next problem. If you do that for 10 hours a day, you don’t stop doing that when you leave the office and go home to your family and friends and community. Having that negative outlook is one of the things that helps build anxiety and depression.”
Nexsen Pruet, which has five offices in South Carolina, is one of the firms that signed the pledge. Leaders of the 195-member firm knew there were some attorneys who were struggling with substance abuse, anxiety, depression and just ordinary stress. And on several occasions, the firm had to confront “very serious problems” involving its own attorneys said Leighton Lord, the firm’s chairman of the board.
“For too long, our friends and colleagues have tried to handle these issues on their own,” Lord said. “As a firm, we want our attorneys and staff to know we prioritize their well-being and will foster a professional environment that offers support and encourages well-being.”
Mocktails and Mario
About 18 months ago, the firm brought in Patrick Krill, an expert on attorney wellness and the former head of the Betty Ford Center’s professional division, to meet with the firm’s attorneys. Lord recalled that when he and his partners met with Krill, he asked them what choices the firm offered non-drinkers at company events.
“A pitcher of water,” one of the partners replied.
“We weren’t making it attractive for people not to drink,” he said. “Have some kind of fizzy stuff, even a mocktail, for God’s sake.”
Cranfill, Sumner & Hartzog, a firm based in North Carolina, began a wellness program about five years ago, said Alissa Lama, the firm’s human resources director.
The firm puts a major emphasis on preventative care, and attorneys there get points that add up to the reduction on their insurance rates if they attend their annual medical and dental checkups. But the firm’s program includes opportunities for fun, too. It recently held a Wii Challenge in the firm’s common area where associates won gift cards for things like dinners out and massages.
For its part, in 2019, Nexsen Pruet is rewarding its associates who run in a 5K race.
From health to wealth
Michael Kahn of Charlotte knows all too well the challenges that attorneys face. He was on his way to work as an assistant attorney general in New Jersey when he reached his breaking point.“I started pounding on the steering wheel because I was so unhappy and not looking forward to going to work,” he recalled.
He eventually opened a practice in Charlotte, where and he fellow attorney Chris Osborn developed a CLE wellness class for attorneys through the Mecklenburg County Bar Association.
“We came up with the idea of watching movies that show lawyers doing dumb stuff and then working with the audience to unpack why it happened – how pressure and anxiety can drive people to forget or disregard their ethics,” Osborn said.
Kahn is now a counselor and, along with Osborn, now owns Creative Learning Experiences, a Charlotte consulting firm that instructs lawyers about wellness. The typical lawyer approach to almost any problem is to analyze it and think about it in terms of statistics or numbers or results, Osborn said, but there is no one-size-fits-all fix for the problems that attorneys face. Now, firms are more open to bring in people from the outside to help, instruct, and counsel their attorneys about being well, he said.
And the bottom line regarding attorney wellness is the bottom line, he said.
“If you want to be more productive and you want to sustain your life lifestyle, wellness matters,” Osborn said. “It makes a big difference on how much money you make. And once the big firms realize that, they’re like, ‘Oh, now we’re paying attention.”
ABA wants increased focus on well-being
The American Bar Association is asking law firms to sign a pledge committing to their attorneys’ well-being. Those who sign the pledge promise to:
Provide enhanced and robust education to attorneys and staff on well-being, mental health and substance use disorders.
Reduce the expectation of alcohol at firm events by seeking creative alternatives and ensuring that non-alcoholic alternatives are always available.
Partner with outside providers who are committed to reducing substance use disorders and mental health distress in the profession.
Provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources, including free, in-house, self-assessment tools.
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.
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.
Use the pledge, and the firm’s commitment to these principles, to attract and retain the best lawyers and staff.