Contemplating Well-Being (or, Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others…)

Vol. 14 No. 3

AuthorWe are moving into the holiday seasons.  The holidays can be a mixed bag.  They bring celebrations and festive gatherings with family and friends.  They can also bring excess of food and drink, family tensions, and the stress of trying to have a good time while also perhaps having to complete a complex year-end transaction or respond to government demands dropped on a client the day before a holiday.  It is timely that the ABA and the Health Law Section have recently launched two new initiatives focusing on health and well-being.

The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) has been around a long time.  CoLAP’s mission is “to assure that every judge, lawyer and law student has access to support and assistance when confronting alcoholism, substance use disorders or mental health issues….”  CoLAP recently cosponsored studies with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and documented the alarming extent to which lawyers and law students grapple with mental health and substance use disorders.  In August 2016, CoLAP joined with a collection of entities from within and outside the ABA to create the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being (the Task Force).  A year later the Task Force culminated its work by publishing its report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.

Following publication of the Task Force’s report in August 2017, current ABA President Hilarie Bass created the Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession (the Working Group).  This Working Group includes representatives from law firms, lawyer assistance programs, and malpractice insurance carriers.  The focus of the Working Group is to create model policies for addressing substance use disorders and mental health issues, and then to make them available to law firms and other employers in the legal profession.

Meanwhile, the Health Law Section (HLS) expanded our attention to these issues.  The HLS was already active in this area through the Substance Use Disorders and Mental Health Interest Group and its Advisory Board, ably led this year by their respective Chairs, Greg Fliszar and Beth Ann Middlebrook.  The HLS Council then approved the creation of a Committee on Health & Well-Being at its September 2017 meeting.  The Charter for this Committee was developed by Lisa Genecov, Sidney Welch, Alexandria McCombs, and Kathleen DeBruhl, who are leading the Committee’s initial work.

What are these efforts about?  When I first learned of these initiatives, I thought of them as focusing on “health and wellness.” But I was quickly educated on the differences between “wellness” and “well-being.”  The terms “health and wellness” apply primarily to physical health, while “health and well-being” sweep broader, more holistically.  The Task Force defines “lawyer well-being” in its report:

We define lawyer well-being as a continuous process whereby lawyers seek to thrive in each of the following areas: emotional health, occupational pursuits, creative or intellectual endeavors, sense of spirituality or greater purpose in life, physical health, and social connections with others.  Lawyer well-being is part of a lawyer’s ethical duty of competence.  It includes lawyers’ ability to make healthy, positive work/life choices to assure not only a quality of life within their families and communities, but also to help them make responsible decisions for their clients.  It includes maintaining their own long term well-being.  This definition highlights that complete health is not defined solely by the absence of illness; it includes a positive state of wellness.

The Path to Lawyer Well-Being, pp. 9-10.

What a wonderful state that describes!  And we in the HLS have great resources, connections, and knowledge to bring our members to help enhance well-being.  The new Committee is currently determining the scope and priorities for this first year.  The Committee’s leaders are also reaching out to other ABA entities, not only HLS’ own Substance Use Disorders and Mental Health Interest Group, but also CoLAP and the Task Force.  Lawyer assistance programs have been doing important work for many years.  The ABA Task Force, new Working Group, and new HLS Committee are bringing additional resources to bear to help lawyers be and stay well across the broad landscape of their lives.

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