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October 23, 2023 Your Voice

The ABA Well-Being Pledge Turns 5: Progress made, progress needed

By Patrick R. Krill

Mark Twain once said "action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often." While that general sentiment applies in almost limitless contexts, one centrally relevant to the legal profession is the push to improve mental health and well-being among lawyers and law students.

Indeed, the discussion about our significant challenges in that arena, as well as the numerous opportunities for improvement that exist all around us, has never been more widespread or full-throated. But discussions have their limits, conversations their constraints, and when it comes to bettering mental health in the legal profession, the ratio of words to actions is often quite lopsided. There are, however, notable exceptions.

This fall marks the five-year anniversary of the ABA Well-Being Pledge, which is a call for and commitment to concerted action aimed at reducing the incidence and impact of mental health and substance use problems in the legal profession. To date, the pledge has in many ways been an outstanding success and a clear example of how employers from across the profession can come together and row in the same direction toward a shared and desirable destination.

With a total of 227 current signatories to the pledge, the workplaces of tens of thousands of lawyers have now committed to taking specific, concrete steps to raise awareness and reduce risk.

From increasing education about mental health and well-being to de-emphasizing alcohol, adopting better policies and enhancing available resources for support and counseling, a common set of standards and practices has now been adopted by an impressive number of law firms and other legal employers.

Those standards and practices serve to create a foundation, a sturdy floor upon which additional improvements can be designed and built. That is, by any objective measure, significant progress toward solving a problem which has often seemed intractable.

When I originally developed the idea and framework for the Well-Being Pledge campaign, several years before it ultimately became a reality under the leadership of former ABA Presidents Hilarie Bass and Bob Carlson, I hoped, but would not have guaranteed, that it would attract the signatures of most of the country’s largest and prominent firms. Or that they would remain part of the effort five years later, recommitting to their obligations annually and submitting documentation of their efforts. That is a meaningful achievement for our profession and one for which all participants deserve and share the credit.

Thanks to a committed group of volunteers who work alongside ABA staff to devote considerable time to the ongoing administration of the pledge, it remains a visible and sturdy anchor for the well-being movement in law, as well as an easy-to-follow roadmap for employers seeking to join that movement and community.

In fact, for current signatories and nonsignatories who may otherwise be interested in and supportive of improving mental health in the legal profession, the ABA will be hosting a free, virtual workshop Nov. 9 that will celebrate the five-year anniversary of the pledge with a series of engaging and informative panel discussions, registration details of which can be found here.

If your firm or organization is not a current signatory, attending the November workshop will be an excellent opportunity to learn more about how and why you should be involved.

So what would Twain say about where things stand today? It is hard to know because in the five years since the pledge was launched, the world and our workplaces have changed so profoundly and permanently that any effort to quantify the pledge’s full impact on mental health would be hopelessly confounded by numerous intervening variables, most obviously the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just as the profession was beginning to make encouraging and overdue progress around mental health, the world around us began to fall apart, resulting in a severe and unprecedented mental health crisis for children and adults that continues to grow and ripple throughout society.

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Put another way, it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of a car’s brakes when the road beneath it has suddenly and unexpectedly washed away. What becomes painfully clear in moments like that, however, is that having brakes in the first place is nonfungible, along with other basic safety features that just might save the day.

Indeed, such was the case for many signatories to the ABA Well-Being Pledge over the last three years, when the programs and the resources that they had already begun to implement or enhance as part of their pledge commitment allowed them to respond more nimbly and effectively when the extraordinary mental health toll of the pandemic first began to materialize.

Now, as we look ahead to 2024 and beyond, we find no shortage of looming stressors and ongoing problems that continue to threaten our mental health and diminish our well-being. Life is changing, but it isn’t getting easier. As a result, the five-year anniversary of the pledge marks an important and appropriate time to simultaneously celebrate the progress the campaign has enabled while redoubling our efforts and committing to do more.

For current signatories, that means avoiding complacency, inertia or the temptation to “phone it in” as you map out future efforts to comply with the requirements of the pledge framework. Instead, signatories should adopt a spirit of innovation and continuous progress, challenging themselves—and by extension other pledge signatories—to do more, to go above and beyond. For nonsignatories, that means joining the pledge community and using it as a springboard to either launch or reinvigorate your organization’s well-being program.

Despite having well over 200 employers who have signed on to the pledge, we still have far more who have not, with corporate legal departments, public sector agencies and law schools being among the least well-represented groups.

If you are an attorney or a staff member at an organization that is not currently a signatory to the ABA Well-Being Pledge, it would be worth asking the leadership why. Perhaps there is a compelling reason and, if so, hopefully your organization is doing other things to build a durable foundation for supporting the mental health and well-being of your attorneys and staff.

Because one thing is clear: Changing the overall culture of the legal profession to support better mental health and well-being is going to require most of us—as people and organizations—to do more. But when we do, and when that ratio of words to actions finally becomes more balanced, the results will have been worth the effort, for us and for future generations of legal professionals to come.

Patrick R. Krill is an attorney, a licensed and board-certified addiction counselor and a researcher who has initiated and helped lead numerous important efforts to improve mental health and well-being in the legal profession over the last decade. He is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm exclusively for the legal profession. Krill is an adviser and an educator for many of the world’s largest law firms, as well as regional and boutique firms, corporate legal departments and public sector agencies. He regularly publishes peer-reviewed research on lawyer mental health and has authored roughly 80 published articles related to addiction and mental health.

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This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.