October 22, 2019 Mental Health & Wellness

Firm Brings "Full Time" Positive Psychology to the Workplace

A well-known law firm's recent action speaks volumes about the importance of self-care for lawyers

By Joseph P. Beckman

We have all heard the adage that “actions speak louder than words.” A well-known law firm’s recent action speaks volumes about the importance of self-care for lawyers.

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In March, Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP (ML) hired its first director of wellness to implement its ML Well program. This innovative formal program is available to lawyers and staff, with the goal of promoting the well-being of the entire ML team. ML was among the earlier signers of the ABA’s Well-Being Pledge, which calls on legal employers to “(a) recognize that substance use and mental health problems represent a significant challenge for the legal profession and acknowledge that more can and should be done to improve the health and well-being of lawyers; and (b) pledge to support the Campaign [to improve the substance use and mental health landscape of the legal profession] and work to adopt and prioritize its seven-point framework for building a better future.”

ML went “all in” because the mental well-being of its team members is “[n]ot a phase or fad, we want it to be [a] permanent [part of the firm’s culture],” says Amanda Smith, ML’s chief engagement officer. Smith pointed out that well-being is something that all legal employers can (and should) work together to address. Because of the firm’s size and many offices, “[w]e wanted this to be permanent, and we knew we needed to staff it with a full time, high level person who was in the field,” continues Smith. “If we tasked someone with this position as 25 percent of his or her job, it would have been very difficult to create the type of culture change we seek.”

Enter the Master of Applied Positive Psychology

The author obtained his psychology degree in the mid-1980s when “positive psychology” was in its infancy. The focus was more on how to take someone who was depressed and combine medication and perhaps some talk therapy to move him or her from, for example, a -8 score to a -3, and then eventually to a +3.

In the late 1990s, the spotlight seemed to move towards prevention, from the “minus side” to the “plus side” of the spectrum. For example, in 1998, University of Pennsylvania’s Marty Seligman, also then the president of the American Psychological Association, gave an annual address entitled “Building Human Strength: Psychology’s Forgotten Mission.” Since then, work in this area has mushroomed, and the university now offers a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree. ML’s director of well-being, Krista Logelin, is a graduate of this prestigious program and studied with Dr. Seligman. There are two main prongs to Logelin’s efforts.

“Part of this is a focus on ‘severe’ behavior. We want to be proactive and find ways to support [ML lawyers and staff] who are facing these issues,” Smith offers. This is a time when the team member is most vulnerable, and colleagues need to know the right way to offer assistance and support. There is another important area of focus for ML Well. “We knew we wanted to focus on more [than just crisis intervention],” adds Smith. “We want to help everyone to ‘move up’ to well-being,” she continues, noting that ML Well views the distinction between “well-being” and “wellness” as an important one.

“The term ‘wellness’ may connote habits as diverse as practicing yoga or eating kale,” Smith explains. While there are whole industries that market these and other health and wellness pursuits, Smith believes that “well-being,” which Psychology Today defines as “the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity…[which] includes having good mental health, high life satisfaction, and a sense of meaning or purpose,” embodies a more expansive and practical approach.

By way of analogy, yoga and kale are “wellness baskets” holding your eggs (your mental health). “Well-being” is concerned with getting the eggs to the table unbroken (feeling well) and not with the size or shape of the basket (wellness habits), which may be different for each person. Instead of (or in addition to) yoga or kale, ways to get the eggs to the table, or achieve well-being, might include a monthly trip to serve meals at Ronald McDonald House with others in the firm, a law department book club, or an office soccer team.

A Commitment All the Way to the Top

Each person builds relationships with coworkers outside the “law job,” so there is emotional support available when one person’s batteries run low. As such, ML Well also “[f]ocuses on prevention. The way we do this is through positive psychology.” This is where Logelin fits in.

Logelin, who was previously in management consulting and talent development, was drawn to ML because “[t]hey wanted to take a positive psychology approach as opposed to looking at things through an ‘illness’ lens.”

“It was clear to me leadership was invested in this” in a meaningful way, Logelin begins. She points to managing partner Steven Wall, who has been public about his own battle with alcoholism, as a tone setter in this regard. “A big part is simply starting the conversation and decreasing the stigma,” Logelin states. She continues that ML has “[b]een incredibly fortunate in our culture that Steve is being so candid,” which she believes reduces the stigma.

Wall’s leadership, and ML’s commitment by hiring and publicizing Logelin’s role, “addresses the crisis component,” according to Smith and Logelin. What is perhaps unique, and maybe even more effective, is what it proactively does to reduce the number of people who reach the crisis point.

Prevention Comes in Many Shapes and Sizes

Logelin describes one “domain” in the ML Well program as “lifelong learning” and promoting a “growth mindset.” For example, she points out how the Hartford associates run a book club. This builds social connections that can be an important part of the firm’s “support fabric” if and when a member in Hartford may be approaching a psychological crisis point.

Smith, who oversaw ML’s pro bono program for a decade, concurs with the value of what some may see as small things. Activities such as pro bono work and even book clubs “[m]ake people sticky to each other and [eventually] the institution,” she observes. (The author agrees, noting the members of his original law firm’s “championship” softball team, none of whom have practiced together for years, still engage in playful banter whenever they cross paths.)

The difference, perhaps, is that ML Well is a more intentional approach to creating and fostering different forms of this interpersonal stickiness. For example, Logelin is building the ML Well Portal on the company intranet. All employees have at their fingertips cutting-edge news, research, local office events related to positive psychology, and resources and benefits. All offices will learn about their local options for volunteering as a team during ML’s community impact week. Who knows, Chicago lawyers may even hear about an opportunity to play in the once legendary “Lake Shore 16” softball league, with games taking place on the fields made famous by Rob Lowe in About Last Night.

Tying It All Together

The goals of the ABA Campaign to Improve Mental Health and Well-Being of Lawyers “are to raise awareness, facilitate a reduction in the incidence of problematic substance-use and mental health distress and improve lawyer well-being.” Firms are urged to focus on “the concrete steps they should take as they seek to achieve those goals.”

ML Well appears not simply to reflect the core values of the campaign but to be well on its way to achieving these goals. While not every firm has the resources to roll out a program on this scale, it should inspire us all to look for ways to weave positive psychology principles into our professional lives and relationships. We will be following ML Well closely and wish Ms. Logelin and her team great success with their efforts!

 

Joseph P. Beckman is an associate editor for Litigation News and a Section of Litigation Mental Health & Wellness Task Force member.

Resources

  • ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, Well-Being Pledge, available at http://bit.ly/LN444-wellbeing.
  • Jeanne Sahadi, “He made his way to the top of ‘Big Law.’ Then his drinking almost brought him down,” CNN (Jan. 24, 2019).
  • “ABA launches pledge campaign to improve mental health and well-being of lawyers,” ABA News (Sept. 10, 2018).
  • Tchiki Davis, “What Is Well-Being? Definition, Types, and Well-Being Skills,” Psychology Today (Jan. 2, 2019).

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).

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