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New toolkit helps firms tackle mental illness, substance use

Representatives from state and local bars and law schools joined ABA members for an interactive program called “Getting on the Path to Lawyer Well-Being,” held Jan. 26 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Las Vegas, sponsored by the National Conference of Bar Presidents and the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession.

Led by Lynda C. Shely of The Shely Firms PC in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Terry L. Harrell, executive director, Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program in Indianapolis, the program opened acknowledging the problem:

Lawyer well-being is a risk management and professional responsibility issue for legal employers and bar associations.

Impaired lawyers reduce productivity, increase turnover, cause job dissatisfaction (among everyone, not just the impaired lawyer) and increase the likelihood of claims and bar complaints.

By now the alarming statistics are well known. According to the National Study of Lawyer Well-Being released in 2016 by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs  and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, among lawyers:

  • 21-36 percent are problem drinkers (compared to 8-10 percent of the general population and 12 percent of highly educated professionals)
  • 28 percent are struggling with depression
  • 19 percent are struggling with anxiety
  • 23 percent have elevated stress levels

Lawyer Assistance Programs offer support for mental health and substance abuse, but also provide grief support, care for the caregiver and career transition counseling, among its other services.

The 2016 study prompted the formation of the ABA working group to examine and make recommendations regarding the current state of attorney mental health and substance-use issues, with an emphasis on helping legal employers support healthy work environments.

Many legal employers are ready to implement positive but are unsure where to start. The  working group’s new “Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers” is designed to help. It offers tools and practical guidance for legal employers who want to join the lawyer well-being movement by launching organizational initiatives. Created by Presidential Working Group member Anne Brafford, who is both a lawyer and organizational science researcher, the free kit is a design prototype that will continue to develop and improve with user feedback.

In addition, last September, the working group launched the Well-Being Pledge, which calls upon legal employers (including law firms, corporate entities, government agencies and legal aid organizations) to 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 pledge to work to adopt and prioritize its seven-point framework for building a better future.

The pledge’s seven points are broad enough to apply to solos and Big Law alike:

  • Provide enhanced and robust education to lawyers and staff on well-being, mental health and substance-use disorders;
  • Reduce the expectation of alcohol at 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 this pledge, and the firm’s commitment to these principles, to attract and retain the best lawyers and staff;

The working group’s toolkit provides these employers with a roadmap from which they can develop a formal wellness program.  The group also distilled their advice in “Well-Being Toolkit Nutshell: 80 Tips For Lawyer Thriving,” a summary of the toolkit’s 80 key items to help employers quickly get started on a well-being initiative.

Drawing from the summary, Shely and Harrell enumerated 13 healthy workplace factors that support well-being:

  • Culture of trust
  • Mental health support
  • Effective leadership
  • Civility and respect
  • Good person-job fit
  • Growth and development
  • Recognition and reward
  • Involvement and influence
  • Workload management
  • Employee engagement
  • Work-life balance support
  • Psychological safety
  • Physical safety

Finally, they offered an eight-step action plan for launching a well-being program:

  • Enlist leaders
  • Start a well-being committee
  • Define well-being
  • Do a needs assessment
  • Identify priorities
  • Make and execute an action plan
  • Create a well-being policy
  • Measure, evaluate and improve

In breakout groups, attendees were then asked to brainstorm ideas and share what is working for their organization in promoting well-being. Among them were:

  • Mention wellness in every CLE program
  • Add a wellness day to law school orientation
  • Start meetings with a mindfulness moment
  • Sponsor attorney support groups on stress
  • Create a video series on well-being and post it on website
  • Offer wellness office hours at law schools
  • Bring in speakers on physical/emotional/financial wellness
  • Set up a confidential hotline on wellness, plus offer coverage of up to three visits to a therapist
  • Work with a local gym to offer Zumba or other classes
  • Offer a one-hour walking program with students and law professors, or associates and partners.
  • Put together a healthy cookbook with tips on wellness
  • Give wellness points to lawyers who join and attend a fitness facility

Among the ways attendees said they were maintaining their own wellness were through yoga, knitting, pets, exercise, humor, dancing and playing with grandchildren.

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For more, download Legal Talk Network’s podcast with the Working Group to Advance Well-being in the Profession and its efforts to address lawyer wellness.