“Change requires a far-sighted and honest assessment of the state of our members, accompanied by a courageous commitment to re-imagine what it means to lead the life of a lawyer.” – National ABA Task Force on Attorney Wellbeing
Lawyers’ welfare has been in crisis for decades, even before a pandemic forced us to Google “Zoom Fatigue” to understand the novel forms of fatigue we experience every day. Fortunately, our profession is finally making an effort to address wellness more broadly, from law school to practice. The Practicing Law Institute (PLI) is proud to be part of this effort with our first month of Professional Development Recognition and additional new programs that focus on attorney wellbeing.
Until recently, attorney wellness often meant little more than practicing unimpaired. Informal efforts to combat lawyer substance use date back to the late 1960s, and the ABA began calling for government aid programs for lawyers from the late 1980s. Today all 50 states and DC have bar-funded legal assistance programs. It wasn’t until the 2000s that bar associations, law firms, and law schools began addressing the well-being of the wider population as well, law students and attorneys facing life challenges other than substance use disorders.
This timeline corresponds to my personal experience. In the late 90s and early 2000s, employee wellbeing at Big Law was measured almost entirely by whether we billed our hours, did a good job, made our rewards, and didn’t burn out and quit. Substance use and mental health issues were discussed only when they affected the quality of our work, and those conversations were associated with a healthy dose of shame.
In other words, the reward system often focused on whether you were achieving external, company-centered goals rather than your own internal career and life goals. This conflict too often resulted in the worst of both worlds – neither the lawyers’ wellbeing nor the long-term retention and development of highly competent practitioners.
Even as some companies formalized employee development and took steps to track career milestones and create mentoring programs, these metrics and relationships focused on helping employees train themselves in the technical aspects of the legal profession that were theirs Seniority correspond. Too often it has been a godsend in the draw to see if you happened to work for a partner who cared about something other than trusting you to make a deposit or create a deal checklist. Goals such as a sustainable work-life balance and healthy stress management were entirely up to the individual – or all too often simply ignored.
This approach is changing with more systematic efforts by law schools, bar associations, and the professional development community in recent years to promote the welfare of all lawyers and law students. Efforts include removing the stigma associated with seeking help behaviors [and] Emphasize that wellbeing is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence. “These efforts also recognize the unique challenges faced by lawyers who are members of communities affected by systemic racism and other forms of discrimination.
The relationship between well-being and competence is particularly relevant for the transition from law school to practice. As a new attorney, it can be way too easy to immerse yourself in these company-centric goals and metrics for success and neglect your own wellbeing, which can affect your long-term career as well as your personal life. As an executive coach for lawyers (and a former Big Law partner), Rudhir Krishtel says: “As lawyers, we will drop everything in order to serve our clients. Do we do the same for ourselves? My advice: put the oxygen mask on yourself in front of others. It could save your life – and it will definitely make you a happier, more successful lawyer. “
PLI’s mission is to keep attorneys at the forefront of legal knowledge and expertise. That will never change. What is changing, however, is the legal profession’s broader understanding of a well-trained attorney: someone who can stay healthy and productive over the long term.
At PLI, we are also working to achieve this goal. Our bridge-the-gap programs cover the CLE ethics and skills training that new lawyers need. New and upcoming programs focused on attorney wellbeing include the upcoming live webcast Taking Control of Your Wellbeing: Mental Health and Wellness for Attorneys; the on-demand roundtable mental health and wellness programs for litigators and tackling the perceived stigma – a discussion of the mental health of lawyers; and our free webcast, Empowering Professional Development Series 2020: Welfare in the Legal Industry, recently published for PD Appreciation Month. To learn more and to register for this and other programs that focus on attorney wellbeing, visit PLI.edu.
The Practicing Law Institute is a non-profit learning organization dedicated to keeping lawyers and other professionals at the forefront of knowledge and expertise. PLI was chartered by the regents of the University of New York State and founded in 1933 by Harold P. Seligson. The organization offers high quality, accredited, ongoing legal and professional education programs in a variety of formats offered by more than 4,000 volunteer schools, including prominent lawyers, judges, investment bankers, accountants, business consultants, and US and international government regulators. PLI publishes a comprehensive library of papers, course manuals, answer books and journals, which are also available on the PLI PLUS online platform. The essence of PLI’s mission is commitment to the pro bono community. Watch the upcoming live webcasts from PLI here.