Wellness is a big deal in the legal world today. Not wellness as in healthcare law. Wellness as in the mental and physical health of lawyers.
We know that statistics support a concern about drug and alcohol addiction among lawyers, but until recently the effects of anxiety and depression had not gotten as much attention. It was a 2016 landmark study by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation that revealed to me just how widespread and alarming the problems have become among lawyers.
Anxiety and depression experienced by law professionals are serious and frequent and, in some cases, have led to suicides. It is why law schools are joining the ABA and other bar associations in identifying wellness as a priority. A recent article in the ABA Journal addressed concerns by summer associates for their mental health, and it has been shown that much of the anxiety and depression starts in law school and follows young lawyers into practice.
And most recently some Big Law firms are taking the concerns to the next level. Firms like Reed Smith and Akin Gump have developed informational programs on wellness, and Latham Watkins is in the process of employing a Global Wellness Manager in its NYC office. And many other firms have signed on to the Well-Being Pledge, a campaign launched by the ABA in September 2018 that encourages legal employers to take steps to improve the health and well-being of lawyers.
Concerning, yes. Surprising, no. Lawyers sacrifice their own mental and emotional wellness on a regular basis to meet sometimes unrealistic deadlines set by managing lawyers, courts and clients. The legal profession is high pressure by definition, and there is an overwhelming perception that practitioners have to be perfect. As a result, there is no reasonable expectation that the stresses caused by these kinds of pressures will be eliminated from practice, but learning how to manage and prevent them from elevating to serious anxiety and depression is key to survival and avoidance of professional burnout.
Some ways to attack improved wellness were offered by a concerned law professor in an article for Above the Law recently. Interestingly, the author uses a comparison that I have used so many times when she points out that managing wellness is a lot like dealing with low oxygen levels on an airplane. You have heard the flight attendants tell you over and over again to put your oxygen mask on first before you help others with theirs. In other words, if you do not take care of yourself first, you will not be capable of helping others. Not family, not friends, and not clients.
The author’s observation about inability to focus on the job and/or regrets about lack of happiness need to be taken particularly seriously, and also check out her suggestions about coping mechanisms to see what might be right for you. Not everyone wants to keep a journal or meditate, but there is plenty more to choose from.
And pay attention to the professor’s comments on seeking therapy. The stigma attached to mental and emotional therapy has become an unnecessary obstacle to wellness, and it must be overcome.
Hands down, my favorite part of the article is the 3Rs for those times when you feel on the verge of an anxiety attack:
- Recognize that you are experiencing stress;
- Relax by taking a break, walking your dog or participating in some other form of relaxation; and
- Reroute your negative thoughts by challenging them and concentrating on a plan to move forward.
In other words, be kind, compassionate and forgiving of yourself. Be well.