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How to Proactively Encourage Attorney Well-Being (Before It's a Problem)

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on May 11, 2022 4:04 PM

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In recognition of this, there are numerous articles about promoting lawyer well-being you can find online. That law firms need to prioritize mental health is not new information. By now, it's well-established that the demands of the legal profession can exact a toll on attorneys in the form of anxiety, depression, burnout, and substance use disorder.

Fortunately, law firms have begun to provide resources on dealing with mental health. But it's not easy to change the culture of an industry that is inherently traditional and where working impossibly long hours has been a badge of honor for decades. This means that most of the resources for addressing attorney wellness are reactive, undertaken only when someone feels like managing mental health has become overwhelming.

This is, perhaps, the biggest obstacle lawyers face to working on their mental health: that it isn't something to address unless it is absolutely essential to save their careers. But mental health, like physical health, is also about preventive care. Here are some tips on improving participation in well-being and mental health initiatives for every lawyer at your firm.

Changing Firm Culture

No one should overlook the strides made in recent years by law firms and the legal industry. There are more resources than ever for attorneys to stay healthy. And many firms have done an admirable job of reducing the stigma associated with getting treatment for depression, anxiety, and substance use.

Yet, a lot of work remains. Much of it has less to do with having resources in place — which attorneys may or may not use — but with creating a culture in which attorneys feel comfortable reaching out when needed (or ideally, even before it is necessary).

Three suggestions include:

  • Decrease emphasis on the billable hour: You probably expected this one. But decreasing emphasis on the billable hour doesn't mean "don't care about profits." Instead, encourage attorneys to get counseling and support, even if that means taking a couple of hours of otherwise billable time. In addition to being the right thing to do, the firm will benefit by retaining talent instead of losing high performers to lateral transfers and burnout. Your firm could also encourage pro bono work, which benefits the firm on its own and also gives attorneys the satisfaction of helping someone in need, which can reduce the symptoms of burnout.
  • Actively encourage wellness initiatives: If you offer mental health support to attorneys at your firm, thank you. But consider actively encouraging participation. Reiterate that wellness isn't something for "struggling" attorneys. Just like with your physical health, prevention is the first step to staying mentally healthy. Consider a firm-wide "mental health day" or meeting that focuses on mental health. Foster a non-judgmental culture that welcomes discussions about mental health.
  • Measure participation and results: Are attorneys using the mental health resources the firm has in place? If no one is using it, there's no point in having it. Consider reminders that properly managing the stress of the job is encouraged and viewed in a positive light, instead of being something for attorneys who can't cut it. And if it isn't working, change it. Don't get rid of it entirely. Have honest conversations with your colleagues. What do they want and need for staying healthy? Sometimes something simple, like the expectation everyone will use a lunch break, can go a long way toward improving morale and mental health.

Want More Information?

If you are new to the issue of mental health in the legal profession, FindLaw has resources for firms looking to implement a mental health and substance use policy. For individual attorneys, we also offer resources on how to manage anxiety, depression, and burnout, along with a few anonymous self-assessments you can take to begin thinking about your own mental health.

For law firms, the American Bar Association has an action plan to address mental health in the workplace.

Take care of yourselves.

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