Legal employers, meaning all entities that employ multiple practicing lawyers, can play a large role in contributing to lawyer well-being. While this is a broad and sizable group with considerable diversity, our recommendations apply fairly universally. A specific recommendation may need to be tailored to address the realities particular to each context, but the crux of each recommendation applies to all.
Without dedicated personnel, real progress on well-being strategies will be difficult to implement and sustain. Accordingly, legal employers should launch a well-being initiative by forming a Lawyer Well-Being Committee or appointing a Well-Being Advocate. The advocate or committee should be responsible for evaluating the work environment, identifying and addressing policies and procedures that create the greatest mental distress among employees, identifying how best to promote a positive state of well-being, and tracking progress of well-being strategies. They should prepare key milestones, communicate them, and create accountability strategies. They also should develop strategic partnerships with lawyer assistance programs and other well-being experts and stay abreast of developments in the profession and relevant literature.
Legal employers should consider continually assessing the state of well-being among lawyers and staff and whether workplace cultures support well-being. An assessment strategy might include an anonymous survey conducted to measure lawyer and staff attitudes and beliefs about well-being, stressors in the firm that significantly affect well-being, and organizational support for improving well-being in the workplace. Attitudes are formed not only by an organization’s explicit messages but also implicitly by how leaders and lawyers actually behave. Specifically related to the organizational climate for support for mental health or substance use disorders, legal employers should collect information to ascertain, for example, whether lawyers:
- Perceive that you, their employer, values and supports well-being.
- Perceive leaders as role modeling healthy behaviors and empathetic to lawyers who may be struggling.
- Can suggest improvements to better support well-being.
- Would feel comfortable seeking needed help, taking time off, or otherwise taking steps to improve their situation.
- Are aware of resources available to assist their well-being.
- Feel expected to drink alcohol at organizational events.
- Feel that substance use and mental health problems are stigmatized.
- Understand that the organization will reasonably accommodate health conditions, including recovery from mental health disorders and addiction.
As part of the same survey or conducted separately, legal employers should consider assessing the overall state of lawyers’ well-being. Surveys are available to measure concepts like depression, substance use, burnout, work engagement, and psychological well-being. The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is the most widely used burnout assessment. It has been used to measure burnout among lawyers and law students. Programs in the medical profession have recommend a bi-annual distribution of the MBI.
Legal employers should carefully consider whether internal staff will be able to accurately conduct this type of assessment or whether hiring an outside consultant would be advisable. Internal staff may be more vulnerable to influence by bias, denial, and misinterpretation.
Legal employers should conduct an in-depth and honest evaluation of their current policies and practices that relate to well-being and make necessary adjustments. This evaluation should seek input from all lawyers and staff in a safe and confidential manner, which creates transparency that builds trust. Appendix D sets out example topics for an assessment.
Legal employers also should establish a confidential reporting procedure for lawyers and staff to convey concerns about their colleagues’ mental health or substance use internally, and communicate how lawyers and staff can report concerns to the appropriate disciplinary authority and/or to the local lawyer assistance program. Legal employers additionally should establish a procedure for lawyers to seek confidential help for themselves without being penalized or stigmatized. CoLAP and state lawyer assistance programs can refer legal employers to existing help lines and offer guidance for establishing an effective procedure that is staffed by properly-trained people. We note that the ABA and New York State Bar Association have proposed model law firm policies for handling lawyer impairment that can be used for guidance. The ABA has provided formal guidance on managing lawyer impairment.
Research reflects that about a quarter of lawyers are workaholics, which is more than double that of the 10 percent rate estimated for U.S. adults generally. Numerous health and relationship problems, including depression, anger, anxiety, sleep problems, weight gain, high blood pressure, low self-esteem, low life satisfaction, work burnout, and family conflict can develop from work addiction. Therefore, we recommend that legal employers monitor for work addiction and avoid rewarding extreme behaviors that can ultimately harm their health. Legal employers should expressly encourage lawyers to make time to care for themselves and attend to other personal obligations. They may also want to consider promoting physical activity to aid health and cognitive functioning.
As job demands have increased and budgets have tightened, many legal employers have cut back on social activities. This could be a mistake. Social support from colleagues is an important factor for coping with stress and preventing negative consequences like burnout. Socializing helps individuals recover from work demands and can help stave off emotional exhaustion. It inhibits lawyers feeling isolated and disconnected, which helps with firm branding, messaging, and may help reduce turnover. We recommend deemphasizing alcohol at such events.
We recommend that legal employers provide education and training on well-being-related topics and recruit experts to help them do so. A number of law firms already offer well-being related programs, like meditation, yoga sessions, and resilience workshops. We also recommend orientation programs for new lawyers that incorporate lawyer well-being education and training. Introducing this topic during orientation will signal its importance to the organization and will start the process of developing skills that may help prevent well-being problems. Such programs could:
- Introduce new lawyers to the psychological challenges of the job.
- Reduce stigma surrounding mental health problems.
- Take a baseline measure of well-being to track changes over time.
- Provide resilience-related training.
- Incorporate activities focused on individual lawyers’ interests and strengths, and not only on organizational expectations.
Further, law firms should ensure that all members and staff know about resources, including lawyer assistance programs, that can assist lawyers who may experience mental health and substance use disorders. This includes making sure that members and staff understand confidentiality issues pertaining to those resources.
At its core, law is a helping profession. This can get lost in the rush of practice and in the business aspects of law. Much research reflects that organizational cultures that focus chiefly on materialistic, external rewards can damage well-being and promote a self-only focus. In fact, research shows that intrinsic values like relationship-development and kindness are stifled in organizations that emphasize extrinsic values like competition, power, and monetary rewards. Work cultures that constantly emphasize competitive, self-serving goals will continually trigger competitive, selfish behaviors from lawyers that harm organizations and individual well-being. This can be psychologically draining. Research of Australian lawyers found that 70 percent reported that the practice of law is bottom-line driven. Lawyers who reported that the practice of law was primarily about generating profits were more likely to be depressed. This affects the bottom line since poor mental health can cause disability and lost productivity.
Consequently, we recommend that legal employers evaluate what they prioritize and value, and how those values are communicated. When organizational values evoke a sense of belonging and pride, work is experienced as more meaningful. Experiencing work as meaningful is the biggest contributor to work engagement—a form of work-related well-being.
Contextual factors (i.e., the structure, habits, and dynamics of the work environment) play an enormous role in influencing behavior change. Training alone is almost never enough. To achieve change, legal employers will need to set standards, align incentives, and give feedback about progress on lawyer well-being topics.
Currently, few legal employers have such structural supports for lawyer well-being. For example, many legal employers have limited or no formal leader development programs, no standards set for leadership skills and competencies, and no standards for evaluating leaders’ overall performance or commitment to lawyer well-being. Additionally, incentive systems rarely encourage leaders to develop their own leadership skills or try to enhance the well-being of lawyers with whom they work. In law firms especially, most incentives are aligned almost entirely toward revenue growth, and any feedback is similarly narrow. To genuinely adopt lawyer well-being as a priority, these structural and cultural issues will need to be addressed.