Wellness in the Legal Profession: Let’s Change the Narrative

We’re not talking enough about the wellness issues that face the legal

industry. There are many reasons wellness isn't being prioritized, but there’s

a giant one that’s impeding our progress: the narrative.

There's an undercurrent in our industry that in order to achieve success we

must sacrifice important aspects of our health and wellness.

Here’s a recent example. Two weeks ago I attended a small networking event

where I heard these three things in the same conversation:

1. “I’m a recovering lawyer.”

2. “Our first-year is excited about the firm, but he hasn’t been broken yet.”

3. “You're not working hard enough if you haven't slept under your desk at

least once.”

When we talk this way about our profession, we forward the collective story

that this is just the way it is - and accepting this premise is harmful to

lawyers, our families, our clients, and aspiring attorneys too.

We have to change the narrative and equip lawyers with information that

empowers them to take control of their day-to-day wellness.

Changing the narrative starts with acknowledging the obvious: the realities

of our profession don’t lend themselves to promoting wellness, and the

nature of the work we do makes it easy to de-prioritize it.

The stresses associated with our work can take a toll on us mentally and

physically. The spaces we work in don't promote movement throughout the

day. We're seated in front of a screen for 8 or more hours a day which can

lead to physiological problems; because of our often compressed and

stressful schedule, we fall into poor habits when it comes to exercise, sleep,

and eating - which in turn directly impact the energy and focus we need to

make it through the day.In a nutshell, our work environment is often fraught

with opportunities to overlook taking care of ourselves.

We’re also susceptible to things like substance abuse, depression and

anxiety on top of it. Consider a couple of statistics: in 2016 a study by the

American Bar Association found that 1 in 3 practicing lawyers are problem

drinkers based on the volume and frequency of alcohol consumed, 28%

suffer from depression and 19% show symptoms of anxiety.

That same study also found that lawyers with 10 or fewer years of

experience had much higher rates of alcohol abuse than their more senior

colleagues. Forty-four percent of the people polled said problem drinking

began during their first 15 years of practice and this report also concluded

that being in the early stages of one's legal career is strongly correlated with

a high risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.

In addition to these heightened risks, the lore around lawyering causes our

new attorneys to enter the profession assuming that in order to succeed they

must sacrifice their wellness altogether.

I teach a class at several Bay Area law schools that includes a module on

mindset and wellness and discussing ways to set up routines and healthy

habits when they start to practice law. Sadly, based on stories they’ve heard

from practicing lawyers, most law students I work with have already decided

that staying well and succeeding as a lawyer are mutually exclusive.

Put all of these things together and it’s easy to see why the narrative around

wellness is so one sided.

To be sure, the work of a lawyers entails a heightened level of stress,

responsibility, and expectations: the work can impact clients’ lives, their

livelihoods, their families, their freedom, and their civil rights. In order to

meet and exceed those responsibilities, it often means we must work long

hours and be ready to move at the speed of the work.

But there’s a difference between the concepts of hard work and dedication

and the concept of suffering. The words “hard work” suggest effort and

endurance. The word dedication suggests commitment and diligence. But

the word suffering suggests pain or distress – neither of which are a

necessary ingredient for success.

There are a few simple ways we can start to think about changing the

narrative – both on a macro and micro level. On a macro level, we can

continue to expand initiatives that many law firms, in house legal

departments, and bar associations have been adopting recently – in depth

wellness programs that focus on addressing the realities of day to day life of

practicing attorneys. Resources that promote mindfulness, stress

management, diet, and the development of healthy habits are critical. When

our profession starts to promote and embrace these kinds of programs, we

begin to have these important conversations more frequently and give

attorneys permission to talk about these issues out in the open.

We can also back this conversation up and start having it at the law school

level. Law school is an ideal time to start encouraging new lawyers to think

about how they’re going to protect their wellness. Even if their first employer

doesn’t prioritize it yet, we can still arm students with individual training and

reinforce that they don’t have to give up wellness in order to succeed.

On a micro-level, we can change the way we talk about the profession – both

in conversations with those we know and with those we’ve just met. There’s

nothing wrong with having real, open discussions about the hard work and

dedication it takes to be a lawyer – and in fact those are very important

conversation to be had. But we can have those same discussions without

painting the picture of suffering is a required right of passage, and without

wearing it like a badge of honor.

No one knows better than lawyers how much words matter – we always

strive to choose our words carefully and use them with intention. The same

should apply when talking about what it means to succeed in our profession.

When it comes to the importance of promoting wellness, I always come back

to the visual of a flight attendant instructing passengers, in the event of an

emergency, to put on their own oxygen mask before helping others. This

metaphor seems appropriate here: How much value can we really offer to

our clients, our colleagues, and our families if we’re not taking care of

ourselves first?

Lawyers who are encouraged to prioritize their health and wellness will

ultimately contribute far more to the profession and their communities than

those who are not.