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
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
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.