Imagine yourself as a law student working in a small law firm the summer before your second year, and the managing attorney suffers from an addiction to alcohol. Each day you go to work, hoping for the best—yet fearing the worst. Will all be well or will I have to clean up the empty half pints of vodka strewn throughout the office from the night before, as I had to do some weeks before? Will I have to cover up for the attorney, making excuses why the closing is cancelled, or file motions for extension with the court? Over that course of the summer, his legal secretary and I bonded as enablers along with the clients and friends who provided a steady stream of alcohol. I said then and I say today, “No one should have to confront the issues that I did at that law firm that summer years ago—as a co-worker, a manager or as one who suffers from addiction.”
Fast forward 15 years and as managing attorney of my own firm, I had to confront an associate who suffered an addiction to controlled substances. Having worked with the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (COLAP) to develop court rules for our Virgin Islands Bar Association Lawyer Assistance Program, I had some knowledge of how to best address the issue. Our firm consulted with professional substance abuse counselors and developed a plan for the associate. Regrettably, the lawyer was not prepared to recognize that he had a substance abuse issue and he was terminated immediately.
Some years later, we noticed the work product of another associate begin to deteriorate. We received calls from clients that, contrary to the attorney’s assurances, pleadings were not being filed in a timely manner – deadlines were missed. Upon our discussion with the attorney, we discovered that he suffered from clinical depression. Again, we offered to work with him to address his condition, but he opted for his own course of action, leaving the practice of law temporarily and sailing the Greek islands.
Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on the “High Rate of Drinking Reported Among Lawyers,” from a new study conducted by the American Bar Association and the Hazeldon Betty Ford Foundation. The report noted that “one in three practicing lawyers are problem drinkers, based on the volume and frequency of alcohol consumed, 28 % suffer from depression, and 19 % show symptoms of anxiety.” The study, “The Prevalance of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” was published in this February’s edition of the Journal of Addiction Medicine.
As I prepared to take office this past year as chair of the ABA Law Practice Division, one key area of concern that I had was attorney well-being. To this end, I sought the support of the Division Council and with its approval, announced the formation of the Division’s Attorney Well-being Committee dedicated to helping lawyers and legal professionals thrive in both their legal career and their personal life. Certainly, we can all agree that a happy, healthy lawyer enjoys a more meaningful practice and personal life, while better serving their clients.
The Attorney Well-being Committee helps attorneys accomplish professional development and growth while also achieving fulfillment in their personal lives. The committee is led this year by Rodney S. Dowell, executive director of the Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, the Massachusetts lawyer assistance program. Rod and his quite conscientious committee provide resources and tools in areas such as career satisfaction, work/life balance, mental/chemical health issues, physical well-being, and many other quality of life issues.
Specifically, the committee’s mission is accomplished in a variety of ways, including:
- Providing a forum for discussion of the often difficult struggle to manage the demands of career, family, personal and societal obligations;
- Presentation of programs and events dedicated to providing education on career, professional, and personal development including model policies for law firms and suggestions for the legal profession generally to assist lawyers in developing their professional careers without sacrificing their personal lives;
- Utilizing our website and other avenues of communication through the informational materials to provide links and resources relevant to improving quality of life, and
- Coordinating its programs with other ABA entities with similar goals and objectives such as the ABA COLAP and state lawyer assistance programs and supporting CLE’s and programs produced by these entities committed to providing support for lawyers.
This bar year we have been fortunate to have the resources of Anne M. Brafford, a former partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, a PhD student in positive organizational psychology and co-founder of Aspire, a consulting and training company focused on the development of thriving lawyers and legal organizations. Anne is vice chair of the Division’s Attorney Well-being Committee, author of “Building the Positive Law Firm: The Legal Profession at Its Best” and she is a powerhouse when it comes to the subject of attorney well-being.
The division has also been fortunate to enjoy a collaborative relationship with the David Nee Foundation, Starling Marshall, its president, and Katherine Bender, its programming director. The Nee Foundation’s mission is to eliminate the stigma associated with depression and suicide by promoting and encouraging not only the diagnosis and treatment of depression among young adults and those in the legal profession, but also the education of young people and members of the legal community, their families, and friends about the disease of depression.
As noted above, the division has reached out to the ABA COLAP and appreciates the assistance of Terri Harrell, its chair, and Will Hornsby, staff counsel. COLAP’s mission is to educate the legal profession concerning alcoholism, chemical dependencies, stress, depression and other emotional health issues, and support all bar associations and lawyer assistance programs in developing and maintaining methods of providing effective solutions for recovery.
Attorney well-being is not limited to addressing issues of substance abuse or depression — it impacts every lawyer in practice. In today’s law practice, the stress and anxiety can be immense. As I noted in the March edition of this column, the challenges to attorney well-being are particularly complex for women, who often have to juggle greater responsibilities in their private lives and need flexibility in their jobs to accomplish it all.
The ABA Law Practice Division has begun examining the obstacles to attorney well-being that often necessitate law firm policies that allow for reduced work hours and flexible schedules, and clarity about the extent to which using those policies will impact compensation and promotion. Policies alone are not enough; whether law firm management fully supports them determines their success.
Any discussion on supporting attorney well-being must extend well beyond issues of substance abuse or depression and law firm policies providing great flexibility to a broad-based policy on well-being. We must promote positive law firm cultures in which all lawyers feel engaged, supported, and experience a sense of belonging. This is particularly true with our youngest associates. Today’s law firms can play a significant role in the resilience of their lawyers facing considerable work and home demands. When work drains lawyers both psychologically and physically without contributing to their replenishment, attorney well-being suffers.
To explore how we can re-frame the law practice work-life balance discussion into a fuller understanding and commitment to well-being with a practical impact, the Law Practice Division Attorney Well-being Committee is developing law firm best practices. If you have an interest in this important subject, I invite you to join the committee. Any member of the division may join by simply emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rest assured that everyone experiences personal or work related problems at some point. Anyone that works with these weighty issues will agree that the first step in addresses them is to acknowledge the “opportunity for solution.” Early intervention is a key to resolution. Working with various lawyer assistance programs offered by state bar associations, lawyers can access free, confidential assistance. These state lawyer asssistance programs can help address various issues impacting your ability to be a productive member of the legal profession. If your state does not have a COLAP program, I invite you to contact our ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Program through its staff counsel, Will Hornsby, at Will.Hornsby@americanbar.org or (312) 988-5761.
About the Author
Tom Bolt is the founder and managing attorney of BoltNagi PC in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and is the chair of the ABA Law Practice Division.