How the ABA Is Trying to Advance Lawyer Well-Being

In 2016, what is referred to by my colleagues and me as the “Lawyer Well-Being Movement,” began to gain momentum. It catalyzed around the striking data published in articles about two large-scale studies—one on lawyers and one on law students—that found that both groups experience substance use and mental health disorders at rates that significantly exceed those of the general population. Both populations also were similarly reluctant to seek help for such problems.

In August 2016, representatives from the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL), the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (ABA CoLAP), and the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC) met and discussed the research. The groups decided that they could not ignore this data, but also recognized that addressing such pervasive problems would require a culture change, and would need the assistance of like-minded allies. They created The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being and invited many organizations to join. They successfully enlisted the Conference of Chief Justices and the ABA Young Lawyers Division, which started the ball rolling, and other organizations began calling the task force asking to join.

The Task Force decided that its first undertaking would be a report with specific recommendations on how to improve the well-being of the profession. The goal was to provide a “roadmap” that could increase the likelihood that positive steps would be taken. The report, published in August 2017, provided specific steps that identified stakeholders can take to improve the well-being of the legal profession.

Two powerful articles were published the month before the report was released. A New York Times article detailed the death of a high-functioning lawyer due to his drug addiction. A Miami Herald article reported on the suicide of a prominent lawyer in the Miami area. ABA President Hilarie Bass read the articles and called the chair of ABA CoLAP and asked what she could do to improve lawyer well-being. She was instrumental in the publication of the report, and then created the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession. Bass asked the working group to focus on what legal employers can do to assist lawyers in their well-being and to prevent the death of good lawyers due to mental health or substance use issues.

In February 2018, the working group brought a resolution to the ABA House of Delegates drawing attention to the task force report and its recommendations. This resolution passed by the ABA House of Delegates, Resolution 105, asked all stakeholders to review and consider the recommendations in the report. In April 2018, the working group convened a workshop to gather the best thinking from leaders in the profession on how to accomplish these goals. The attendees spent a day brainstorming about what might be effective in creating a healthier work culture for lawyers. Ideas ranged from policies and practices to attitudes, pay structures, and physical working environments.

Following the workshop, the working group began refining an impairment policy for legal employers. The ABA had an impairment policy that had been written in 1990, but few people knew that it existed, and it was extremely outdated. The working group, with help from the policy committee of ABA CoLAP, several state bars that had impairment policies and several resource attorneys, created a new policy that matches today’s understanding of impairment and the resources available to the impaired individual and the employer.

This policy will be introduced at the annual meeting of the ABA House of Delegates in August 2018 as Resolution 103, with ABA CoLAP and the working group as co-sponsors. This policy is only a small piece in the overall strategy for lawyer well-being, but it is an important component. Lawyers need to know the available options when they or their colleagues are struggling, and they need clear information about the consequences of asking for help within or outside the employment setting. Employers need guidance on what to do when an employee shows signs of impairment. The working group seeks to offer guidance because the price of ignoring the problem is much too high.

In addition to the impairment policy, the working group is currently finalizing a campaign about well-being for legal employers. The goals of the campaign are to raise awareness and instigate action by legal employers to improve lawyer well-being. The campaign will ask legal employers to sign a pledge with a seven-point framework. The seven points include:

  • Education about well-being, substance use, and mental health problems
  • Change the status quo around drinking at lawyer social events
  • Develop partnerships with lawyer well-being experts such a lawyer assistance programs
  • Facilitate access to confidential resources for assistance with well-being issues
  • Establish a written impairment policy
  • Encourage good self-care and help-seeking in all employees
  • Use the commitment to well-being to attract and retain the best talent

The final product of the working group will be a well-being toolkit that will provide legal employers with many options for addressing and improving lawyer well-being. The toolkit will be holistic, including multiple strategies to help lawyers improve the health of one’s mind, body, and spirit. It will also include multiple strategies under all three categories, as well as a host of resources and self-assessment tools for legal employers. (The toolkit has been published here.)

The working group hopes its work will encourage and facilitate many in the legal community, particularly legal employers, in implementing many of the recommendations in the task force report. If stakeholders implement recommendations that are reasonable, likely to be helpful, and within their control, we just might succeed in our goal of improving the well-being of the legal profession.

About the Author

Terry Harrell is the executive director of the Indiana Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program and is the chair of the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession.

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