In 2016, a number of organizations, stakeholders, and interested individuals came together to form what was ultimately named the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. The National Task Force worked over the course of nine months to publish The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (Task Force Report), providing numerous recommendations to change the culture of the legal profession. Maybe what happened next is responsible for the widespread awareness and action that has occurred since its publication. Nearly immediately after publication, the Conference of Chief Justices passed resolutions urging states to consider the recommendations in the Task Force Report, and the American Bar Association passed a similar resolution at its 2017 Annual Meeting. This is just one example of leaders paving the way for real change by taking a public stance, recognizing the importance of the issues, and encouraging action.
Leadership and the National Task Force Report Recommendations
While the 2017 Task Force Report as a whole provides leadership and direction in many different areas through its thoughtful recommendations, the report specifically references leadership and the importance of buy-in at the top levels in many of its recommendations. Here are a few direct quotes from the Task Force Report tying together and recognizing the importance of leadership and well-being:
- “Leaders Should Demonstrate a Personal Commitment to Well-Being. Policy statements alone do not shift culture. Broad-scale change requires buy-in and role modeling from top leadership. Leaders in the courts, regulators’ offices, legal employers, law schools, and bar associations will be closely watched for signals about what is expected. Leaders can create and support change through their own demonstrated commitment to core values and well-being in their own lives and by supporting others in doing the same.” (Task Force Report, p. 12)
- “Foster Collegiality and Respective Engagement Throughout the Profession… This should include an expectation that all leaders in the profession be a role model for these standards of professionalism.”(Task Force Report, p. 15)
- “Begin a Dialogue About Suicide Prevention… We need leaders to encourage dialogue about suicide prevention.” (Task Force Report, p. 20)
- “Create Standards, Align Incentives, and Give Feedback… 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.” (Task Force Report, p. 34)
- “Leader Development and Training… Leader development and training is critically important for supporting lawyer well-being and optimal performance. Low-quality leadership is a major contributor to stress, depression, burnout, and other mental and physical health disorders. Even seemingly low-level incivility by leaders can have a big impact on workers’ health and motivation… On the other hand, positive leadership styles contribute to subordinates’ mental health, work engagement, performance, and job satisfaction. Many studies confirm that positive leader behaviors can be trained and developed.” (Task Force Report, p. 54)
Leadership and State-Specific Recommendations
One specific and essential recommendation made in the report was for each state to create a “Commission on Lawyer Well-Being” as a first step to address recommendations from the 2017 report and to determine how to implement those recommendations at the state level. Many states have heeded this call and endeavored to form a commission, task force, or committee. Massachusetts, for example, commissioned an initial, temporary Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being to explore the state of lawyer well-being in the Commonwealth and to recommend how the Massachusetts legal community can and should address the serious concerns documented by the National Task Force. The Massachusetts Steering Committee published its report in July 2019 (hereinafter Massachusetts Report). The comprehensive Massachusetts Report offers many recommendations to improve the working lives of lawyers in whatever setting or area of law they practice and to address the aspects of the legal profession that contribute to unhealthy levels of anxiety and stress, isolation, mental health challenges, and alcohol or other substance use disorders. As a result, a permanent Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being was formed in January 2020 and hired its first director in March 2020 (full disclosure, that’s me).
The Massachusetts Report also identifies the important role that leaders play in improving well-being in the profession.
First is the importance of leadership from the top in addressing lawyer well-being. The Supreme Judicial Court, as the ultimate regulatory authority over the Massachusetts bar, can play a critical role in educating individual lawyers, the leaders of the firms, agencies, and other organizations for whom many lawyers work, and others served by lawyers about the importance of attending to individual lawyer well-being issues. But beyond the court, the leaders of all such entities, private and public, also must recognize that lawyer well-being is an organizational responsibility, and that as leaders, they play the decisive role in ensuring that their own organization values and advances it. Their commitment to the well-being of the lawyers who work under their leadership must be personal and visible in words and actions towards others and in how they themselves act to protect their own well-being. And this commitment must be consistent over the long term. (Massachusetts Report, p. 31)
This work necessarily includes “expand[ing] awareness of, and work to enhance, lawyer well being; promote diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives”, which leaders can effectuate with proper management training (also recommended in the Massachusetts Report) (page 20). The Massachusetts Report urges those in “seats of power” publicly commit their leadership teams to make younger lawyers as well as women, persons of color and other historically marginalized groups feel welcomed and included… ” (Massachusetts Report, p. 27)
Leadership in Practice: A New Take on Top-Down Approach
I’ve witnessed leaders take action on many of these recommendations by modeling well-being, sharing their lived experiences with mental health and other challenges, creating committees and task forces to address and improve well-being, implementing well-being and wellness programs, offering access to mental health services, and even designing dedicated well-being positions within organizations (in some, adding C-suite level well-being positions signaling a strong commitment to improving well-being and decreasing barriers to change). Importantly, leaders cannot effectuate their goals, and especially cannot provide supportive, equitable, and safe workplaces in a vacuum. If leaders make assumptions about what their employees need, they are only leading from the elite top. They must listen to the experiences of their attorneys and staff, learn about individual challenges, acknowledge inequities and burdens shouldered by underrepresented and historically excluded communities, and demonstrate true compassion for the well-being of the people who work within their organizations.
This new take on a top-down approach suggests, for example, that leaders can ensure that different perspectives are integrated into any organizational decision-making, including individuals representing diverse identities, backgrounds, experiences, and interests. In fact, the Massachusetts SJC Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being made this recommendation in a June 2021 statement urging legal workplaces to use the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink norms, structures, and policies that will benefit everyone in the workplace, and to take concrete steps to create a culture of inclusion. The statement emphasized “accepting flexibility in individual workplace arrangements as the standard… rather than exception” while also “eliminating . . . stigma” associated with these arrangements, and ensuring proper support for attorneys that avail themselves of these arrangements. In a survey conducted by Major, Lindsey & Africa in March and April 2021 of 1,471 millennial lawyers, 83% said that it was very important for their law firm to have work-from-home flexibility. Rather than turning a blind eye to the needs of their attorneys and making decisions only from the top down that may benefit certain individuals, leaders must consistently find ways to engage all their attorneys and staff to develop a positive workplace culture for all.
Fortunately, leaders can now utilize many resources. The 2017 National Task Force Report, recent studies on well-being in the profession, and state-specific reports offer education on issues in the profession and can influence buy-in by senior leaders (see this webpage from the Massachusetts SJC Standing Committee for a listing of reports, news, and research on well-being). The new 501(c)(3) organization, the Institute for Well-Being in Law (IWIL), formed to carry forward the movement launched by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, provides leaders with opportunities for engagement, updates on policy, trends in well-being in the legal industry, and more. With these resources at hand, a national well-being movement well underway, leaders have a great opportunity to help reduce stress and burnout in the profession, increase diversity in the profession and retention of diverse lawyers, reduce stigma and encourage individuals to seek out help when in need, and improve overall job satisfaction and contribute to thriving in the profession.
About the Author
Heidi S. Alexander is Massachusetts’ first director of the Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, past ABA TECHSHOW chair, and author of Evernote as a Law Practice Tool. Heidi can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.