*Disclaimer: The authors of this article wrote on their own thoughts and opinions and did not write for the opinion of the ABA.
The ABA Well-Being Pledge for legal employers serves as a key element in the growing well-being movement in the legal profession. The pledge traces its roots to the groundbreaking 2017 report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, The Path for Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change. In September 2017, immediately following the ABA’s adoption of Resolution 105 in support of the report, the ABA formed the Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession to promote the report’s recommendations for legal employers and encourage their implementation.
The working group identified commitments legal employers should make to implement the Report’s recommendations. These commitments formed the basis of the pledge’s seven-point framework adopted in 2018. This framework, repeated below, remains intact in 2023 except for minor revisions in 2022 to clarify that the pledge applies to everyone working or studying with a legal employer, including judges, lawyers, staff, and students:
- Provide enhanced and robust education to everyone in the organization (including judges, lawyers, staff, and students) on topics related to well-being, mental health, and substance use disorders.
- Disrupt the status quo of drinking-based events: • Challenge the expectation that all events include alcohol; seek creative alternatives. • Ensure there are always appealing nonalcoholic alternatives when alcohol is served.
- Develop visible partnerships with outside resources committed to reducing substance use disorders and mental health distress in the legal community: health care insurers, lawyer assistance programs, EAPs, and experts in the field.
- Provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources, including free, in-house, self-assessment tools.
- Develop proactive policies and protocols to support assessment and treatment of substance use and mental health problems, including a defined back-to-work/school policy following treatment.
- Actively and consistently demonstrate that help-seeking and self-care are core cultural values, by regularly supporting programs to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
- Highlight the adoption of this well-being framework to attract and retain the best individuals in the organization (including judges, lawyers, staff, and students).
After formulating these commitments, the ABA launched a campaign in 2018 to recruit legal employers to sign the pledge. Twelve law firms (Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP; Corette Black Carlson & Mickelson P.C.; Duane Morris LLP; Honigman LLP; Latham & Watkins LLP; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP; Nixon Peabody LLP; Perkins Coie LLP; Reed Smith, LLP; Seyfarth Shaw LLP; Snell & Wilmer LLP; and Wiley Rein LLP) agreed to be the initial pledge signatories, and the group of signatories has grown steadily since then (209 at the time this was written).
The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) assumed administration and oversight of the pledge campaign and soon realized that it needed to institute a process for signatories to reaffirm their commitment to the pledge’s seven-point framework and report on the progress made at their respective institutions in advancing the steps outlined in each commitment. This process first occurred in spring 2020, right during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a chapter of Human Capital in the Legal Ecosystem, published in 2020, Bree Buchanan and Jonathan Beitner examined the information gathered in that first recommitment process. Since that first process, CoLAP, through its Well-Being Pledge Committee has overseen two more recommitment processes and is currently in the midst of its third.
This article summarizes and analyzes the abundant data contained in the 2022 recommitment form responses. The committee made several revisions to the 2022 recommitment form and process, including revising certain questions and updating the submission process to make data collection easier. Throughout the summer of 2022, 203 pledge signatories submitted recommitment forms, up from 179 in 2021. In these responses, signatories affirmed their commitment to the pledge’s seven-point framework, reported on the well-being programming and initiatives they have undertaken at their respective institutions, and offered recommendations on well-being speakers and resources for legal employers.
Below we summarize the responses to the 22 substantive questions on the recommitment forms. The first two such questions ask the signatories for profile information; the next 14 questions ask about their compliance with the seven-point framework; and the final six ask about their challenges in implementing the framework, their suggestions for ABA well-being resources, and their recommendations of well-being speakers, vendors, and programs. We then discuss key takeaways from these responses, particularly as they compare with the 2021 responses; and offer suggestions for how those in the well-being movement might respond to this data to improve well-being in legal education, the legal profession, and the judiciary.
Summary of Responses
Profile of Signatory Respondents
Most signatories to the pledge are large law firms, with over half of the respondents (52.22%) coming from firms with over 500 lawyers and employees and another 17.73% coming from firms with 150 – 499 employees. The only other category with more than 10% was law schools (14.78%). Corporate legal departments, bar associations, government entities, small law firms (1 – 49 employees), and mid-sized firms (50 – 149 employees) each made up 5% or less of the reporting signatories.
Signatories took many different approaches when it came to assigning the department, person, or committee to manage their well-being initiatives; and many signatories adopted a multi-pronged approach, with stakeholders from multiple departments, roles, and levels of seniority tasked with running these initiatives. This multi-pronged approach was reflected by the fact that, on average, signatories selected 2.25 options when indicating which department in their organization was assigned to its well-being initiatives.
A majority of signatories (68.47%) had HR or a benefits professional oversee their well-being offerings. Professional development/talent management staff (44.33%) and well-being committees (43.84%) were the next most-commonly selected options. Of the 30 law schools that provided data, 25 (83.33%) had a dean of students or a student affairs office overseeing the school’s well-being efforts.
Pledge Point 1—Providing Education
Virtually every signatory (99.01%–all but two) reported that they were providing to all those in their organization educational opportunities on topics related to well-being, mental health, and substance use. In addressing specific topics, the vast majority provided programming around mindfulness/meditation (92.12%), stress management (90.64%), signs and symptoms of mental health and substance use issues (90.64%), physical health and exercise (89.16%), and strategies for handling challenges caused by the pandemic (87.68%). Other popular topics covered included resilience (76.35%), financial well-being (76.35%), nutrition (73.89%), burnout (73.40%), and the connection between well-being and diversity, equity, and inclusion (63.55%). Although fewer signatories reported providing resources around suicide prevention (38.92%) and mental health first aid/responder training (36.95%), both topics were cited more often in 2022 than they were in 2021.
In further describing their approaches, many signatories noted different strategies to avoid relying too heavily on one-off programs or events. These included having a months- or year-long campaign around mental health or other well-being topics; having different themes throughout the year (either monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly) to structure their programming; and multi-program workshops (either throughout the year or in a condensed “boot camp” or orientation setting). Many signatories also referenced an increase this year in resources about “returning to work” or dealing with the challenges of a hybrid work environment.
Pledge Point 2—Reducing Alcohol Consumption
The vast majority of signatories (95.07%) reported that they took steps to challenge the status quo and de-emphasize the expectation of alcohol at events, with only 10 (fewer than 5%) failing to do so. The most commonly cited strategies were holding activity-based events (76.85%), holding events during the day (70.94%), emphasizing specialty foods or non-alcoholic beverages at events (69.46%), and changing the language used to describe/market events (64.04%). As for other strategies, over half of signatories (56.16%) held more volunteering-based events; slightly over a quarter (25.12%) said they used drink tickets, reduced serving hours, or had cash bars to limit consumption; and 20.69% checked “other” in response to this question. On average, signatories identified nearly four strategies.
In the comments, several signatories noted that they held few, if any, social events because of the pandemic; and this could explain why so many signatories listed “other” as a strategy they used to de-emphasize alcohol. One idea was including a member of the organization’s event-management team on the well-being committee to help ensure well-being related issues are being considered when planning and holding events.
Pledge Point 3—Partnering with Outside Entities
Most signatories (93.59%) reported partnering with outside entities committed to reducing substance use and mental distress in the legal community. Those outside entities included Employee Assistance Programs (87.68%); external experts, consultants and coaches (76.84%); third-party benefits providers (67.48%); lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) (54.67%); external mental health professionals (52.21%); the ABA and other bar associations (42.36%); hospitals or health systems (38.42%); mental health organizations (20.68%); university counseling centers (11.82%); and “other” partners (10.83%).
Other partners included the recently formed not-for-profit organization, the Institute for Well-Being in Law (IWIL), onsite mental health counselors, and clients similarly concerned about well-being issues. In particular, seven firms reported partnering with their client U.S. Bank to form a roundtable and develop outside counsel engagement guidelines. Those guidelines promote mental health and positive engagement with clients and outside counsel by encouraging conversations around availability, time off, and expectations regarding communication. As in the diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging space, such client-driven initiatives will be important in encouraging the legal profession to continue to adopt changes related to well-being.
Pledge Point 4—Confidential Access to Resources
Nearly all signatories (97.53%) reporting providing confidential access to substance use and mental health experts and resources. Those resources included employee assistance programs (EAPs) (93.59%), LAPs (73.89%), third-party benefits providers (71.92%), confidential self-assessment tools (53.20%), onsite external mental health counselors (26.66%), in house mental health counselors (12.31%), and other resources (10.84%). Of note, one signatory provides mental health urgent care on a first-come, first-served basis weekdays from 2-4 p.m., as well BIPOC gathering circles facilitated by psychologists to promote racial healing and support.
Pledge Point 5—Assessment, Treatment, and Leave Policies
While many signatories reported having a written protocol and leave policy that covers assessment and treatment of substance use and mental health problems (73.89%), slightly over a quarter of remaining signatories did not report having one. In fact, more signatories expressed lack of compliance with this pledge point than with any other.
Despite this lack of expressed compliance, 85.22% of signatories did report that their short- and long-term disability policies cover mental health and substance use treatment. Moreover, 61.08% of signatories assess treatment and return on a case-by-case basis; 50.24% of signatories have written policies encouraging mental health and substance use treatment; 47.78% have written policies regarding returning to work/school after a leave of absence for substance use or mental health issues; 41.87% partner with EAPs or other third-party benefits administrators to implement written policies; and 13.30% consult with LAPs when implementing written policies. Some signatories noted that they adjust billable hour targets to account for leaves which makes it easier for billable attorneys to take them. Some stated that they provide additional support upon return, including additional check-ins, managing expectations with their talent departments, and engaging with career counselors to support returning students and employees. One signatory noted that having these policies does not feel practical for a small firm.
Pledge Point 6—Promoting Help-Seeking and Self-Care as Core Values
Nearly all signatories (98.52%) expressed that they promote and encourage help-seeking and self-care as core values of their organization. Many signatories post well-being resources on their intranets (89.16%); many emphasize their commitment to well-being in recruitment materials and onboarding processes (78.81%); and many emphasize this commitment on their external facing materials and websites (74.38%). Some signatories have employer or school branded well-being initiatives or curricula (70.44%), while others promote self-assessment tools (55.17%), circulate a well-being newsletter (58.12%), or use the ABA or CoLAP branding (48.76%). Some signatories (41.87%) also provide in-house well-being coaching, an innovative and welcome development in the movement.
Under “other” initiatives to promote help-seeking and self-care, signatories reported offering various, creative tools, such as: (1) year-long mental health awareness campaigns; (2) weekly live meditation sessions; (3) law school classes with embedded well-being and self-care themes; (4) on-demand programming and CLE; (5) onsite health centers providing convenient, low-cost care (with little to no waits); (6) affinity groups; (7) wellness rooms: (8) fitness stipends and reimbursements for well-being related costs; (9) training on psychological concepts like empathy; and (10) billable hours credit for wellness and career sustainability training.
Pledge Point 7—Highlighting Pledge to Enhance Recruitment and Retention
Most signatories (94.55%) indicated they had highlighted adopting the pledge well-being framework to attract and retain the best individuals in the organization (including judges, lawyers, staff, and students). Signatories used various strategies for attracting and retaining individuals, including incorporating well-being programming into orientation for new and lateral hires and for students (80.69%); emphasizing a commitment to well-being in recruitment materials and onboarding (77.22%); emphasizing this commitment to well-being on the website and external-facing materials (70.29%); and discussing commitment to well-being during interviews with new and lateral hires (66.33%). Incorporating well-being and leadership training into existing partner and counsel programs was a unique strategy identified by one signatory. In their comments in response to this question, some law firm signatories underscored adopting well-being and mental health weeks as a recruiting tactic for law schools. Finally, multiple organizations indicated that department-specific programming was well received and attended.
Challenges in Implementing Pledge Framework
Signatories reported various challenges in implementing the pledge framework, with the most reported being the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (69.30%) and time constraints (52.97%). Some of the specific challenges due to the changes from the pandemic included Zoom fatigue, disconnect due to hybrid schedules, burnout on well-being committees, and meager attendance at events when CLE was not offered. Some signatories added as a challenge that alcohol remains an essential element in social and recruiting events. Only nine signatories (4.43%) reported needing help obtaining buy-in from leadership. At the same time, more signatories (37 or 18.23%) needed help getting stakeholder buy-in from the broader attorney and staff population.
Recommendations of Additional Well-Being Resources from ABA
Signatories offered numerous recommendations when asked about additional resources the ABA can provide to help signatories fulfill the pledge framework. One of the most common requests was for CLE-accredited programming on legal professional well-being and systemic change. Signatories also requested short, “bite-sized” programs that were practically oriented and could be easily delivered to employees and students. Another very common request from all types of signatories—from law firms to law schools—was for additional networking opportunities with each other and for opportunities to share and learn best practices. Law schools specifically requested obtaining testimonials from law firm programs on attorney well-being to provide to their students. Finally, another common theme was that many signatories requested a list of recommended speakers and vendors to enhance the well-being resources in their organization.
Signatories identified a variety of possible topics they would like to see discussed at future ABA meetings or events. Several signatories mentioned the desire to learn how to create greater employee awareness of and engagement in the well-being initiatives and benefits they offer. Signatories were also interested in learning how to create policy and culture shifts to reduce the stigma of asking for help and taking care of oneself, which included creating policies to support and reintegrate people who were returning from a mental health or substance-related leave. Signatories with international offices mentioned the desire to learn perspectives and resources that speak to the nuances of audiences outside of the United States.
Some survey respondents indicated an interest in learning about generational differences, particularly regarding openness to discussing well-being topics and providing well-being support. Several respondents mentioned they would like to learn how better to coordinate with other teams in their organizations, specifically DEI, corporate social responsibility (CSR), marketing, recruiting, HR/benefits, and professional development. Some signatories noted they would like to learn how better to communicate and collaborate with clients, both in inviting clients to participate in programs and in helping clients understand the impact of client demands on outside counsel. Some signatories indicated they would appreciate programming focused on how to create a well-being committee, while other signatories wanted to learn how to engage leadership more deeply and help leadership understand the importance of well-being initiatives. Finally, some signatories referenced their desire for programming on mental health first aid.
Words of Advice and Suggestions on Well-Being Initiatives
Signatories shared many words of advice and specific suggestions regarding strategies, programs, policies, and other aspects of implementing well-being initiatives. Several signatories noted the critical importance of leadership buy-in for the success of well-being initiatives; and other signatories pointed to the value of well-being taskforces, committees, and internal “well-being champions.” Some signatories mentioned that while it was important to embed well-being in consistent ways throughout their organization’s culture and events, they cautioned against “overdoing” and suggested that well-being programs be intentional, succinct, and connected to larger well-being themes (as opposed to having several standalone programs). It was important to many signatories that well-being programs and initiatives were equally open to both attorneys and staff. Signatories encouraged their fellow signatories to be creative and patient, to try new ideas, and to pace themselves.
Signatories offered many creative and practical ways that their organizations address well-being. Several signatories indicated that their firm offers some billable-hour credit for time spent on well-being. Many signatories shared how they have evolved their social gatherings to be less focused on alcohol, including providing “signature mocktails” at events and shifting the timing of social events to be at times of the day that do not typically include alcohol, such as breakfasts, lunches, and coffees, as well as different kinds of activities, such as cooking classes, team walks, and other more collaborative, active events. To demonstrate the buy-in of leadership, some signatories ask their leaders to send program invitations and other communications related to well-being.
Some signatories highlighted the benefit of having dedicated well-being staff, which led to greater consistency of programming and visibility for well-being initiatives. Signatories found most success using a variety of programmatic tactics, such as webinars, on-demand programming, CLE content, micro-programs of 20-30 minutes, email series, resource guides, videos, articles, and podcasts. Some signatories recommended the use of surveys to ask for feedback and to create a well-being baseline, and some suggested that well-being questions be included in the “pulse” surveys that many organizations use.
Other specific well-being programs, initiatives, and benefits offered by signatories included: (1) partnering with local organizations to promote community engagement; (2) mandating that law students meet with a student affairs representative and a mental health counselor; (3) giving a well-being day off; (4) hosting “empathy training”; (5) encouraging participation in firm-wide movement or well-being challenges; (6) providing bereavement leave following the loss of close loved ones as well as a short leave following failed surrogacy, adoption, or fertility treatments; and (7) providing mental health apps to all employees.
Key Takeaways from the 2022 Recommitment Form Responses
Profile of Signatory Respondents
As noted above, 106 of the respondents (or 52.22% of the total) were law firms with 500 or more lawyers and employees. This percentage is nearly identical to the profile of the 2021 respondents that were law firms with 500 or more lawyers and employees (51.96%). The fact that over half of the signatories are very large firms is encouraging in that it reflects how that influential group of legal employers has seen benefits in signing the pledge. That same fact is concerning, however, in that such large firms are a much smaller percentage of legal employers generally. In this vein, a few signatories indicated in their comments that the pledge framework and recommitment form questions seem best suited for large law firms. A consideration moving forward is how the pledge can remain inclusive and beneficial to all types of legal employers while recognizing that different types of legal employers face different dynamics and challenges in their efforts to improve the well-being of those in their organization.
A related takeaway is that signatories are increasingly turning to dedicated internal positions—such as a director of well-being (14.29%, up from 10.06% in 2021)—to coordinate the well-being initiatives in their organization. As above, this growth is encouraging in that it reflects the serious attention certain employers are committing to their well-being initiatives. At the same, this “professionalization” of employees tasked with well-being (and the rise of the term “well-being professional”) may leave out many employers who simply are not in a position to have a dedicated well-being officer. Designing inclusive programming for signatories therefore should be relevant not only to a diverse profile of signatories, but also to the diverse roles signatory representatives have in their respective organizations.
Compliance with Pledge Point 5
Since the beginning of the pledge in 2018, more signatories have reported that they were out of compliance with Pledge Point 5 (“We have a proactive written protocol and leave policy that covers the assessment and treatment of substance abuse and mental health problems, including a defined back-to-work/school policy following treatment”) than with any other commitment. This trend was only slightly better in 2022 than 2021—52 of the respondents (or 25.74%) reported that they did not have a policy in place in 2022 compared with 47 (26.55%) in 2021.
The pledge committee has discussed how best to make inroads in these numbers so that more signatories are in compliance. To that effect, one of the breakout sessions in the Fall 2021 Pledge Workshop for Signatories addressed this exact topic—best practices for leave policies. Moreover, at the Fall 2022 Pledge Workshop, the committee reminded signatories that the ABA has developed model guidelines for such leave and back-to-work policies, and it posted these guidelines on the CoLAP ABA Well-Being Pledge Communities page online. More work needs to be done to promote compliance, such as perhaps by encouraging signatories that have such policies in place to share theirs—or at least their ideas on such policies—with others.
Challenges in Implementing Pledge Framework
Another key takeaway from the 2022 responses was that the responses to Question 23 (“What challenges, if any, did you encounter if fulfilling or addressing any of the 7 points of the Pledge framework”) mirrored almost exactly the response rates from 2021 with three exceptions. First, the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic were understandably not quite as frequent in 2022 as 2021 (from 151 or 84.36% of respondents in 2021 to 140 or 68.97% in 2022). Second, on another positive note, the stigma associated with well-being issues was less of a challenge in 2022 than in 2021 (from 53 or 29.61% of respondents in 2021 to 48 or 23.65% in 2022). Stigma remains a persistent issue, as reflected in the narrative responses in which many signatories recommended programming on stigma, but this decrease is encouraging. Third, noticeably more signatories indicated difficulties changing the culture around drinking at their respective organization (from 24 or 11.82% of respondents in 2021 to 35 or 17.24% in 2022). This increase may be due, in part, to the rise of in-person events in 2022 as the impact of the pandemic waned; and it will be very interesting to see if this uptick continues in 2023.
Certain other changes were more modest, but noteworthy. For instance, budgetary restraints were slightly less of a challenge in 2022 than 2021 (from 51 or 28.49% of respondents in 2022 to 48 or 23.65% in 2022). Finding time to fit programming into the calendar, however, was slightly more of a challenge (from 93 or 51.96% of respondents in 2021 to 107 or 52.71% in 2022). Although this change is small, the sheer percentage of respondents for whom time for implementing programming is a challenge underscores the continued need for developing creative, short programming and programming that cross-sells with other organizational priorities. Finally, the very small number of signatories that indicated buy-in from leadership as a challenge is encouraging (only 9 or 4.43% of 2022 respondents). This low level is somewhat expected due to the fact that all the respondents did sign the pledge, but given the large number of signatories indicating in their comments that leadership involvement in well-being initiatives is critical to their success, this low number is a signal to those in organizations that are not currently signatories on how best to become a signatory and otherwise advance well-being efforts in their organization generally.
Extensive Nature of Narrative Responses
A final key takeaway from the 2022 recommitment form responses is the sheer volume and detail in the responses to the open-text questions at the end of the recommitment form. In these questions, as summarized above, signatories offered recommendations to the ABA on well-being initiatives and offered recommendations for signatories on well-being speakers, resources, and program ideas. In their comments, many signatories indicated that they would appreciate more networking opportunities with each other and opportunities to share and learn best practices. The pledge committee has developed a resource that lists the many well-being speakers and vendors recommended by the signatories and includes these speakers’ and vendors’ websites and LinkedIn pages when available. This resource is posted on the CoLAP ABA Well-Being Pledge Communities page available online to signatories.
In sum, the 2022 recommitment form responses provide a rich source of data on 203 legal employers who are invested in advancing the well-being movement in legal education, the legal profession, and the judiciary. As this well-being movement continues to grow and develop, the pledge community will hopefully similarly expand; and the recommitment process will, in turn, continue to serve on an annual basis as an opportunity to collect important information on this important movement.
About the Authors
Jonathan Beitner is an attorney, certified coach, and consultant who focuses on the intersection between professional development and well-being. Jonathan is co-creator of the American Bar Association’s Well-Being Pledge, a lead organizer for Well-Being Week in Law, and former chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs’ Well-Being Committee.
Kendra Brodin is founder and CEO of EsquireWell, a legal well-being and professional development company providing speaking, consulting, coaching, and online, on-demand resources. Kendra is vice-chair of the Law Practice Division Well-Being Committee and a member of the ABA Well-Being Pledge Committee.
Shannon Callahan is a licensed professional counselor and executive coach at Nixon Peabody LLP who helps lawyers, law students and professionals learn to thrive in their practice in both an individual and organizational capacity.
L.O. Natt Gantt, II is professor of law and the inaugural associate dean for academic affairs at High Point University School of Law. Natt chairs the ABA Well-Being Pledge Committee and serves on the Institute for Well-Being in Law’s Research and Scholarship Committee.
James Keshavarz is chief wellness officer at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. He is a member of the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs Committee member and the chair of the Institute for Well-Being in Law Awards Committee.