Attorney well-being is often overlooked, and when it is addressed it’s usually in the context of individual stressors such as long hours and heavy workload. Most often the conversation is centered around self-care as the remedy to improve well-being, work/life balance, and decrease burnout. Although there is a place for addressing individual stressors through self-care, focusing only on that can be very problematic.
This is because it ignores the way DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) can impact well-being in law firm culture, everyday practice, and the legal field. It neglects the feelings and stress attorneys experience from microaggressions, bias, prejudice, discrimination, and systemic inequities. It disregards the anxiety, depression, and emotions that are the result of experiencing and witnessing racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Anger, frustration, fear, sadness, grief, overwhelm, loneliness, and detachment are just a few of the big emotions that impact well-being and can lead to burnout when DEI isn’t addressed in the workplace.
As a licensed therapist and DEI practitioner who works with attorneys and law firms, I often see a disconnect between DEI and well-being. DEI is seen as a separate entity and not part of or included in well-being. When we take a more human-centric approach and expand the way we view attorney well-being to include DEI, we unlock and open new opportunities and solutions to improve attorney well-being.
When we reframe attorney well-being to include DEI, we create opportunity for:
- Empowerment: When we understand the impact work culture has on well-being, we give attorneys permission to not blame themselves when their attempts at individual self-care and work/life balance techniques are unsuccessful and don’t improve their well-being. They can release their feelings of self-doubt, self-blame, and guilt through a deeper understanding of the systemic and institutional root causes of their experiences. It gives them the opportunity to shift their mindset from viewing their struggle as an individual flaw to increasing their awareness of the role that work culture and organizational processes play. They can then make empowered choices to improve their well-being based on this deeper awareness. At the same time, law firms can increase their accountability of patterns and trends that lead to poor well-being and create more equitable policies and inclusive culture that leads to improved well-being and attorney empowerment.
- Happiness and safety: When a person is on the receiving end of a microaggression, unconscious bias, prejudice, or discrimination, they may experience humiliation, hurt, confusion, anger, sadness, betrayal, fear, and other emotions. This shows up in many ways in everyday legal practice, including an unintentionally offensive comment from a co-worker, being the only person in the office that holds a certain historically marginalized identity, pay and workload disparities, and even courtroom strategy. This can create a psychologically unsafe place to work. When we go to work in a place that is psychologically unsafe, our brains and bodies are often in an increased hypervigilant protective mode trying to help us navigate these situations. This additional mental and emotional energy impacts well-being. When we implement trauma-informed practices and help law firms and legal institutions become psychologically safe spaces, we are prioritizing attorney well-being.
- Connection and support: Connection and a support system are important aspects of healthy well-being. Honoring people’s lived experiences and identities is necessary to build trusting and authentic relationships. Too often, law firms skip the DEI work that is necessary to facilitate these relationships and help attorneys create connections that foster collaboration and a strong support system. When this is missing, we see an increase in attorneys feeling isolated and disconnected. Law firms that commit to DEI work, have an advantage in creating a work environment where attorneys feel motivated, supported, and valued.
- Work fulfillment: Burnout is often the result of feeling overwhelmed, undervalued, and exhausted. This shows up a lot when DEI work is not a priority because it results in individuals not feeling seen or heard. Although concerns related to inequity, bias, and microaggressions may be brought up, the issue rarely receives the attention, support, and resolution that is necessary. This changes when law firms prioritize DEI work and it results in attorneys feeling more fulfilled and motivated at work. When we recognize the connection between doing DEI work and avoiding burnout, we can increase retention, productivity, and a firm’s success.
Once we acknowledge that reframing well-being to include DEI is important, we can begin to take the next steps in how to make that happen. It is also helpful for attorneys and law firms to be prepared for some of the challenges that may arise when they decide to make this shift.
Some of the common challenges that I see in my work with law firms when they begin to use this reframe include: a lack of engagement and buy-in from attorneys and staff; resistance and claims that DEI is divisive; feeling stuck and overwhelmed; and not knowing where to start or how to move this work forward impactfully.
Here are three steps to help you and your law firm move forward and overcome these challenges:
- Build engagement and get buy-in from attorneys and staff. This happens when you use a human-centric approach and meet people where they are in relation to DEI and well-being. You can do this by getting a better understanding of your attorneys’ and staff’s experiences through using a DEI and well-being lens or assessment. This will help you better understand their needs, frustrations, and hopes while also learning about their overall knowledge and experience with DEI issues. This will allow you to provide training and support that addresses a variety of experiences, takes into consideration varying levels of DEI and well-being knowledge, and has an overall positive impact on the firm’s culture.
- Prioritize inclusive leadership and culture. Law firm leadership and attorneys looking to advance DEI and well-being can do this by building their DEI toolbox of skills and strategies. This often includes self-awareness, communication, empathy, emotional intelligence, accountability, collaboration, and courage. Unfortunately, too often you see law firm leaders and others causing, ignoring, or minimizing harm to individuals with historically marginalized identities. It is important to remember that although this is usually unintentional, it still has the same negative impact on an individual’s well-being. It is key to recognize that this is not usually due to a character flaw but instead a lack of knowledge, skills, and strategies to navigate and prevent these situations. This is why strengthening inclusive leadership skills and practices can have a positive impact on well-being.
- Implement DEI best practices. You can’t continue with business as usual at a firm if you want to improve well-being. Best practices give you the opportunity to reduce and eliminate the harm, hurt, and lack of psychological safety that is caused when DEI isn’t prioritized. When working with law firms, I often start with these best practice areas:
- Acknowledgement & Reflection Practices: This looks like leadership acknowledging where the firm is, related to DEI and well-being. It is also an opportunity for you to process collectively and reflect on where the firm is now, where it has been, and where it is hoping to go related to DEI. This creates space to validate the feelings of those who have been harmed, brings attention to areas that need improvement, creates transparency, and gets everyone on the same page.
- Restorative Practices: This when you can focus on repairing harm if needed and developing a process for if harm were to happen again. There are many different ways restorative practices can be implemented, including creating opportunities to apologize, having brave conversations, taking actions to repair damaged relationships, and developing policies that include psychological safeguards.
- Preventative Practices: This is where you look at how harm is currently showing up, and what needs to shift or change to prevent harm from taking place. It’s an opportunity to analyze policies, procedures, processes, and training to see what changes might be needed.
- Transformative Practices: This is where innovation and creativity comes in, and requires you to think outside of the box when it comes to DEI and well-being. These practices often start out as brainstorms and often law firms have to work up to increasing resources and capacity to put these practices into action. These practices are often part of a longer-term plan and those involved often feel very excited and hopeful when working on these areas because of the potential strong impact to improve well-being.
These are just a few steps that you can take to improve well-being by focusing on DEI and work culture. Creating a healthy work culture where individuals feel seen, heard, valued, safe, and supported should be the goal to improve well-being. This can only be done when DEI is prioritized. Together, let’s reframe well-being to include DEI and empower attorneys and law firms to thrive.
About the Author
Rorri Geller-Mohamed is the founder of U Power Change, where she helps lawyers, law firms, and DEI committees to advance DEI work and prioritize well-being. She leads DEI learning engagements and leadership development, provides executive DEI & leadership coaching, hosts the DEI-LABB podcast, and is a licensed therapist. Connect with Rorri at www.upowerchange.com.