A national task force on lawyer well-being concluded in 2016 that “the profession as a whole” was “falling short when it comes to [lawyer] well-being.”
In the four years since that report, several studies and recommendations have focused on how to reduce high levels of stress and depression among lawyers, but still, in its 2020 profile of the profession, the American Bar Association revealed that lawyers continue to struggle with problems of alcohol use, substance use, and mental health issues “at levels substantially higher than the general population and other highly educated professionals.”
To be sure, it’s not for lack of policies and programs and detailed recommendations (including recommendations to meditate more, get more sleep, take more time off), all designed to help lawyers be more well.
First of all, we must agree on the definition of well-being. Not surprisingly, there are many definitions, but it seems most would agree that well-being is a combination of mental, emotional, physical, professional, financial, and social stability.
It’s a tall order for anyone, but why are lawyers struggling more than the general population? The negative factors that contribute to the problem are too many to list here, which would indicate that broad recommendations would fail to reverse what appears to be an ongoing worsening trend.
The reason for this is the assumption that if we just tell lawyers all the ways they can improve their well-being, their well-being will improve. If we encourage law firms to institute policies that would take better care of lawyers, depression rates among lawyers would go down. If we encourage lawyers to take better care of themselves, their health and happiness levels would improve. If we teach them everything they need to know about improving their well-being, that should do it.
It would appear not. This approach is akin to attempting to legislate affection. First of all, is it not naive to think that law firms would willingly implement policies that might negatively affect their bottom line?
Secondly, lawyers don’t necessarily know how to improve their well-being. Well, logically they know what needs to be done, but this isn’t about logic. Something is happening on a deeper subconscious level in the minds of unhappy lawyers that no amount of prodding or encouragement or policy implementation is going to fix.
It’s the same as joining a gym—you know it’s good for you, but the underlying subconscious reasons for not going to the gym (I don’t have time, I’m too tired, I can’t be bothered) supersede going to the gym as soon as willpower runs out. No amount of good sense is going to work when the willpower well has run dry.
The issue here is that we expect lawyers to change their actions, without changing the underlying (subconscious) thought processes that drive those actions.
For example, if we tell a lawyer “you need to take more time off,” but the underlying belief that the lawyer holds is that “I need to put in as many hours as possible to make partner,” there’s no way that lawyer is going to take more time off, even though their well-being is at stake, unless they stop believing that their self-worth is tied to making partner.
In other words, lawyers may not be willing to do the things that would improve their well-being when doing those things would give them an outcome they don’t desire, such as failure to make partner, less stature, less money, smaller homes, smaller cars, all of which would actually increase stress and depression. Likewise, is it reasonable to expect law firms would be willing to pay the price that comes with having happier lawyers, even if it meant firms’ rainmaking reputations would be tarnished?
When the National Task Force On Lawyer Well-Being concluded in 2017 that “To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer,” it undoubtedly intended to encourage lawyers to find a way to be healthy and happy, but a “good lawyer” is generally regarded as a winning lawyer, not a healthy lawyer. Surely, lawyers with lower cholesterol levels are not considered better lawyers. Lawyers who have heart attacks are not bad lawyers. In fact, lawyers who struggle with substance issues are often winning lawyers (unless they are overcome by their addictions).
One of my private clients, we’ll call her Ellen, came to me because she said her stress levels were “through the roof,” and she had a choice to make: pursue making senior partner at her firm or leave the legal profession altogether. Her concern was that “the stress was affecting her health,” in particular, her weight.
But Ellen’s stress wasn’t really caused by her work, nor was her weight gain the legal profession’s fault. The cause was Ellen’s underlying belief that if she were going to stay with the firm she’d been with for several years, she needed to make senior partner. It was a long-held belief that put tremendous stress on Ellen, both at home and at work. Eating provided a temporary respite from the stress.
Ellen’s belief that the only way to get a grip on overeating was to leave the profession made sense in her mind, because she knew no other way to be a lawyer.
When I suggested she didn’t have to leave the profession to feel better and to improve the quality of her life, she scoffed.
This type of all-or-nothing thinking is certainly not exclusive to lawyers, but getting lawyers to change the way they think, especially since lawyers take great pride in the way they think, is not an easy task. But it can be done. Together, Ellen and I have been working to change the underlying belief system that’s been making her life utterly miserable. The process is slow, but Ellen is shaking up long-held beliefs that have crippled her. Our work is not made easier by the fact that Ellen’s father insists that his daughter’s well-being requires that she make senior partner at all costs. Of course, it’s not true, but if the priority is to find a way to make senior partner in a way that is rewarding and fulfilling, a level of integrity is required. This means if we say our health is important to us, we’d better act accordingly. Integrity is a two-part test: It’s not enough to say our well-being is important, we must prove it with our actions.
Efforts to improve lawyers’ well-being must include the kind of support that teaches lawyers to take full responsibility for the way they choose to live their lives, and that starts at the level of thought, not behavior. Asking lawyers to change their actions – working long hours, poor eating and exercise habits—without changing the thought patterns that drive those actions, won’t work, at least not for long.
In other words, this is about getting lawyers to change from the inside out.
This is not rocket science – it’s so much harder. Doing the deep emotional work required to change the quality of one’s inner well-being is not for the faint of heart. For many, the status quo remains a much easier path.
About the Author
Lin Eleoff is a lawyer turned life transformation coach for lawyers and other professional high achievers. Visit Lin’s website at LinEleoff.com, or contact her at Lin@LinEleoff.com.