Promoting Lawyer Well-Being Is More Essential Than Ever

By Krista Larson
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Law360 (May 6, 2020, 2:54 PM EDT) --
Krista Larson
Krista Larson
We already know about scientific studies revealing that lawyers suffer from behavioral health challenges such as depression, anxiety and substance misuse at rates that far exceed the general population. Now add to that the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis and we face a challenge testing the overall well-being of the legal community more profoundly than ever before.

The challenges of the pandemic, both in our practices and in our personal lives, present us with opportunities to learn how to better support ourselves and each other — strategies that will continue to serve us well into the future. With a little creativity, firms with established well-being programs can leverage or adapt many existing offerings and resources to respond to the current crisis. For firms without formal programs, there is no better time to start finding little ways to make a big difference on the well-being of your lawyers and staff.

Here are some things for your firm to consider.

The same principles apply.

While perhaps amplified, our reactions to the limits and stresses placed on us by the pandemic are similar to the way we process (or don't) the more normal everyday challenges that affect the dimensions of our well-being: physical, intellectual, occupational, emotional and community. Therefore, the tools and techniques we would normally employ to address these dimensions are still applicable. Consider promoting your existing resources and programming offerings and/or adding COVID-19-specific elements that build on your prior work as a community.

These may include looking hard at improving behavioral health supports and other mental health benefits, remote engagement opportunities and well-being checks, telemedicine offerings, remote yoga or other fitness classes, all of which can help facilitate the well-being of lawyers and staff despite our need to work remotely and practicing social distancing.

Don't be afraid of "soft."

In a profession defined by hard skills, personal attributes and techniques that enable us to interact effectively with others are equally critical to success. Yet, the latter are rarely discussed (let alone promoted) in law, which is why others are often surprised when I tell them that subjects such as resilience, gratitude and mindfulness consistently rank among the most popular we have offered as part of our firm's well-being program.

In these times, soft skills are even more important. For example, we have all seen the inspiring and incredible methods local communities have utilized to express their thanks to essential workers (rainbow art in windows, clapping during shift changes, food donations, light shows, air shows and so on). Science shows that expressions of gratitude benefit the well-being of both the giver and receiver. In fact, gratitude is one of the most powerful positive emotions in terms of its ability to produce strong and long-lasting emotional well-being benefits.

To promote gratitude within your organization, find ways to enable and encourage simple expressions of thanks. At Morgan Lewis, we achieved this by moving our popular in- and across-office gratitude card exchange, an exercise we launched shortly after establishing the firm's well-being program, to an online feature. We now offer virtual gratitude cards for lawyers and staff to send to each other in appreciation of the teamwork and collaboration needed to navigate this challenging time. Consider giving your law firm community a chance to say thank you.

Connecting to our communities from afar.

Communities give us a sense of belonging and purpose. People who actively engage with others, including by giving of themselves in small and large ways, tend to be healthier and happier. Right now, however, our ability to connect with each other in more traditional, and often more accessible, ways has been limited. With a little bit of resourcefulness, you can still find ways to connect within and even across communities.

Lawyers and legal organizations can do this by remembering that they are uniquely situated to impact their communities. Consider reaching out the organizations in your local office communities, including ones you may have regularly supported before the pandemic, to determine their needs in this time. Many of these organizations support families and individuals that have been hardest hit by the fallout from the virus. The good news is, we know how to help.

Think about organizing device donations to local schools or joining efforts to patronize local restaurants struggling to stay open. For example, we have partnered with legal service providers to pilot virtual pro bono clinics remotely staffed by lawyers from our firm and our clients' in-house legal teams. Pro bono counsel is even more critical now given the most vulnerable members of our communities are also the most adversely affected by the pandemic.

You can also bring lawyers and staff together as a community themselves, including by emphasizing physical, intellectual and emotional well-being. For instance, we are our sharing things across the firm like our employees' acts of kindness (sewing masks) and ingenuity (associate pasta-making video tutorials!). We have even rounded up our cycling enthusiasts to create a virtual fitness group that will celebrate this month's National Bike to Work Day in a completely new way.

Making these kinds of opportunities available and accessible to your personnel will help them be engaged and motivated. For added effect, get a leader to champion your efforts.

No program? No problem.

Firms without an established well-being program can still find ways to promote well-being in the current environment. It may feel like you need to postpone launching an initiative like this until you've created a more detailed, long-term strategy and execution plan, but why not start small for the sake of starting somewhere?

I recommend adopting the mentality that something beats nothing. While your efforts should be thoughtful and informed, we need not let perfect get in the way of good. The situation is too critical to wait.

Do not reinvent the wheel.

You are not starting from scratch. While this effort may be new to you and your organization, many others have considered what well-being initiatives can look like in the legal industry and have prepared tools to help you start.

The American Bar Association makes available a plethora of free resources, toolkits and activity templates, and with this week being the inaugural Lawyer Well-Being Week, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being is offering countless additional resources. It may also be a good time to consider signing the ABA lawyer well-being pledge, if your organization has not done so.

Partner up.

You do not have to go at this alone. Consider collaborating with others, such as vendors, colleagues and even clients to make the most of your efforts. Identify what you uniquely bring to the enterprise and look elsewhere to fill in the gaps.

For example, our inaugural firmwide educational offering on well-being featured Patrick Krill of Krill Strategies, who provided a 90-minute presentation in our largest U.S. offices on mental health and substance misuse in the legal profession. With Krill developing and presenting this content, I could focus on the important task of strategically coordinating the presentations with our office leadership teams to reach the most people possible.

Since that initial offering, we have developed partnerships and pilot programs with mindfulness and fitness apps like Headspace and LEON that have also been well-received by our lawyers and staff. This, too, enables me to focus more on curating and coordinating resources instead of creating them.

Keep it simple.

One common stressor faced by both lawyers and staff (and everyone else, for that matter) stems from the reality that time is a limited, precious resource. Home schooling and other pressures we now take as commonplace can make that stress particularly acutely felt.

With this in mind, aim to be realistic by providing quick and practical tools, techniques, and education. Help people identify those "life hacks" that do not require a major overhaul but offer a large return on investment when it comes to well-being. Habits like drinking enough water, practicing stress-relief breath exercises, and taking a midday walk are seemingly simple but have substantial return on time invested. The cumulative effect of these small habits over time improve our ability to thrive.

Well-being is not just the absence of ill-being, and we are all on a continuous journey of striving towards thriving. In the world of legal services, we must prioritize the well-being of attorneys and staff in order to ensure the organization's success. When we are well, our clients do well. Now more than ever, we all could use a little extra help making sure we stay well in mind, body and spirit. I hope I have shared some ideas that will inspire you to take action, both for yourself and for your organization.

Krista Larson is director of employee well-being at Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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