Virus Poses Latest Test To Supporting Attys' Mental Health

By Aebra Coe
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Law360 (March 23, 2020, 10:37 AM EDT) -- As lawyers grapple with the anxiety of a public health crisis, juggle work and family obligations at home, and adjust to physical isolation due to the spread of COVID-19, efforts to support attorneys' mental health and wellness are paramount, according to mental health professionals.

Lawyers struggle with higher rates of mental health issues, including depression and problem drinking, than the average public, studies have shown.

The current environment, in which stress and anxiety are running high and many lawyers are physically isolated while working from home, stands to exacerbate the attorney mental health crisis if preventative measures are not taken, attorney wellness and mental health experts told Law360.

"The pandemic and ensuing disruption to routines and stability is unquestionably taking a toll on the mental health and well-being of many in the legal profession, just as it is for individuals in all walks of life," said Patrick Krill, founder of attorney well-being consulting firm Krill Strategies. "Fear, uncertainty, stress and worry are widespread."

Combating Isolation

Even absent the upheaval going on in the world right now, social isolation itself can lead to feelings of depression and low self-worth, according to Stacey Whiteley, director of the New York State Bar Association Lawyer Assistance Program.

"[Due to] lack of contact with peers and supervisors, coupled with the lack of structure provided by going into the office, remote attorneys can feel forgotten, left out, lonely, and be left without motivation, which can lead to feelings of depression," Whiteley said.

"The good news is that as this social distancing situation is temporary, these impacts should be short-alived and can be mitigated," she added. "Providing frequent staff check-ins, by video call preferably, will keep attorneys connected and engaged with the workplace and their supervisors and co-workers."

Law firm partners should view the current social distancing mandate as one of physical distancing, keeping their teams in touch and communicating, said Krista Larson, director of employee well-being at Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP.

"In addition to group calls or video conference, a quick Skype or Slack message to say, 'Hi! I'm signing on for the day,' or, 'Hello! I'm taking break for lunch,' the same way you might if you were to drop by someone's office, are simple ways to help us continue to feel socially connected despite the physical disconnection," Larson said.

When lawyer and law firm staff work remotely it can also be more difficult to detect when and if they are dealing with mental health issues, substance misuse, or both, presenting a "heightened risk" to those struggling and to the organization as a whole, Krill said.

"For that reason, it is imperative that law firms take a proactive approach to supporting the emotional well-being of their team members during this time and for leadership to be unambiguous about doing so," he advised.

Krill said he believes law firm management should include direct and explicit messaging about mental health, well-being and self-care in communications sent to attorneys and professional staff, and should remind them of what resources are available to them such as mental health services or employee assistance programs.

Keeping an Eye on Output

According to Whiteley, attorneys working from home may also feel pressure to prove their ability to perform when working remotely, leading them to put in longer hours than usual, blurring the lines between work and home and creating an environment that could lead to burnout.

Whiteley said she advises legal employers to keep an eye on employee time sheets and make sure attorneys and staff understand they should have a time they "clock out" every day, logging off of email and letting calls go to voicemail, to maintain a level of structure and separation from their personal lives and avoid burnout.

Firms should also look out for attorneys who aren't joining in on video check-ins or who are not submitting work, she suggested, because they may be struggling.

"Reaching out to these attorneys personally, to find out if they're OK, should be the practice," she said.

Compassion Is Key

At a time like this, attorneys — who are often high-achieving perfectionists — need to be compassionate with themselves, according to Jarrod F. Reich, a legal practice professor at Georgetown Law.

"Given the current crisis, it is reasonable not to be at the top of our game. We need to remind ourselves that perfect is the enemy of the good, and that we are all doing the best we can," Reich said.

Law firm management must also show compassion for their lawyers and staff, providing flexibility if some are not able to complete tasks in the usual amount of time and communicating empathetically with them, Reich said.

"Firm management should ... let everyone know that they matter and that the firm's management understands the uncertain, stressful and scary position we find ourselves in. Simply letting lawyers and staff know that they matter to the firm as people would do unspeakable good," he said.

Munger Tolles & Olson LLP managing partner Hailyn Chen says she and her co-managing partner Malcolm Heinicke sent out a recent firmwide email acknowledging the stress many are under, letting them know the firm understands how challenging the situation is, and reminding them of the law firm's mental health resources and benefits.

"I had a huge number of attorneys reach out to us to thank us for that message," Chen said. "I think it's important during this time to acknowledge that people may be struggling with stress and anxiety and mental health issues."

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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