The holiday season, with its accompanying sprint to wrap up end-of-year client work, presents an opportune time for law firm leaders to turn their attention to mental health and wellness in our profession.
An American Bar Association task force has declared that to be a good lawyer, one needs to be a healthy lawyer. Mental health is a critical part of lawyer well-being, and it should be a priority for those of us in leadership. Firm leaders can do a number of things to encourage and maintain healthy environments and to ensure no one at their firm feels unsafe, self-conscious or stigmatized.
Top-down commitment. For firm leadership, it’s not enough to simply declare support for those struggling with mental illness or addiction. Embracing wellness requires scrutinizing the fundamental structure of our organizations, then leading open discussions about what needs to change. Some firms have hired or appointed wellness officers. That’s great, but it will only lead to meaningful change if leadership shows support for their ideas. If we are to replace unhealthy habits with constructive, healthy behaviors, wellness needs to be a firmwide priority, starting at the top.
Honor time off. Often the first step toward creating a healthier culture is simply honoring what your firm already offers, such as time off. Too many attorneys see missing a planned vacation as a badge of honor. We know that everyone needs a break, but when it comes time to set aside client work, close the laptop and disconnect, the guilt and anxiety can be ravaging.
That’s why senior partners and firm leaders must commit to enabling true time off—starting with their own. Rather than monitoring email around the clock on days off, set an example for the younger attorneys by truly decoupling from work when you’re off. And when others are off, resist the temptation to call or email them. Though this should be true year-round, the holidays present an opportunity for firms to communicate the importance of taking time to recharge and for leaders to model that behavior.
Manage screen time. Technology has changed the way we practice law, making it a 24-7 profession. We all know that attorneys who sleep with their phone at arm’s length. You may even be that person. But that device can become an iron shackle if it prevents you from getting a break from the demands of Big Law life. Just as attorneys need vacation time, they should be able to enjoy dinner with their families without stepping outside to take a call from a client.
Many firms have begun to initiate pledges to remain phone-free at home, meaning attorneys hold each other accountable to be present in their personal lives. Again, the holidays, when families come together, are a great time to send this message.
Thinking before drinking. One of the little-discussed facts about the legal profession is that it’s steeped in alcohol. It’s rare that young attorneys aren’t invited to an after-work drink in their first months on the job, and it’s inevitable that they’ll feel little choice but to accept out of a desire to network or a fear of missing out on the next big deal.
For more of them than you probably realize, those well-intended social moments can lead to devastating addiction. We work in a culture of high achievers and high-functioning alcoholism. Many addicts will tell themselves, “Yes I drink too much, but look at me, I’m successful, I’m on time to meetings, I’ve never been arrested.” As leaders in the field, we have to confront the prevalence of alcohol, commit to creating social opportunities that don’t involve alcohol and step in to help those already battling addiction.
Wellness at the holiday party. The holiday party is a great place to start—and not only for those suffering from addiction. For the parent who has a child to go home to at the end of a long day, for those who abstain from alcohol for religious reasons, or for those who simply just don’t care to drink, we should reject the assumption that lawyers need alcohol to have a good time.
Consider providing a signature mocktail, alongside a signature cocktail, at your firm holiday party. With mocktails, folks who can’t or don’t want to drink can participate in the fun. Those struggling with addiction won’t feel stigmatized when ordering non-alcoholic drinks and the firm will endorse the message that celebrations aren’t only about drinking.
Reach out to those in need. Even if you’re already taking steps like we’ve described, chances are your firm is home to attorneys struggling with mental illness or addiction. This situation calls for individual empathy, but also for proactive measures by firm leadership. We need to break the stigma and treat the issues that attorney’s face.
Firms must begin addressing mental health problems the same way we treat physical health issues. Those who need time off to treat mental health or addiction shouldn’t be treated any differently than those out for surgery or the flu. Support them by covering their work and by making it clear their jobs will be waiting for them once they’re feeling better.
Changing our culture won’t be easy, and it won’t happen quickly. But if we start by confronting the challenges and showing attorneys that we take their mental wellness seriously, we can begin moving toward a healthier, and more productive, legal profession.