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Insights from Law Firm Well-Being Leaders at the Aon Law Firm Symposium

Release Date: December 2021
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Even before the pandemic, discussions around well-being in the legal profession had taken center stage with the 2016 landmark study published by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s release of comprehensive recommendations in 2017 (The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change), and the launch of the ABA Well-Being Pledge in 2018.

Since the pandemic, the calls to continue the well-being conversation have only intensified. At the 2021 Aon Virtual Law Firm Symposium, three law firm well-being leaders—Robin Belleau, the Firmwide Director of Well-Being at Kirkland & Ellis; Mark Goldberg, the Director of Global Health and Well-Being at Latham & Watkins; and Janine Pollack, the co-founder and Chief Wellness Officer of Calcaterra Pollack—shared their firms’ approaches to developing and implementing well-being programs for lawyers and staff. We recap some of their key insights below.

 

Identifying Available Resources

For law firms interested in starting a well-being program, ample resources are readily available. The ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) maintains a nationwide directory of programs and resources to support lawyers dealing with impairment issues. The Institute for Well-Being in Law (IWIL), which evolved from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, offers ideas and resources for both organizations and individuals, as well as information on its annual Well-Being Week in Law, which takes place the first full week of May.

Law firms’ employee assistance programs (EAPs) generally include well-being offerings, such as telephone or in-person counseling sessions. Most states also have lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) that provide confidential services and support for lawyers facing mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as guidance on structuring well-being programs and speaker recommendations.

 

Assessing Well-Being Needs

There are multiple avenues for assessing the well-being needs of lawyers and staff. One option is to hire a consultant to conduct a formal health risk or needs assessment to provide a comprehensive overview of the firm’s population. Another is to speak to people on the front lines (those in the firm with human resources and professional development responsibilities, practice group leaders, etc.) about their observations and what resources they believe lawyers and staff members could use.

An effective way to guide the firm’s resources is to offer programs on well-being topics and then conduct short surveys to check whether the presentations resonated with people or to ask what content they want to see more of in the future. Requesting the firm’s health care or insurance provider to run an analysis of what types of claims the firm is experiencing can also assist the firm with ascertaining areas of need. For example, if there are several claims related to back and shoulder issues, then identifying ergonomics resources may be valuable.

 

Vetting Speakers

In selecting speakers for a well-being program, firms should focus on what resonates with lawyers’ lifestyles. Lawyers will likely dismiss content that simply tells them to “get more sleep,” “work less,” or “set more boundaries.” Recognizing trigger issues and learning how they can be addressed or avoided will improve the chances that people will use resources that the firm offers. Bring in presenters who have experience with a law firm environment, who better understand “the attorney mind” and firm culture.

 

Overcoming Engagement Obstacles

There are undoubtedly obstacles to full participation in a law firm’s well-being program. There will remain skeptics, a reluctance to try new things, the continuing stigma around mental health and substance abuse, and of course billable hour targets and demanding clients.

An effective strategy to increase participation is to connect wellness offerings to continuing legal education ethics credits. Depression, stress, anxiety, and substance abuse impact lawyers’ cognitive functions, which directly impacts lawyers’ ability to meet their competency, diligence, and communication obligations under the rules of professional conduct. In some jurisdictions, lawyers may need specific CLE credits for mental health and substance abuse issues.

Importantly, well-being programs must be flexible. People are at different places on the “well-being spectrum,” which requires law firms to use a variety of touchpoints “to meet people where they are at.” Make information available through a firm’s internal website. Send emails with “well-being minutes” or quick messages that promote resources or cause people to think about well-being topics. Don’t hesitate to throw programs and ideas at the wall to see if they stick, or to pivot to something new when certain offerings do not resonate with the firm’s population. Being creative, listening to feedback, and attempting to make everyone feel included is vital to success.

Above all, law firms must walk before they run. Start the well-being conversation, show people that well-being is something the firm cares about and talks about, and build momentum from there. If a law firm is sincere, lawyers and staff members will appreciate the effort.

 
 
Matthew Corbin

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The Professional Services Practice at Aon values your feedback. To discuss any of the topics raised in this article or to learn more about our Loss Prevention services, please contact Matthew Corbin.

Matthew Corbin
Senior Vice President and Executive Director
Kansas City