Veteran litigator Julie Feigeles‘ good deed of taking in a stray senior dog found roaming a golf course is paying dividends for her North Miami Beach firm, Feigeles & Haimo.
Feigeles named the 7-year-old Havanese pooch Mulligan, a golf term used to mean second chances. But the dog is the one giving new life and invigorating a small law practice, as she accompanies the attorney to the office, serving as a “very big morale booster for everyone.”
“She definitely makes coming to work a much more enjoyable experience. I have a stressful job, and having a cute little animal at the office can make you smile at any moment of the day,” Feigeles said. “Now, when I don’t bring her, people in the office will ask me where she is. And if I say, ‘I had a meeting,’ they say, ‘You still should have brought her.’ ”
Mulligan is among a growing number of pets accompanying attorneys to work, a trend creating cheer in a high-stress profession marred by mental illness and suicide.
Attorney wellness has taken center stage in Florida and across the nation, as the industry acknowledges and grapples with alcoholism, depression and the extreme pressure most lawyers face to deliver results to clients and firms.
A landmark 2016 study by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation revealed widespread substance abuse and behavioral health problems among U.S. attorneys. It found 21 percent of working lawyers qualified as problem drinkers, 28 percent suffered from depression and 19 percent showed symptoms of anxiety.
“There’s just something about the stress levels of attorneys,” said Gregg Morton, chairman of the Florida Bar’s Animal Law Section. “Having a companion animal nearby helps.”
The section encourages attorneys to bring pets to law firms, and is in the process of developing best practices for firms that choose to do so. It points to studies showing lower blood pressure, decreased anxiety and other positive health indicators among people who regularly interact with pets.
“We’re interested in promoting and seeing a lot more of it,” Morton said. “There’s actual science behind it all. People are realizing that this helps attorneys reduce stress.”
‘My Dog Gives Me Balance’
The effort is part of the Florida Bar’s yearlong focus on attorney health and well-being. And for the first time, the Animal Law Section will host a “puppy pit” Thursday at the bar’s annual convention in Orlando. The group teamed with Osceola County Animal Services to offer pups for petting and adoption during the bar conference.
— Matthew Dietz (@dislaw) June 12, 2018
“This takes it down a couple of notches because what we do is extraordinarily stressful,” said co-organizer Matthew Dietz. “And there’s nothing that releases stress better than giving a dog a hug. My dog gives me balance. It makes me into a better lawyer, it makes me into a better person.”
His own dog, Lucy, starred in a video promoting a link between animal companionship and attorney work-life balance.
“The bar has yoga on mornings,” Dietz said. “Yoga for me is not relaxing. My body doesn’t do that. But my body pets dogs very nicely.”
Dietz refers to the pooches as “litigation support dogs.” He says they show a growing acceptance of nontraditional work environments for attorneys, especially in small and midsize firms where it’s easier to navigate the bureaucracy of getting clearance to bring animals to work.
Firms that allow pets say they’ve had to make little or no adjustments to accommodate the animals. Some have added small gates, posted signs indicating their offices are “animal friendly,” informed clients of the pets’ presence, and moved the animals to different rooms to accommodate business.
Attorneys say they make no additional provision for liability, beyond considering allergies, paying attention to the animals’ demeanor, keeping aggressive pets out of the office and notifying visitors of their presence.
“Clients find it charming that we allow our pets here,” said Luis Insignares, whose Fort Myers firm specializes in divorces for high-net-worth litigants, and has allowed staff and visitors to bring pets to the office. “They’re all well-behaved. It’s not like we have a kennel.”
In Miami, Dietz’s practice, Disability Independence Group Inc., is home to several dogs, including Murphy, a terrier mix belonging to attorney Sharon Langer, who served as director of Dade Legal Aid for 21 years.
“We do a lot of litigation in federal court. It’s very tense, it’s very labor-intensive,” Langer said. “Every time somebody is very stressed, they take a pet-the-dog break.”