Lisa Parker, legal assistant, center, joins others at a yoga class at Shutts & Bowen as part of the firm's wellness program.
Lisa Parker, legal assistant, center, joins others at a yoga class at Shutts & Bowen as part of the firm’s wellness program. (J. Albert Diaz)

Twice a week around lunchtime in a conference room at Shutts & Bowen’s Miami office, employees turn down the lights, play ocean sounds and relax with chair yoga directed by an instructor.

Yoga at the office happens at White & Case’s Miami office, too, except there, it is held at the end of the day, and employees bring their own mats. Holland & Knight also brings in a yoga class, along with a massage therapist, once a week.

The classes are part of wellness programs that to an extent may be a way for firms to retain and market themselves to employees. But they are also an attempt to keep employees healthy, more productive and perhaps give them an opportunity to bond. As The Florida Bar embarks on creating a framework for a member wellness initiative by October, several large firms in Florida already have wellness programs that include amenities from gym membership subsidies, activity competitions between employees, on-location flu shots, and reimbursement for standing desks and Fitbits.

“It’s our intent to create a health and wellness initiative that would focus on mind, body and spirit for lawyers,” said Michael Higer, the recently installed president of the Florida Bar. “We want to help them develop better work-life balance and lifestyles that will provide them with a better foundation for a healthy way to live; and to recognize that, for lawyers especially, the stressors in our profession are significant, and provide them with intervention opportunities. Generally speaking, when a lawyer has a mental health issue, it normally manifests itself as alcoholism or drug abuse.”

The stress or abuse often leads the individual to make mistakes that result in some kind of disciplinary action. That’s often when courts or the bar becomes aware of the problem because someone has misconduct associated with that type of behavior, Higer said.

The Florida Bar was already discussing lawyer mental health issues when beloved, high-profile Miami litigator Ervin Gonzalez died by suicide in June, raising awareness of the issue.

The bar will be considering how to tackle the issue from a number of angles in order to create a comprehensive initiative to provide lawyers with the tools and resources they need, Higer said.

While larger firms like Shutts and Bowen, White & Case, Holland & Knight, GrayRobinson and Baker McKenzie have wellness programs that include programs like flu shots or weekly yoga in the office, smaller firms often don’t. In Florida, where 76 percent of lawyers practice at law firms with 10 or fewer attorneys, the focus of the initiative needs to have those lawyers in mind.

“There are many lawyers who practice in small law firms that do not have access to these tools and resources,” Higer said. “There are a number of things we’re going to look at to create a comprehensive initiative to provide all the lawyers with all the tools and resources they need.”

He anticipates including a continuing legal education course that helps lawyers better understand the issues and how to better alleviate stress, including techniques such as mindfulness, yoga or other physical activities. Higer said he would like to provide lawyers a full menu of choices, including a 24-hour hotline so that when lawyers find themselves in a bind, they have someone to reach out to.

Higer said the bar needs to incorporate personal trainers, nutritionists and psychiatrists in creating the initiative in order to be able to address issues in a variety of ways before lawyers develop alcohol or disciplinary issues, and long before they find themselves in severe distress.

Whatever the resulting program, any wellness initiative will try to address the whole person – body and mind. What large firm wellness programs offer may provide some insight into what a Florida Bar program may offer. But those programs also show that critical to any such initiative is finding a way for lawyers to choose to participate. Of the firms that offered yoga classes in Miami, attendance averaged fewer than 10 employees, most of them not lawyers.

Wellness programs at firms vary. Some, like White & Case, offer nutritional counseling, financial workshops and annual spa and health fairs.

GrayRobinson, which has a formalized wellness program at three offices, reimburses employees half the cost of an approved standup desk and mat, up to $200. The program offers biometric screenings, quarterly “lunch ‘n learns” focusing on health and wellness, and accessible health coaches for participants. Firm-wide, it offers complimentary flu shots, smoking cessation assistance, annual wellness seminars, subsidized gym memberships, healthy recipe contests, and fitness goal challenges.

In 2015, Shutts offered to reimburse employees for Fitbits and began offering activity challenges where winners get “wellness dollars” they can exchange for things like massages. In June, Shutts launched a clinical weight-loss program that doesn’t cost employees anything. Sixty-seven employees signed up, including some equity partners, said Pierina Miccoli, benefits manager at Shutts & Bowen. Participants get a weekly professional coach meeting. The firm expected an 8 percent turnout, but 30 percent of the firm’s employees at eight offices signed up.

“We started small and we started offering flu shots and pneumonia shots about five or six years ago to employees and their families,” said Bowman Brown, chairman of the executive committee at Shutts & Bowen, which has expanded its wellness program considerably since then. “It became apparent that there were so many things we could do that would dramatically help our employees be healthier and feel better about themselves and be more productive. Happy people are productive.”