Offices of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld is taking new steps to prioritize its lawyers’ mental and emotional well-being, starting in its D.C. headquarters.

Beginning last month, an on-site behavioral assistance counselor from the workplace wellness consulting and counseling company Lytle EAP Partners is spending one day a week at the firm.

Akin Gump chief operating officer Sally King said the counselor is already booked solid through the end of June.

“I think it was a called-for resource and we responded to the call, and we’ve been very pleased with the uptake of it,” King said.

King said the pilot program is aimed at producing a stronger and more resilient workforce, and she anticipates it will expand to the rest of the firm by next year. That would place an on-site counselor at each of Akin Gump’s 20 offices around the world.

Several factors motivated Akin Gump to proactively address the issues of mental and emotional health, starting with the suicide of an associate in 2013. In the ensuing years, the firm took note of mental health problems across the industry.

“We recognize that it’s an issue not just for our firm but for the industry, and [we want to] be as transparent about this as we are about everything else,” King said.

At an American Bar Association conference in Washington last month, ABA president Hilarie Bass said the suicide of a colleague in June 2017 was a personal wake-up call regarding mental health issues in the profession.

The ABA has developed a working group with the intention of creating model law firm policies about how to handle issues of mental health, cognitive decline and substance abuse. The guidance could come later this year.

Other firms are looking for ways to tackle the mental health issue head-on, too, and some have been offering on-site services for years. Among other examples, Hogan Lovells added on-site psychologists to its offices in 2016, and Norton Rose Fulbright has 20 employees trained as mental health first-responders, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Winston & Strawn’s staff similarly includes two women trained and certified as mental health first-responders: Susan Manch, Winston & Strawn’s chief talent officer, and Julia Mercier, Winston’s learning and development director. The duo are working on their own program to train firm employees about how to recognize the warning signs of cognitive distress and impairment, as The American Lawyer reported earlier this year.

Akin Gump’s effort to improve its attorneys’ mental and emotional wellness is part of a larger program, dubbed “Be Well,” that the firm created in 2016. Meg Meserole, Akin Gump’s chief human resources officer, led the rollout of the program and said the firm is making wellness a top priority.

The “Be Well” program gives lawyers and staff “wellness points” for participating in activities such as health screenings, retirement planning seminars, charity walks and other events. The program also provides benefits ranging from refinancing student loan debt to elder care assistance and parenting benefits.

Akin Gump expanded the “Be Well” program to its international offices last year and did more work to incorporate spouses in 2018.