An unprecedented focus on well-being has emerged within the legal profession over the last several years, driven largely by issues related to mental health and substance misuse.
I’ve spent the last decade researching, writing and advocating in the hopes of fueling the very well-being “movement” now underway, so it is no surprise that I am gratified and legitimately optimistic about the progress the legal profession is making around a centrally important and long-overlooked subject.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the profession shares my optimism. But they should.
To begin, let’s take a jaunt down memory lane to gain some perspective. Three and a half short years ago, the discussion around the mental health and well-being of lawyers and law students was so muted as to be imperceptible. Outside of those on the “front lines” in a clinical, academic or regulatory sense, there was what could charitably be described as a slim minority of the profession that was passionately—or even discernibly—focused on how its people were doing. As Yoda might have put it, mainstream well-being was not. Fringe it did seem.
Fast-forward to 2019, and my how things have changed. When you stop to consider the following examples of progress and change that have occurred in that time, it would be hard to credibly say otherwise: We now have a better understanding of the actual challenges we face, thanks to the availability of seminal research on lawyer and law student behavioral health and the report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being.
In addition, dozens of state bar associations have formed their own task forces on well-being. More than one-hundred large legal employers have signed on to the ABA Well-being Pledge and have begun to implement its framework. Also, legal media outlets are devoting significant resources and bandwidth to regular and ongoing coverage of mental health and well-being. At the same time, a growing and impressive number of individuals have been willing to publicly share their own personal struggles in order to challenge the stigma around addiction and mental health.
More improvements include changes to CLE requirements, bar admission applications and law school curricula across the country. Well-being topics are now regularly included on the agendas of most legal industry conferences, bar association annual meetings, and law firm retreats. I could go on, but this column has a word limit. Any objective and informed evaluation of that progress would seemingly have to conclude that it is, at an absolute minimum, quite good.
Do we have a very long way to go? Of course. Is there still, metaphorically speaking, a huge canyon between where the profession is now and where we might otherwise want it to be? Yes, and the solution to that is to keep building—plank by plank—a bridge to the other side. Standing on the edge while complaining about the width of the chasm won’t do anything to narrow its yawn, so we shouldn’t overindulge the temptation to do so.
In that vein, it is imperative that we don’t allow our collective perfectionism or skepticism to become the enemy of the good by minimizing gains made, or by dismissing anything less than immediate and wholesale cultural overhaul as an unworthy failure, disingenuous lip service, or mere window-dressing on the profession’s irredeemable flaws.
Unfortunately, too many lawyers seem comfortable doing just that, in a sense saying “Yeah, yeah, come back when you’ve when dismantled the business model of law firms or abolished the billable hour. Then we’ll talk about well-being.” In doing so, people of this mindset are ignoring everything we know about how sustainable cultural change is facilitated, which is often steadily and incrementally.
They are also failing to do their part. Frequently convinced that anything short of utter transformation of the profession will amount to meaningless improvements in lawyer mental health, these individuals are generally indulging negativity and defeatism while masquerading as realists, unintentionally mounting a de facto defense of the status quo that makes them more a part of the problem than the solution. Don’t be that person.
Now look, I get it, lawyers tend to be perfectionists and skeptics by nature, and you could argue that those traits are grafted onto our DNA by the time we emerge from law school. We want and expect perfection and still doubt and question that it would be good enough. When it comes to well-being, however, both at the macro and micro level, perfectionism and skepticism are inherently unhelpful and self-defeating qualities. How they are at odds with well-being on a micro level is an interesting, important and probably intuitive conversation for another time. How they are harmful on the macro level is what concerns me more.
If we are going to maintain and build upon the meaningful progress we’ve already experienced around making mental health and well-being mainstream priorities for the legal profession, we need to continue pursuing tangible, manageable and strategic improvements that are both realistic and thoughtful. Nebulous calls for aggressive culture change, paradigm shifts or overhauls that aren’t based in practical reality will not get us where we need to be, and important allies will be lost to a contagion of discouragement, intransigence and resignation along the way.
The beckoning of an undefined nirvana may be powerful, and the impulse to reject anything short of that perfection reflexive, but let’s all do our part and not succumb. It’s often said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with single step. Hopefully we can all agree that critiquing the length of that stride is missing the point entirely.