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There are over 60 legal employers to date participating in the Pledge Campaign organized by the American Bar Association’s Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession (ABA Working Group). All but a few, for now, are law firms. Many are global but some are small. A majority have a New York presence. They are leaders, influencers, and early adopters. They value their lawyers and legal staff. They’re proud that before Jan. 1, 2019, they committed their firms to effecting organizational changes that will raise awareness about the high incidence of alcohol and other substance abuse problems; reduce the stigma of mental illness; and encourage and support help-seeking. They’ve signed the ABA Pledge.

The Pledge Campaign was launched in September 2018 to alert legal employers about: (1) the high prevalence in the legal profession of alcohol and other substance abuse and mental health issues; and (2) what they can and should do to implement well-being programs, contending such initiatives are good for business, have a positive impact on lawyer competence and are the right thing to do.

The ABA Working Group was formed following the release of the comprehensive August 2017 Report by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being: “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.” The National Task Force, representing the ABA and other entities, was initiated in 2016 by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (COLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers. The report’s 44 recommendations separately address each stakeholder in the profession: legal employers, judges, bar associations, law schools, lawyer assistance programs, regulators and professional liability carriers. The report builds on the 2016 study by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation of currently practicing lawyers and the 2015 Survey of Law Student Well-Being. Both reveal alarming statistics in these populations of, among other things: problem drinking; substance abuse; depression, anxiety and stress; suicidal thoughts; social alienation; work addiction; and sleep deprivation. Id. The Task Force’s dedicated website is lawyerwellbeing.net.

The Well-Being Pledge for Legal Employers is a seven-point framework developed by ABA Working Group Member Patrick Krill, an attorney and drug and alcohol counselor.

Pledge signatories commit to identifying concrete actions they can take to achieve goals in the following core areas:

(1) Provide enhanced and robust education to attorneys and staff on well-being, mental health and substance abuse disorders.

(2) Reduce the expectation of alcohol at firm events by seeking creative alternatives and ensuring that non-alcoholic alternatives are always available.

(3) Partner with outside providers who are committed to reducing substance abuse disorders and mental health distress in the profession.

(4) Provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources to all employees, including free, in-house self-assessment tools.

(5) Develop proactive policies and protocols to support assessment and treatment of substance abuse and mental health problems, including a defined back-to-work policy following treatment.

(6) Show that the firm’s core values include taking care of yourself and getting help when needed by regularly and actively supporting programs to improve physical, mental and emotional well-being.

(7) Use this pledge, and the firm’s commitment to these principles, to attract and retain the best lawyers and staff.

Two law firms signing the pledge before January 1st gave these reasons for stepping up. “By committing to the ABA’s Well-Being Pledge Campaign, we’re demonstrating our commitment to support well-being and mental health—and address addiction and substance abuse—in the legal profession,” said Quinn Emanuel founder and managing partner John B. Quinn. “This is an important issue to our firm—and a personal one to our people.”

For Akin Gump, said Meg Meserole, the firm’s chief human resources officer: “The seven steps of the Pledge provide a great framework for goal-setting within our existing well-being program and are flexible enough to allow us to tailor programming and communications around our firm’s culture. We look forward to seeing the list of member firms continue to grow, and sharing our best practices in support of a healthy and productive legal community.”

Reducing the expectation of alcohol at firm events, the second core area, is on trend. “Dry January,” an annual British phenomenon started as a public health campaign by a charity in 2013, is taking hold in the United States, according to a Jan. 1, 2019 Wall Street Journal article. The health benefits reported months later by participants surveyed include that they felt more in control of their drinking; realized they didn’t need a drink to have fun; and had more energy, better concentration and better sleep.

Guidance on setting up and enhancing lawyer well-being programs is available in the ABA Lawyer Well-Being Toolkit created by legal consultant Anne Brafford. See also Well-Being Toolkit Nutshell: 80 Tips For Lawyer Thriving.

The Lawyer Assistance Program of the New York City Bar Association (NYC LAP) is among the Well-Being partners listed in the Toolkit’s Appendix. LAP is available to assist legal employers to initiate and support a well-being plan.

NYC LAP provides free, confidential assistance to all lawyers, judges, law students and their family members in and around New York City, on a wide range of issues, including alcohol and substance abuse and mental health issues. The services provided include comprehensive evaluation and assessment; identifying solutions and developing a plan of action; supportive counseling; crisis intervention; and referrals to treatment professionals and programs with expertise working with legal professionals. Peer support is a unique service provided by volunteer attorneys and judges who have overcome their own struggles and are committed to helping their colleagues. Some are members of the City Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program Committee. There are two ways to contact NYC LAP for a confidential and free consultation: call the Confidential Helpline (212-302-5787) or send a secure email.

NYC LAP, led by Director Eileen Travis, also makes educational presentations to law firms (separately for lawyers and legal staff), bar associations, law schools and agencies in the public sector. These programs, some offering CLE, can be on any subject affecting the well-being of legal professionals, including alcohol and substance addiction, mental health issues, anger management, relationship issues, career concerns and the stresses of caregiving. Presentations often include a lawyer with a personal story to share. Quinn Emmanuel partner Joseph Milowic III, a member of the LAP Committee, reflected on his participation in one presentation to a law firm last year: “I would hope that speaking openly and honestly about mental illness resonated with a couple of people in the audience, alerting them that they are not alone; that they should seek treatment; and that things can get better.”

Signing the Pledge is the first phase of the ABA Wellness Campaign for legal employers. While January 1st was the deadline for joining the “inaugural class,” the ABA Working Group encourages legal employers to sign at any time they feel this public affirmation is right for them.

The second phase of the Campaign is the Pledge Commitment Form that signatories will be sent after one full year of participation.

“We’ll be asking signatories what they’ve been doing in the past year to move the ball forward,” said Robert Denby, Chicago attorney and ABA Working Group Member. Noting that the participants so far range in size from four lawyers to over 2,000, Denby said: “It’s not all one size fits all in terms of the activities that are done to implement, whatever works for the employer.” Asked what happens if there is not progress in one year, Denby responded: “We’re not looking to shame anyone, they would just be dropped from the list of signatories.”

In September 2018, the week the ABA Wellness Campaign launched, Patrick Krill made this prediction about the Pledge: “[O]nce we have a critical mass behind this initiative, it really will take on a life of its own and it will become the norm—that the majority of legal employers will sign the pledge, and not being part of this will become the exception, rather than the rule.”

Law firms and other legal employers interested in finding out more about the ABA Wellness Campaign, or in signing the pledge, can contact Tracy Kepler at tracy.kepler@americanbar.org. Pledge signatories can be found here: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance.

Priscilla Lundin is a New York City lawyer and a member of the City Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program Committee.