Dear Patrick:

What advice do you have for lawyers (or law firms, for that matter) who may be wanting to reduce their alcohol consumption, eliminate unhealthy behaviors, or just generally strive for greater physical and mental well-being in the new year?

Allison

 

Dear Allison:

In a word, gradual. That’s my advice. Move at a slow to moderate pace, lay a foundation, and build momentum. That is how lawyers (and firms) are most likely to succeed in improving either their individual or collective well-being. Given that the start of a new calendar year is upon us, however, it is likely that many minds are thinking about New Year’s resolutions, the seductive yet evanescent fever of self-efficacy that grips Western civilization annually. If that sounds familiar, do yourself a favor and forget about it. Unless you are in or quickly approaching crisis, and your New Year’s resolution is literally to check into treatment that day, ditch the plans for a Jan. 1 ribbon-cutting on a new and improved you. Lasting change takes time to cement and ultimately won’t be held together by retrospective guilt over your poor life choices in 2017, no matter how powerful that guilt may currently feel.

One of the most-widely accepted and well studied models for explaining how people accomplish change in their personal lives is called the Transtheoretical Model of Change, or TTM for short. It operates on the assumption that people do not change behaviors quickly and decisively (such as through a New Year’s resolution), but instead that behavior change, especially habitual behavior, occurs through a cyclical process. My experience counseling lawyers, judges and law students about overcoming their addictions and mental health problems certainly bore this model out, and the vast majority of my peers rely upon it as a useful construct to assess and describe where patients stand in their readiness and capacity for change. Although the model is typically applied to individuals, in this specific context I think it certainly works for law firms as well. I’ll elaborate:

According to this model, behavior change occurs incrementally, with the individual moving from either being apathetic, unaware of the problem, or unwilling to make a change (known as the precontemplation stage), to a point where they are considering a change (contemplation), to deciding and preparing to make a change. Meaningful, committed action is then taken, with ongoing attempts to maintain the new behavior occurring over time. Relapses and returns to old behaviors are common and considered part of the process of achieving lasting change.

I’ll explain each stage a little further, and I would encourage lawyers to consider where they or their firm are in this continuum, and then to reflect on what it would take to get them to the next level.

 

 

Precontemplation  During the precontemplation stage, people do not consider changing a problem behavior at all. Lawyers or firms in denial may not see that advice about well-being applies to them personally, or perhaps their supreme confidence in their own abilities—or their inflated egos—convinces them that they are immune to the health problems that strike other lawyers and firms. Alternatively, they may have tried and failed to change so many times that they have now simply given up.

Contemplation  During the contemplation stage, people are ambivalent about changing. The idea of giving up an enjoyed behavior evokes a sense of loss, even despite the perceived gain. During this stage, lawyers and firms are likely to assess obstacles (time, expense or fear) and benefits of change. Incidentally, it’s easy for lawyers to get stuck here, as we’re trained to analyze and thus are susceptible to analysis paralysis.

Preparation  During the preparation stage, lawyers or firms would be—as the name suggests—preparing to make a specific change. They may test drive small changes and then ramp up from there as their determination and motivation to change increase. An individual lawyer might begin researching treatment or therapy, or exploring options for getting more exercise and managing their stress better. A firm might dip its toe in the water with something as foundational as bringing in a well-being speaker for the first time.

Action  The action stage is what clinicians spend the most time trying to help their patients reach, because, as you might guess, it’s where the most progress occurs. (It’s also a well populated graveyard of failed New Year’s resolutions. At this point, it becomes clear that if the prior stages have been bypassed, action itself may be inadequate.) In short, this step is about intentionality and concrete actions—walking the walk, so to speak, and devoting adequate time, effort and resources to facilitate the desired change.

Maintenance  Maintenance and relapse-prevention involve incorporating the new behavior over the long term. Discouragement due to occasional slips backward or frustration from seemingly entrenched behavior may interrupt the change process and result in the lawyer or firm being tempted to give up, but, in a therapeutic or clinical context, most patients find themselves cycling through the stages of change several times before the desired outcome becomes firmly rooted. There is no reason to think that the experience of an individual lawyer or law firm seeking to change would be any different, so maintaining motivation and fidelity to mission are key, even in the face of setbacks.

If you or your law firm are considering making some perhaps overdue changes towards better health in 2018, understanding the mechanics of the process can be invaluable. There is no time like the present to get started, so long as you understand that effort will be required long after the motivation brought by a new year has faded beyond perceptibility.

Have a question? Send it to wellcounseled@gmail.com and I’ll see you back here soon!

 

Patrick R. Krill is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. Go to www.prkrill.com for more information.