Credit: Nicholas Monu/iStockphoto.com

The American Bar Association this week launched a pledge campaign for legal employers to address the profession’s high rates of substance abuse and mental health problems. The campaign, organized by the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession, asks firms to adopt a seven-point framework that includes steps such as breaking from the expectation that all events include alcohol.

Alcohol and drug counselor Patrick Krill, an attorney who developed the framework and a member of the working group, answers questions about how some firms got involved at the outset, how the campaign will seek to hold signatory firms accountable and the challenges ahead.

Patrick Krill.

Why are there 13 law firms from the launch signing the pledge? Did the working group initially approach all Am Law 200 or NLJ 500 firms?

No. Initially, we approached firms that members of the working group had relationships with or otherwise we knew had an interest in lawyer well-being. Some firms approached us. This is a core group of supporters who were, enthusiastically, all committed to making this campaign a success. From this point forward, we will be more broadly recruiting from the law firm community, large and small firms, and from all legal employers, including corporate legal departments and government agencies that employ attorneys. It’s a framework that could be applicable in any legal employment context.

Our theory, once 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.

Is there a deadline to participate?

They are free to join this campaign at any time, but if they want to be part of what we are designating the inaugural class of employers who are supporting this, they would need to join by Jan. 1, 2019. If they want to demonstrate leadership and commitment to these issues, stepping forward now and getting behind these issues is a benefit.

Have you received any pushback or reluctance from firms to sign on?

We haven’t. We have heard questions, wanting to know more, to explain the campaign and the pledge in more detail. I would anticipate we may experience reluctance moving forward but today we’ve only had discussions with firms that would be willing to get behind this initiative. Some firms are quite cautious in their willingness to publicly take a position on these issues. I believe it’s because of the stigma that is attached to addiction and mental health issues. Firms are reluctant to acknowledge that some of their lawyers may struggle from time to time.

Some large firms may already provide these resources to their employees and partners. In seeking this pledge, is there some recognition that their efforts aren’t working?

Many firms probably are not doing a lot in relation to these issues. While firms like Reed Smith or Latham & Watkins or other firms may be able to point to an existing well-being program, I believe many more firms probably do not have an existing well-being initiative that you could point to. More generally, firms have a ways to go.

Is there a concern that attorneys may not actually utilize the programs in the pledge, and that it’s simply used for marketing?

I would hope not. I can understand that sort of that thought and why that may be a concern. But the purpose of a pledge campaign like this, where we are trying to build a large community of legal employers who are all making a commitment to do certain things to improve lawyer being, is really to make it more substantive. So it’s not just words, not just an image-based program, to really put some meat on the bones and to make it a concerted initiative within any given firm.

The hope is that something like this really will normalize these types of programs and to make it part of the fabric and culture in the profession.

Is there any way to hold firms accountable to the pledge?

That was one of the concerns to get this launched, that it would not be a pledge in name only. A survey will be circulated to firms one year after they sign on, asking them to identify the steps they’ve taken to fulfill the framework. And if firms aren’t making progress and if they are not taking concrete steps to fulfill the framework, their names will be taken off the list of signatory firms.

This is not intended to be a shaming exercise, but the point of making the list is to ensure the integrity of the pledge commitment, to ensure that firms maintain this commitment, they are willing to take certain steps. We won’t be publicly announcing that firms are getting off the list, but the list [on the ABA’s website] will be kept current.

Firms shouldn’t be deterred from signing this pledge if they haven’t currently done anything around these seven points. They have a full year to demonstrate they’re making progress.

What are the challenges?

Some of the challenges are that firms may be fearful of negative PR or what type of questions they may receive about why they may sign on to this.

Some firms are simply not at a point at which they have identified well-being as a priority. In some sense, we have our work cut out for us, but at the same time, the group is very encouraged by the strong foundation of firms we have from the outset. They’re willing to publicly and visibly get behind this.

This is a campaign that is targeted at reducing substance abuse and mental health problems among attorneys. If you zoom out, this is about giving legal employers a framework to strengthen and protect their most important asset, which is their people.

This interview was condensed and edited for style and clarity. Starting Monday, Krill will launch a series in his Well Counseled column on Law.com centered on the results of a recent ALM Intelligence survey of Am Law 200 firms. The survey asked law firm leaders about their attitudes on substance abuse and mental health challenges in the legal profession and what they’re doing about the problem.