After Groundbreaking Report, NYSBA Looks for Next Steps on Attorney Well-Being

By David Howard King

After Groundbreaking Report, NYSBA Looks for Next Steps on Attorney Well-Being

mentalhealth

The feeling of being on the cusp of something new hung heavy over the panel from the start. The debate, introspection and in some cases, disbelief inspired by the release of the New York State Bar Association’s report on attorney well-being left even its authors looking for the right first step toward implementing a set of  game -changing recommendations. Systemic change after all is never easy.

The webinar, entitled “Reimagining Our Future: A Holistic Approach To Lawyer Well-Being,” gave many members of NYSBA’s Task Force on Attorney Well-Being a chance to take stock of how their recommendations were received by the profession and consider the best way to implement change across the legal system.

Capping billable hours, encouraging lawyers and staff to use all their time off, and creating a curriculum to help law students better deal with the mental toll of their profession (just a few of the proposals) is a gargantuan task.

“We need one firm to buy into it and then the market will adjust,” suggested Professor Jarrod Reich of the University of Miami School of Law. He detailed how firms would see “improved long-term profitability” by encouraging their lawyers to take care of their physical and mental health. Absenteeism and inefficiency would be reduced while talent retention rates increase.

For many of the speakers, the journey to this point was already proof that the profession is changing.

Elizabeth “Libby” Coreno, co-chair of NYSBA’s Task Force on Attorney Well-Being, and Dr. Kerry O’Hara, who is also a member of the task force, noted that many of the conclusions that were embodied in the report came from a support group for attorneys that ran for 54 weeks during the pandemic. But the seeds of the larger discussion were planted earlier.

O’Hara said it started with conversations with Coreno about what it is like being a lawyer. After learning about the culture, the ideal attributes of a star attorney and the typical workload, O’Hara said she began making connections.

“It became so evident for me across the course of conversation that from a clinical perspective each one of the factors Libby brought up to me are exactly what clinical psychiatrists would see as direct correlates to depression, anxiety and substance abuse. It was no surprise to me that this leads to a profession that has incredibly higher rates than other professional groups,” she said.

Dan Lukasik, judicial wellness coordinator for the New York State Office of Court Administration, started a website called Lawyers with Depression two decades ago to cope with his diagnosis of major depression while at the height of his legal career.

He says at the time the attitude in the industry was, “If you’re not OK, its not our problem.” Since then, he says he has gone from being the “lone voice” detailing his struggle online to seeing hundreds of lawyers acknowledging their struggles. “We need to start working with young people right at the beginning, telling them it’s OK not to be OK. Not 20 years down the road.”

Asked what NYSBA could do to help foment an overhaul in attorney well-being, President T. Andrew Brown noted that the well-being report and a series of forums on the topic will stoke discussion across the profession. Brown noted that NYSBA is engaged in work around racial justice designed to tackle the injustices inflicted on Black and Latinx members of the profession that lead to stress, self-doubt, and depression.

“Certain sectors of our society carry burdens that others don’t. Members who look like me, members of the LGBT communities, people with disabilities and women carry greater burdens. And what is troubling is you don’t see that extra burden. You don’t see how they are treated by a judge in a courtroom or a jury. You don’t see it, but you feel it. If you are a member of one of these subgroups, the injustices you carry with you impact your wellness.”

Brown said he looks forward to a report from NYSBA’s Taskforce on Racism, Social Equity, and the Law for further recommendations on how to reduce these burdens.

By the end of the CLE, it was clear that part of the answer is to continue the conversation, to destigmatize mental health issues and give lawyers the grace to see themselves as human. However, there was also a clear commitment that gimmicks and band aid solutions will not placate many of the panelists.

“This isn’t’ going to be changed with a mediation room or a breathing exercise. This needs to start at the beginning,” said Stacey Whiteley lawyer assistance program director at NYSBA.

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