Attorney Well-Being Takes on Added Urgency as NYSBA Looks To Solve Long-Standing Problems

By Liz Benjamin

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The statistics are alarming and well documented in studies and reports dating back decades.

Lawyers are more prone to depression than non-lawyers, and at an elevated risk for suicide. They are particularly susceptible to stress-related illnesses like heart disease and high blood pressure, and are significantly more prone to alcoholism and substance use than the general population.

The toll the legal profession can take on practitioners’ bodies, minds and family life, with high demands at the office resulting in a distinct lack of work-life balance, has been known for decades.

Yet repeated efforts to fix these problems have thus far fallen short. And the situation has been exacerbated in recent months by the physical and financial uncertainty caused by the novel coronavirus crisis.

Now, attorney well-being is taking on added urgency as New York State Bar Association President Scott M. Karson makes it a focus of his tenure, which began June 1. The aim is to tackle these long-standing issues and recommend comprehensive and actionable measures to address them.

This overarching effort features nine working groups, each focused on a specific area related to wellness and the entire continuum of the legal profession – from law school to retirement. The nine working group concentrations are: Emotional Well-Being, Physical Well-Being, Substance Use and Addiction, Law Culture and Employment, Law Education, Bar Associations, Judiciary and the Courts, Public Trust and Ethics and Continuing Legal Education.

The task force is co-chaired by Hon. Karen Peters, former presiding justice of the State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department, and Saratoga Springs attorney Libby Coreno. They have both long worked on issues related to attorney well-being and bring a wealth of understanding and knowledge to the effort.

“The table has been set for 30 years; we know what it looks like, we know what the problems are, but there has not been any real activity for change,” said Coreno, who has been facilitating weekly Zoom discussion groups for lawyers struggling with the additional stress and pressures of the pandemic. “We keep ringing the alarm bell, sounding the horn and yet don’t build anything for the storm that’s coming.”

Justice Peters noted that New York – and NYSBA specifically – is not new to the attorney wellness discussion, and in fact has been at the forefront of trying to highlight the many challenges facing the profession. She recalled participating on committees formed to focus on these topics as far back as the 1970s.

“The difference is that this is a holistic approach,” Justice Peters said. “The goal is to come up with measurable recommendations in each of these nine arenas. If we can make recommendations and suggestions at each level, then we have valuably dedicated our time.”

Both Justice Peters and Coreno recalled instances in which they personally struggled to establish healthy habits and balance in a male-dominated and tradition-bound industry that has historically been slow to embrace change.

“It’s built into the fabric of law,” Coreno said. “We are a precedential profession. We give homage to the way things are done in the past. I come to this with a tremendous amount of respect for that piece…yet there are times when that type of entrenchment becomes toxic and I think we’re at it.”

Justice Peters remembered the difficulty she faced when seeking time off the bench to bond with her adopted infant son as a single mother and there was no established mechanism for that sort of family accommodation to occur.

Coreno, who grew up in what she described as a “12-step household” where healthy communication was the norm, struggled after returning from studying with the Māori people in New Zealand with adapting to the “constant conflict” of law school and her early years as an attorney.

Justice Peters said she was encouraged by the fact that a former Appellate Division colleague, after suffering a significant personal loss and spiraling into a deep depression, was able to take three months off to heal “and that was OK.

“We’ve come very far, but we still have a long way to go,” she said. “It’s important that we recognize the State Bar has been working on this for a while. This is a culmination of some really significant work on attorney well-being.”

The work of the task force is already underway. The working groups are being chaired by what Justice Peters described as “an extraordinary group of individuals who have adapted to a very difficult task.” Coreno echoed that sentiment, predicting that the chars “will be the leaders in a discussion on topics that will challenge entrenchment.”  They have already started meeting and gathering resources and aim to have a first draft in the fall of the final report they will present to the executive committee next spring.

Both Coreno and Justice Peters recognize the enormity of this effort, but also are convinced of its timeliness and importance at this unprecedented moment when the legal profession – and society at large – finds itself at a crossroads and in need of big changes going forward.

“There’s a saying that if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough,” Coreno said. “I take that very much to heart. My dream is for a kinder, gentler life for the people I care about most in the world professionally. That’s a very big dream.”

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