A year ago, as the worldwide coronavirus pandemic spread to New York, Libby Coreno, co-chair of NYSBA’s Task Force on Attorney Well-Being, and Dr. Kerry O’Hara, a clinical psychologist, were preparing to launch a five-part NYSBA podcast series to help lawyers with wellness issues.
Life had been turned upside down and lawyers were no exception. They were wondering how they would pay the bills, pay their staff, or work exclusively from home.
“Suddenly people were facing a lot of change, by themselves in new situations,” Coreno recalled. “How could we create a space for people to discuss that in a way that was confidential and safe?”
And from that thought NYSBA’s Lawyer-to-Lawyer Wellness Roundtable was born.
Held every Thursday at 4 p.m. for the past year, attorneys met via Zoom and confidentially discussed their challenges, feelings and fears as they navigated their way through the pandemic. The first roundtable was held March 26, 2020. On Thursday, March 25, 2021, the group celebrated its one-year anniversary.
Before the first roundtable, Coreno and O’Hara admitted that they had no idea who would show up or how long it would last.
“None of us back then could ever have anticipated what actually transpired,” said O’Hara. “We’ll judge it by if anybody shows up. If they do, we’ll do it for a month…”
Then, O’Hara said, it became two months, then six months, and now it’s been a year. At the one-year anniversary roundtable, Coreno and O’Hara announced to the group that April 1 would mark their final session. The duo would be returning to the podcast format.
“It’s been an amazing journey to just be able to watch this group of people grow, and change over time,” said O’Hara. “Things that a group of lawyers a year ago never would’ve spoken about or talked through, a year later it’s seamless. It’s a great community.”
About 40 people attended the first virtual session a year ago, Coreno recalled. Many have continued the entire year. That number has stayed fairly consistent, though some weeks attendance has been closer to 70, depending on whether there has been a guest speaker.
Coreno recalls the discussion the first week being centered around lawyers accepting that some things are out of their control. Only Coreno and O’Hara were on camera that week. She said the second week, she allowed the lawyers in attendance to also appear on camera if they desired. In time, the lawyers’ comfort with Zoom grew and quickly everyone appeared on camera.
Generally, Coreno would introduce a topic and “Dr. Kerry” as the group calls her, framed it from psychological standpoint. Then they would ask the group what it meant to them. Sometimes the lawyers would use the raise your hand feature and want to come on live, other times they direct messaged Coreno or O’Hara, especially with a personal question, or they would chat with each other in the group on Zoom.
While the group had many concerns particular to their profession, other stresses were very much in tune with society at large. For instance, there were fears about going back to courthouses or law offices when the COVID-19 infection rate declined in the summer. There were also worries about how to handle what surely was not going to be the normal holidays, especially as the infection rates increased again.
O’Hara said the lawyers in the group developed a camaraderie and built a trust. She said the group began advocating for and helping one another. The group knows who each other are, where they work but there are ground rules. Nobody can tape or videotape the discussions to respect each other’s privacy.
“But they really got to know each other over the course of the year,” said O’Hara.
Coreno explained that a lot of wisdom has been passed around amongst the various age groups, including senior lawyers and those who just graduated law school. She said their fears are different but there is “so much kindness.”
For example, when the pandemic first started and court hearings became virtual appearances, that became intimidating for many seasoned lawyers, especially those who are not as technologically savvy. Coreno said the more junior lawyers were willing to show them what to do or provide them a link to a video that could help them.
Meanwhile, the young lawyers were worried about how the pandemic would impact their job prospects or what law firm culture would be like during the pandemic. Coreno said the senior lawyers would try to help the younger lawyers with those concerns.
In general, Coreno said the group acknowledges and listens. Unless it is a sharing of resources, the group does not give one another advice or “solve each other.”
“We talk a lot about creating a validating environment,” said Coreno. “Validate someone’s experience… ‘That sounds hard for you,’ ‘I hear you’… instead of what lawyers tend to do – problem solve, argue, fix or explain. We’re not in court… validate them in their humanness.”
For Coreno and O’Hara, the group felt like “a community should feel” and they looked forward to each and every Thursday.
“I don’t think we thought it would get to a year,” said Coreno. “I don’t think we thought it would last a month. I’m amazed it’s lasted this long. I don’t think we ever expected that.”
She said other roundtables have popped up around the country. As the task force works on a report about what bar associations can do to address attorney well-being, ideas like the roundtable may be in there.
“It’s been such a remarkable experience,” said O’Hara. “…We didn’t commit to a year of it, it just happened because it was needed. For the lawyers involved in this, it was bigger than anything we could have imagined when it started.”