No One is Untouched: Help-Averse Lawyers Meet Helplessness in COVID-19

By Brandon Vogel

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When Libby Coreno attended a meeting during the Great Recession, a fellow attorney asked several attorneys how they were was doing, given the unbelievable impact to the economy. To the person, the answer was a bland, “I am doing okay.”

This man stopped and wondered aloud why were they so afraid to talk about how they really felt.

Twelve years later with the coronavirus pandemic, Coreno says, “we should be able to talk to each other.”

Coreno, chair of the Attorney Well-Being Committee, points out that “whether you are the managing partner of a Top 100 Firm or an assigned counsel in Essex County, everyone is going through this together,” she said. “No one is untouched. Everyone is affected. So, how do we create a framework where we can turn to each other and acknowledge everyone is going through this?”

Asking for help

Coreno has surmised two hard truths in the wake of the coronavirus: lawyers have difficultly asking for help and are now confronting realities previously ignored.

“Lawyers are notoriously help-averse,” said Coreno. She explained that lawyers know how to be fixers. “We are called upon when others need help. It is hard to admit our own need for help.”

She said that “incredibly capable” attorneys will need to ask for help or guidance. “It is bringing up a lot of difficulty and vulnerabilities about where to go for help; lawyers have a hard time admitting how much it weighs on us.”

Coreno also sees that lawyers are now facing latent facts about their lives with the change in routine.

“Suddenly, our work/life schedule is allowing us to look at things that may have been ignored,” said Coreno. “It is forcing people to slow down and feel a discomfort.”

Road to empowerment

NYSBA is launching a well-being podcast series this month hosted by Coreno and her colleague, clinical psychologist, Dr. Kerry O’Hara, PsyD. Coreno has more than ten years experience being a well-being workshop leader, teacher and mentor. The five-episode series will look at the case for attorney well-being, the culture of law, mindfulness, tips for senior lawyers to stay connected, as well as the physical addiction to stress. It will be available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play and the NYSBA Website.

NYSBA has also created a Lawyer to Lawyer Wellness Roundtable, held every Thursday at 4 pm. Attorneys meet via Zoom and confidentially discuss their challenges, feelings, fears and successes. Coreno describes the attendees as an “effective, well-attended, vocal group sharing information and ideas.”

Stacey Whiteley, director of the Lawyer Assistance Program, said the program has received calls about personal health, the safety of family members and concerns about the pace of change. “Since things change so quickly, there’s worry about keeping up with the changes,” said Whiteley.

She also has received calls from government and public service attorneys about the stresses experienced working from home and homeschooling children. “Of course, there’s just the overlying anxiety and uncertainty about what’s going on in the world in general as we move through this,” Whiteley said.

A common theme heard in the roundtables and throughout NYSBA’s Lawyer Assistance Program is financial worry, particularly from solo and small-firm practitioners. Whiteley said, “This is the number one thing that is discussed by far: from very basic paying rent to making sure their staff is taken care of. There’s no work coming in the door.”

“Lawyers are saying ‘I don’t know how I am going to pay my staff’,” said Coreno. “It is a very humbling and painful moment for people who are used to being accomplished. It is about borrowing money, getting a loan, making tough decisions and feeling like we might look less effective.”

A lot of this stems from anticipatory anxiety, said Coreno. She explained that lawyers are trained to envision the worst-case scenario for clients and how to protect them.

“The question is how do we support each other to break the cycle,” said Coreno. “We break that with community, resources and tools. We have tools to help clients that we can use to help each other.”

She described that when she has met with clients, including landlords wondering if they are going to receive rent checks, she says, “the goal is to become laser-focused on the road to empowerment.”

With lawyers, the same skill set applies. “We have the ability to empower our clients and make decisions. We need to apply that to ourselves. That’s the key.”

The role of the bar

Elizabeth Eckhardt, director of the Nassau County Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program, said she has found that lawyers are looking for a sounding board right now. She sees bar associations as a “place for lawyers to go for facts and insight as well as a family for them to be connected to and talk to.”

“Attorneys are trying to figure this out themselves and mentally prepare for what they tell their clients,” said Eckhardt. “This is hitting them in a personal way.”

Coreno said, “bar associations, to a large degree, are the cultural and community leaders for the profession.” The role is to level an issue with hope, empowerment, resources and dialogue.

“The heart and soul of the legal profession stops and starts with the association of lawyers themselves,” added Coreno.

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