NYSBA Proposes Sweeping Changes Across Legal System To Prioritize Attorney Well-Being

By David Howard King

NYSBA Proposes Sweeping Changes Across Legal System To Prioritize Attorney Well-Being

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Law firms should cap billable hours at 1,800 and make sure lawyers take all their vacation time. Law school students should be required to study attorney well-being. And the judiciary should standardize rules and offer virtual hearings to reduce stress on lawyers.

These are just a few of the systemic changes proposed by the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Attorney Well-Being that the House of Delegates approved at its meeting Oct. 30. For over a year, the task force, aided by exhaustive data from a wide-ranging survey of over 3,000 attorneys, looked at how attorney health impacts not only lawyers but outcomes for their clients and the justice system as a whole.

The task force divided up into nine working groups to examine how attorneys deal with emotional well-being, physical health, and addiction, and how law firms, the courts, and the education system impact lawyers at all career levels – from students to those close to retirement.

“I am deeply proud of the work accomplished by the Task Force on Attorney Well-Being,” said NYSBA President T. Andrew Brown. “We owe it to the next generation of lawyers, to our clients, to the justice system, and to ourselves to end a culture in our industry that too often overlooks or even encourages behavior that leads to untreated addiction, alienation due to racism, and mental health issues. To address these deep-seated problems will require systemic change and a recalculation of priorities to end the stigmatization of those who seek help.”

Other recommendations made by the task force include:

  • Training the judiciary on the importance of recognizing the challenges of mental health issues
  • Acknowledging the negative impact of a lack of diversity among law school professors and working to change it
  • Persuading law firms to encourage parents to take necessary leave
  • Continuing to offer virtual hearings to accommodate lawyers with disabilities
  • Addressing discrimination faced by lawyers of color in some courtrooms
  • Creating more NYSBA continuing legal education classes focused on well-being

The task force was appointed in June 2020 by then-President Scott M. Karson and chaired by Saratoga Springs attorney M. Elizabeth (“Libby”) Coreno and former presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Third Department, Hon. Karen Peters. The importance of its mission was elevated by the coronavirus pandemic, which caused uncertainty, layoffs, and increased workloads.

“The assumption that the way we’ve always done things is the best way is just not correct,” said Justice Peters. “Our work has shown that taking the time to make sure lawyers are healthy results in better outcomes – not just for the lawyers themselves, but also for their clients and the entire justice system.”

Members of the task force included lawyers from a variety of practice areas, judges, medical professionals, and psychologists.

“I cannot stress how important it was that we all brought our experiences and knowledge to the table and worked as a team,” Coreno said.

The survey confirmed anecdotal evidence that attorneys are reluctant to seek help for mental health issues. Respondents expressed concerns that if they pursued treatment, they might look weak to colleagues or that assistance services billed as confidential would not actually be. Only 8% said they had used an employee assistance program.

Attorneys reported the following as having the most impact on their well-being

  • Lack of boundaries for “down time” or “never off”
  • Client expectations and demands
  • Financial pressures in the “business of law”

“These changes aren’t simple, and they won’t happen overnight,” said Peters. “Having worked in law for over 40 years, I know that some of these recommendations will be met with sharp resistance but make no mistake that these changes are necessary to sustain our profession and avoid the pitfalls of the past.”

About the New York State Bar Association
The New York State Bar Association is the largest voluntary state bar association in the nation. Since 1876, NYSBA has helped shape the development of law, educated, and informed the legal profession and the public, and championed the rights of New Yorkers through advocacy and guidance in our communities.

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