The Case for Attorney Wellness
Attorney wellness has been like Mark Twain’s view of the weather, everyone was talking about it, but no one was doing anything about it. At last, that is changing.
It is generally agreed that lawyers are stressed. See Herbst, Attorney Wellness in a Nutshell, NYSBA Journal 16–19 (Aug. 2019), . It is also beyond dispute that stress can cause a wide range of psychological and physical problems such as anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Id. To escape this stress, many lawyers turn to substance abuse. According to a 2017 survey by an ABA working group, 21% of lawyers reported problematic alcohol use. Some cannot bear the stress under any condition. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that the suicide rate for lawyers is 1.33 times the norm, higher than for the military or veterans. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for lawyers after cancer and heart disease. The top three causes of death for lawyers can be attributed to stress. See Herbst, Attorney Wellness in a Nutshell, at 17.
After generations of working under stress, lawyers are finally talking about the elephant in the room. The American Bar Association has established a National Task Force on Attorney Well-Being (“ABA Task Force”) and the Law Practice Management Section of the New York State Bar Association has an Attorney Wellness page on its website [www.nysba.org/wellness]. Scott M. Karson, the NYSBA’s President-elect, intends to make initiatives on attorney wellness and physical fitness an important part of his presidency and is creating a task force on attorney wellness to make recommendations. The Joint Rules of the Appellate Divisions specifically provide that CLE credits may be granted for programs on Law Practice management that “encompass…stress management,” 22 N.Y.C.R.R. 1500.2(e).
Fortunately, we have what is the closest thing to a magic bullet to alleviate the effects of practice-induced stress: exercise. Exercise releases the fight or flight reflex triggered by stress and lowers your blood sugar, heart rate and, blood pressure. It also causes your brain to produce endorphins, which are chemically similar to opiates, and endocannabinoids, which are similar to the active ingredient in marijuana. These stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers and dull feelings of pain or fatigue. Exercise will also reduce your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, so you will feel less anxious and depressed. As a result, you will feel less stressed and not need to turn to drugs or alcohol. See Herbst, Attorney Wellness in a Nutshell, at 18; Herbst, A Winter Wellness Wonderland, NYSBA Journal 35 (Jan. 2020).
So why aren’t more lawyers exercising? Perhaps it is reflective of the general public, whereas reported by health club industry group IHRSA, only about 14% of the U.S. population have a gym membership and of those 80% go unused. Lawyers are highly educated and have great self-discipline. We should be doing better than that.
Or is it because lawyers have been trained to put their clients first and that the key to success is to outwork everyone else, whether to win a case or to bill more hours? It has been urged that lawyers make themselves their own client and make their own health their top priority instead of putting all their other clients ahead of them. See Herbst, Attorney Wellness in a Nutshell, at 17. Doing so is not self-indulgence. If a lawyer is reluctant to exercise for their own health, they should exercise for the health of their practice. A firm whose lawyers are overstressed, ill or impaired by substance abuse will not be able to give the best client service and will be at a competitive disadvantage.
A lawyer who exercises will be a better lawyer. In addition to reducing stress, preventing disease, giving you increased strength and stamina, and making you feel good, it has been scientifically proven that exercise improves brain function by bringing oxygen to the brain and causing the building of new neural connections. You may find that when you let your mind go free during exercise, you will come up with creative thoughts and new ideas on matters you are handling. Also, if you stay hydrated, you will not suffer from the fatigue, inability to concentrate, impaired memory, and headaches that dehydration can cause. If you get enough sleep, your memory, concentration, and ability to learn will improve. Small changes pay off big. If you exercise, hydrate, and sleep, you will be able to work more efficiently and longer, as the legal culture requires. You will be a lean, keen law machine.
To promote wellness, law firms are taking different approaches. White & Case has built a wellness center in its New York office. It includes a full gym with free weights and cardio equipment, personal trainers, guest instructors, and a nurse. In addition to improved morale, the firm has seen improved productivity and saved millions of dollars in prevention and insurance-related costs. Kirkland & Ellis is taking a more clinical approach and has created a wellness program led by a licensed therapist who is a former practicing attorney. She has created firm-wide CLE programs aimed at destigmatizing lawyers’ seeking help.