Wellness Wednesday: Risk & Response

I’ve been blogging & speaking about wellness since March 2016.  Over time, the tide has turned.  Early skepticism and resistance has given way to widespread acceptance that wellness must be addressed, and even wider enthusiasm in providing solutions.

The various responses to the wellness crisis flow from this 2017 report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being.  Among other things, the report urged state supreme courts to create commissions to study & make recommendations on how the profession’s various stakeholders could act to improve wellness.

Under the leadership of Chief Justice Reiber and the Supreme Court, Vermont did exactly that.

Late last year, the Vermont Commission on the Well-Being of the Legal Profession issued a State Action Plan. The plan outlines the proactive measures that the stakeholders in Vermont’s legal community will take to improve the profession’s health and well-being.  To my knowledge, following the report & recommendation from the National Task Force, Vermont was the first state to issue an action plan.

Interestingly, while the profession has accepted and started to address the problem, nobody has looked critically at the “why?”  Why do legal professionals suffer from behavioral health problems at such staggering rates?  What is it that puts us at risk?

Until now.

Last month, the Virginia State Bar’s Special Committee on Lawyer Well-Being issued The Occupational Risks of the Practice of Law.  Professor Alberto Bernabe blogged about it here.  The report identifies four categories of risk, then dives deeper within each:

You don’t have to read the entire report.  Pages 2-11 include an accessible and hepful matrix that, for each risk, sets out its (1) potential effects; (2) practice pointers for individuals; and (3) practice pointers for organizations.

For example, lately, I’ve blogged and spoken often on the connection between incivility and wellness.  Here’s what the report from the Virginia State Bar says about the occupational risks associated with the adversarial nature of our work:

More Risk

 

Good stuff.  The matrix does the same for each risk factor. Give it a read.  Again, it’s here.

After all, it only makes sense that the most effective response will come from understanding the risk.

Wellness

 

Workplace Happiness

As I mentioned earlier this week, the plenary session at today’s Midyear Meeting of the Vermont Bar Association introduced the Vermont Commission on the Well-Being of the Legal Profession.  The Supreme Court formed the Commission in response to last summer’s report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being.  I blogged about the report here.

The report makes recommendations to various stakeholder groups within the profession.  In short, each stakeholder group is encouraged to ensure that the profession prioritizes lawyer well-being.

One of the stakeholder groups is “Legal Employers.”  Laura Wilson and Ian Carleton co-chair the Legal Employers sub-committee of the Vermont Commission. This morning, each made an important point: lawyer wellness is much more than substance abuse and depression.  It includes creating a positive environment within the workplace.  As Laura and Ian articulated, every single lawyer is either an employer, an employee, or both.

A positive environment within the workplace.  In other words, a place where people are happy to work.

With that in mind, it’s ironic that minutes after hearing Laura and Ian speak, I came across James Goodnow’s post at Above The Law: Blinded By The BenjaminsGive it a read.

While it might be aimed at BigLaw, I think Goodnow’s post is valuable to legal employers & employees in firms of ANY size. Simply, is your firm a place that values Career, Cause, Community?  If not, what changes are you going to make so that it does?

Again, for a great explanation of why the 3 C’s are so important, check out Blinded By The Benjamins.

Sadly, this post caused me to break a promise I made a few months ago when I said this blog would never again mention Puffy.  But, low-hanging fruit is too easy to pick.  And, as Goodnow’s post makes clear, when it comes to the lawyer well-being, It’s (Not) All About the Benjamins.

Plus, it’s got Biggie in it. And while I’m a West Coast guy, Biggie is Biggie.

Five for Friday #108

108

Warning: today’s post isn’t as light-hearted as some of the #fiveforfriday intros.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is a branch of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.  In 2015, SAMHSA conducted a national survey on drug use and health.  The survey found that approximately 4% of Vermonters had experienced serious thoughts of suicide over the previous year.  The Vermont results are here.

There are approximately 2,700 lawyers with active licenses in Vermont.  If lawyers suffer at the same rate as other Vermonters, 108 Vermont lawyers have had serious thoughts of suicide over the past year.

108.

Okay, I know the math might not be accurate.  However, consider the following:

In 2016, the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic released a study on lawyers’ behavioral health.  The ABA announced the study’s results here.

Per the announcement, the study revealed “substantial and widespread levels of problem drinking and other behavioral health problems in the U.S. legal profession.”  In addition, the study “determined that lawyers experience alcohol use disorders at a far higher rate than other professional populations, as well as mental health distress that is more significant.”

So, given that lawyers suffer at higher rates than other professionals, 4% might not be too far off.

Fact: in the past 3.5 years, 5 Vermont attorneys have committed suicide.

Fact: 2 of those 5 took their lives in 2018.

Fact: since September 2016, as many lawyers have had their licenses transferred to disability inactive status due to mental health or substance abuse issues as did in the previous 16 years.

There’s a problem.

Fortunately, the profession has started to address it.

In response to the ABA/Hazelden Study, three groups spurred creation of a National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being.  The groups:

Last summer, the National Task Force published “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.”  The report makes a series of recommendations to the legal profession’s various stakeholders and urges state supreme courts to form committees to review the recommendations.

On January 2, 2018, the Vermont Supreme Court issued a charge & designation creating the Vermont Commission on the Well-Being of the Legal Profession.  The Commission includes a representative from each of the stakeholder group mentioned in the National Task Force’s Practical Recommendation for Positive Change.   Each Commission member has formed a sub-committee to review the recommendations for that particular stakeholder group.

For example, I’m on the Commission as the representative from the “attorney regulators” stakeholder group.  My sub-committee includes one representative from each of the following: the Professional Responsibility Board, the Board of Continuing Legal Education, the Board of Bar Examiners, the Character & Fitness Committee, and the Judicial Conduct Board. I also appointed a lawyer who has long represented lawyers and judges in professional conduct investigations and prosecutions.  My sub-committee will review and report on recommendations that the Court’s various regulatory bodies ensure that lawyer health & wellness is prioritized throughout the licensing/regulatory scheme.

The Commission’s work will be the subject of the plenary session at the Vermont Bar Association’s upcoming midwinter meeting.  For more information, including how to register, please visit this site.

As I’ve blogged, the report from the National Task Force is a call to action.  In my view, we have duty to keep this issue on the front burner.

Why?

Because 108.  That number is far too high.

Other posts on this topic:

Onto the quiz.

Rules

  • None.  Open book, open search engine, text/phone/email-a-friend.
  • Even question 5!
  • Unless stated otherwise, the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct apply
  • Team entries welcome, creative team names even more welcome.
  • E-mail answers to michael.kennedy@vermont.gov
  • I’ll post the answers & Honor Roll on Monday
  • Please don’t use the “comment” feature to post your answers
  • Please consider sharing the quiz with friends & colleagues
  • Please consider sharing the quiz on social media.  Hashtag it – #fiveforfriday

Question 1

Which is different from the others?

  • A.  A contingent fee agreement
  • B.  An hourly fee agreement
  • C.  A former client’s consent to a conflict
  • D.  Concurrent clients’ consent to a conflict

Question 2

There phrase “persons of limited means” appears four times in a single rule.

What’s the topic of the rule?

Question 3

There’s a rule that prohibits a lawyer from counseling or assisting a client to engage in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent.  In 2016, a the Supreme Court adopted a Comment to the rule.  The Comment makes it clear that lawyers may:

  • A.   accept cash to represent people charged with financial crimes
  • B.   not accept cash to represent people charged with financial crimes
  • C.   not disclose a client’s immigration status absent the client’s informed consent
  • D.   advise & assist clients on matters related to Vermont’s marijuana laws & regulations.

Question 4

There’s a rule that prohibits a lawyer from doing something, unless it’s:

  • to another lawyer; or,
  • to someone with whom the lawyer has a family relationship, close personal relationship, or prior professional relationship.

What’s the “something?”

 

Question 5

Vincenzo Leoncavallo was an attorney and judge in Italy.  In 1865, he presided over a murder trial that involved a love triangle: the victim was stabbed to death by a romantic rival.  The victim was Judge Leoncavallo’s son’s babysitter.

Fast forward to 1910.  It was then, 108 years ago,  that the first public radio broadcast took place.  The broadcast was of 2 operas.

One of the operas had been composed by Judge Leoncavallo’s son.  It involved a love triangle in which Silvio was stabbed to death by Canio, a jealous romantic rival.

Name the opera.

Bonus: name the character for whom Silvio and Canio shared dueling affections.

 

108

Lawyer Wellness: Resolve to find 6 minutes for yourself.

My father used to joke that he’d hold back on calling a lawyer until he had enough to talk about for 6 minutes.  Because he knew that’s how much he’d be charged simply for making the call.

Those days are gone.

Now he waits until he has enough material to send his lawyer a really long e-mail.

Anyhow, here’s something else that lawyers can do in 6-minute increments: invest in their own wellness.

Wellness

Last August, the the National Task Force On Lawyer Well-Being released its report The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.  The report puts the issue of lawyer well-being on the front burner in each of our kitchens.

And it turns up the heat.

Here’s an excerpt from the Task Force’s introductory note:

  • “To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer.  Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being.  The two studies referenced above reveal that too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance abuse.  These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence.” (emphasis added).

The report includes recommendations for various stakeholder groups connected to the profession.  My blog post on the Task Force’s recommendations is here.

Last week, and in response to the report, the Vermont Supreme Court created the Vermont Commission on the Well-Being of the Legal Profession.  The Commission’s first meeting is later this month.  The Commission includes a representative from each of the stakeholder groups identified in the Task Force’s report.  Each representative will lead a sub-committee charged with reviewing the recommendations targeted at that stakeholder group.  The Commission will be formally introduced at a plenary session during the Vermont Bar Association’s Midyear Meeting in March.

I expect that you’ll hear a lot about the Commission, its work, and lawyer wellness throughout 2018.

In the meantime, don’t forget that lawyer wellness isn’t all about rehab or treatment. It also includes things like work-life balance and mindfulness.

Jeena Cho is legal mindfulness strategist.  She’s a leading voice on lawyer wellness.  She’s a great Twitter follow and writes often for the ABA Journal.

One of Jeena’s sayings sticks with me.  As I referenced in my post recommending that lawyers Make Time For What Matters, Jeena tells us:

“Finally, remember: ‘Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.’ ”

It’s great advice.  We can’t help others (our clients) if we haven’t already helped ourselves.

And it’s easier than you might think.

Jeena authored an article that appears in the January 2018 issue of the ABA Journal: Starting small: it’s time to make an achievable well-being resolution.  As she points out, even only 6 minutes per day can help to improve well-being.

Maybe mediation isn’t your thing.  Maybe it’s running, or reading, or playing an instrument, or cross-country skiing, or doing puzzles, or cooking, or crafts, or coaching, or hiking, or . . . whatever.  Something other than work!

Whatever it is, in 2018, resolve to find a few minutes a day to focus on your own well-being.