Keys to Successful Law Firm Wellness Programs
Being a lawyer is stressful. Many factors—demanding workloads, long hours, deadlines, billable hour requirements, pressure to secure favorable outcomes for clients, student loan debt, the demands of keeping up with ever-changing law, and innumerable others—contribute to this. All these pressures can, and often do, manifest as physical and/or mental health issues. As a result, attorney wellness often suffers. Attorneys are known to experience anxiety, depression, and substance abuse at a higher rate than the general population.[i]
Fortunately, these issues have not been ignored. The American Bar Association has made resources available, and all U.S. states have created lawyer assistance programs.[ii] Further, law firms have increased the time and resources dedicated to wellness programs—and this is a good thing. Law firm wellness programs not only help promote attorneys’ health and well-being, but they benefit firms by increasing employee satisfaction (which means greater retention and better work product) and decreasing health care costs.
So, what should you look (or ask) for in your employer’s wellness program?
What Works Well in a Wellness Program
Successful wellness programs can include several features, including:
- An onsite clinic, medical professional, or counselor. The ability to access services nearby is not only convenient, but can (1) lessen the amount of time employees spend driving to and waiting for appointments, and (2) help identify and treat health issues earlier.
- Apps for meditation and self-care. Many law firms encourage employees to take time to take care of themselves with paid subscriptions to and access to premium content on wellness apps. Some of the more popular apps include Calm, Ginger, Headspace, and Modern Health.
- Onsite fitness facilities, paid gym memberships, or wellness stipends. Countless books have been written on the benefits of physical activity—including improved mood, increased energy, being more relaxed, being less anxious, and being less susceptible to depression—and this certainly applies to attorneys as well.
- Nutrition programs and healthy snacks in the office. Like physical activity, healthy eating can improve your temperament, brain function, and overall well-being.
- Meaningful parental leave. There is nothing like the experience of being home and able to spend time with family when a child is born. Even the American Psychological Association recognizes the importance of paid parental leave and early familial attachment.[iii] Relatedly, a Florida judge recently received extensive negative press for denying a continuance for an attorney who wanted to be home for the birth of his first child. (Thankfully, the judge reconsidered and allowed the continuance.)[iv]
- Competitions, challenges, and fun, community-building activities with rewards. People generally respond and engage better when they’re held accountable by and competing with others, and when there’s an enticement for participation.
- An engaged wellness coordinator or committee. Your firm should be committed enough to your and your coworkers’ well-being that there is a person or group dedicated to organizing a wellness program and resources for all employees.
- Actively soliciting feedback and responding to needs. Maybe one of the best things a firm can do is not force-feed initiatives and activities, but take the time to listen to employees to improve their well-being in the workplace.
Even Stronger Measures to Consider
Any or all of the above initiatives go a long way toward improving attorney wellness, but law firms looking to do even more should implement one or more of the following ideas:
- Encourage (if not require) vacation or other time away from the office. When lawyers schedule time away from the office, they often cannot enjoy or actually take this time without being bothered with “urgent” work matters. Law firms would be wise to compel attorneys to log off or unplug occasionally—if not frequently—and especially on weekends, on holidays, and when employees need time away to tend to family or health issues.
- Decrease billable hours requirements. Law firms may be reticent to lessen the number of hours that attorneys must bill because this means, at first glance, less revenue coming into the firm. But lawyers may actually be more productive—and they’ll certainly have better attitudes toward work—if they aren’t pressured with a billable hour mandate. For better work-life balance, firms should also offer greater flexibility in when and where employees work.
- Allow billable credit for wellness activities. This is quite the incentive—essentially paying lawyers to do things that are good for them. McDermott Will & Emery—which dominates Vault’s Best Law Firms to Work For rankings in nearly all categories—has allowed associates to bill up to 25 hours a year for mindfulness activities since 2018.
- Consider billable vacation time or paid vacations. Some firms believe so strongly in the importance and value of time away from the office that they allow up to 40 hours of vacation time to count as billable (Orrick) or pay for week-long vacations (Goodwin Procter).[v]
- Be authentically invested in what’s best for employees. A real commitment on behalf of law firms—not merely hollow words or lip service—to improve the well-being of its employees can do wonders for the health and morale of its employees.
Attorneys need to take time to tend to their physical and mental wellness, and having structured law firm wellness programs is one way to make sure this happens. For other ideas—and for a listing of law firms with strong wellness initiatives—check out the Vault Law rankings of the 2023 Best Law Firms for Wellness here.
[i] Greene, J. (2021, November 9). Why lawyers in trouble shun treatment – at the risk of disbarment. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/legal/legalindustry/why-lawyers-trouble-shun-treatment-risk-disbarment-2021-11-09/
[ii] American Bar Association. (2022, January 18). Stress. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/resources/stress/
[iii] Abrams, Z. (2022, April 1). The urgent necessity for paid parental leave. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/04/feature-parental-leave
[iv] Mora, M. (2022, September 7). When a Judge Reconsiders: Good News for Lawyer Seeking ‘Paternity Leave’. Law.com. https://www.law.com/dailybusinessreview/2022/09/07/when-a-judge-reconsiders-good-news-for-lawyer-seeking-paternity-leave/
[v] Sloan, K. and Merken, S. (2022, January 26). Want lawyers to take time off? This law firm is bankrolling vacations. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/legal/legalindustry/want-lawyers-take-time-off-this-law-firm-is-bankrolling-vacations-2022-01-25/