Legal Operations

Wellbeing in a Post-Pandemic World

Please tell us about your background as a lawyer and as a psychologist.

I have longstanding interests, dating back to my undergrad days, in psychology, health, law and policy. Initially, I went the law school route. I was very interested in legal issues and the challenges of problem-solving, and I enjoy research and writing, but I found that I did not enjoy the day-to-day practice of law. Specifically, I found the adversarial nature of the profession draining and I didn't want this to become my default way of relating to the world and my work and the people around me. So I decided to return to graduate school for my doctorate in psychology. It was at that time that I began my work in the lawyer wellbeing realm. My dissertation research looked at work stress and family stress and their influence on physical and psychological health. I was also interested in how personal traits, such as perfectionism and optimism, might further influence those relationships.

At the time it was pretty novel. People weren't looking at lawyer stress, or how personal traits such as perfectionism can exacerbate stress. The legal profession had little if any awareness of how stress can be detrimental to your mind and body. To collect data, I presented to lawyers, explaining how stress impacts us and why they should care about it. From then on, I've been devoting a portion of my time to educating and advising the legal community about the importance of self-care, as well as the many other factors that influence one’s wellbeing, and how to address them. Over time, my focus has shifted from primarily addressing stress at the individual level to the cultural and organizational forces that create stress and are detrimental to wellbeing.

The COVID-19 pandemic increased mental health awareness. What impact did the pandemic have on awareness relating specifically to lawyer wellbeing?

The COVID-19 pandemic created major upheaval in all our lives. There was the seemingly endless uncertainty: ongoing threats of new variants, economic and financial disruptions, supply chain issues, childcare shortages, blurred boundaries between work and home life. Add to that political instability at home and abroad, and inflamed racial tensions in the wake of George Floyd’s death. A lot was going on, and the whole population was feeling a lot of stress. CDC data showed that a high percentage of Americans were experiencing depression and anxiety.

Even before the pandemic, survey data showed that lawyers tend to have high levels of depression and anxiety. Law is a stressful profession. The pandemic stressors compounded the stress that the legal profession was already experiencing. Law firms and in-house legal departments had to take note as lawyers in unprecedented numbers were struggling to cope with burnout, which can involve physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion, or feeling detached or disconnected from your work, among other things, caused by prolonged and excessive work-related stress. There was an explosion of interest in helping lawyers manage all the work-related pressures and pandemic-related stresses that they were experiencing including adjusting to remote work and new technologies, extreme workflow changes, and juggling unexpected child and elder care responsibilities.

What is needed to help lawyers deal with stress and to promote wellbeing in the profession generally?

The billable hour issue continues to be a problem in the profession as it does create a lot of stress but is also the foundation of law firm practice and something we are not going to get rid of anytime soon. But lawyer stress goes well beyond the billable hour to the demands of the work itself. It relates to policies and expectations, degrees of flexibility and autonomy, how people behave and treat each other,and other workplace issues. So, it's important to increase awareness of all these factors that influence wellbeing, as well as the important roles of other factors, such as unmet social support needs and pressures, and the need for a sense of purpose, and to begin to address those things as well.

At the most basic level, it is important to understand why we should care about wellbeing in the first place. What is the impact of stress on physical and mental health and performance? How do we monitor this and what can we do about it? Self-care is essential but it's not the only answer.

Absolutely. And its only in the past five years or so that mental health has emerged as a topic of conversation. Before, it certainly was not talked about.

It was taboo. There is a stigma surrounding mental health within the legal profession. I wrote an article about this in 2019. It has been brought on by a lot of things, including a lawyerly focus on being rational and seeing emotions as a sign of weakness. Then there are the mental health-related questions on many state bar applications which deterred many law students from getting treatment for fear that it would call their competence into question.

What role does law firm leadership have in addressing firm culture as it relates to lawyers’ mental health and wellbeing?

Leadership plays a major role in all work settings. Leadership defines workplace culture through their words and behaviors beyond formal policies. Leaders set the tone for how people are supposed to work, when they're supposed to work, where they're supposed to work, and how they're expected to behave and treat each other. Leaders also define culture through their failure to address unhealthy workplace issues. Leadership sets expectations around the importance of self-care and prioritizing wellbeing and de-stigmatizing mental health issues. Leadership plays an important role in creating workplace policies that promote wellbeing, and in offering services and benefits that enhance self-care and address physical and mental health, and help people to better balance their work and home life responsibilities.

Do you think law firms are doing enough on this issue?

Some law firms are doing better at it than others. It's a work in progress. Seeing the increased awareness gives me hope. Even before the pandemic, many of the larger law firms started bringing in chief well-being or wellness officers (CWOs) or wellness directors, and others sent up well-being committees, so they recognize there's a problem. But the issue now is figuring out how to pay more than lip service. What else can we do besides having a few speakers come in or offering a meditation app to promote self-care and a healthy work environment?

Do you think the problem with lawyer wellbeing is mostly an issue in the United States, or is it more widespread?

While the US is the focal point when we talk about lawyer wellbeing, the issue really is an international one. Survey data from Canada, the UK, Australia, Singapore, the International Bar Association and other sources reveals a similar pattern in lawyer depression and anxiety, unhealthy substance use, high levels of perfectionism, and the like. So it's not just a US issue.

Your book, “The Thriving Lawyer: A Multidimensional Model of Well-Being for a Sustainable Legal Profession”, addresses many of these issues. Tell us why this subject is important for the legal community and psychology profession.

My new book brings together many of the important issues influencing lawyer wellbeing and how to address them all in one place. It considers the role of lawyer traits in addition to the demands of the profession, one's personal life and the work environment, all of which create stress, as well as barriers to addressing those stressors and the stress itself. The book also talks about wellbeing as a way of being, as something intentional that involves commitment and hard work, and which really is a lens through which we see our world and how we relate to our work and our home lives. Positive in tone, the book discusses various approaches to improving individual and organizational wellbeing. It recognizes that while we're not going to radically change the profession, there are things we can do to make the most of the current situation; the book looks at how we can evolve and adapt to difficult challenges and explores what can we do as individuals and leaders to promote thriving.

Check out Traci’s new book “The Thriving Lawyer: A Multidimensional Model of Well-Being for a Sustainable Legal Profession” on July 25, 2023.

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