Fostering Well-Being in Our Profession

For many years the legal profession has been moving from being a profession to being a business.

Fifty years ago, at least in British Columbia, the relationship with the client was paramount. The lawyer’s job was to help and serve counsel. Bills were rendered based on the relationship with the client, the service provided, the complexity of the matter, the result of the case, the value to the client and a variety of other things, one of which was the time taken by the lawyer.

If lawyers kept time logs, it was for tracking purposes and to help them keep clear about what they were doing and what was –and was not – effective. The concept of using time to measure our work, and to bill accordingly, was foreign and arguablyaberrant”. That is not what a professional does!

We are so much more than our time. The value of our work and our effectiveness as a helper and as trusted counsel is only tangentially, at best, related to our time. Over the years, sometimes slowly, sometimes more quickly, time as a measure of our work, and worth, has become more and more important, until today it is often the only measure.

Where is the sense of meaning in this? Where is the sense of accomplishment? What pride of work is there in selling one’s time? Most of the lawyers I see who are distressed or who want to leave the profession have lost any sense of meaning or purpose in their work. They have lost any sense of the value of their work, and they have lost their awareness of, or connection to, their own values and purpose.

Without those internal guides, they are just plodding along trying to stay afloat to ‘keep billings up’. They have lost any sense of thriving. Instead, they are locked in survival mode. When a lawyer is in survival mode, they stop doing the things that contribute to their wellbeing, they stop seeing friends as much, they exercise less or not at all, they do not read, play music or create art, they do not conduct service work in their community, they do not spend time in nature, they do not contemplate the larger questions in life, and they stop examining themselves. Their lives get smaller.

To make matters worse, they feel guilty about not doing these things. Their pain is added to by thoughts that they ‘should’. They lose touch with what they want to do and with what they have to offer. The situation has been deteriorating for years. It has become so bad that an increasing amount of research has brought to the fore the mental health and addiction problems in the legal community. A major study funded by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 2014 found that one in four law students were at risk for alcoholism, while 28% of practicing lawyers suffered from depression and 19% from severe anxiety.

Then came the pandemic with all its limitations and restrictions. It became easier to simply sit in front of the computer and work. Without distractions, productivity went up. Many lawyers and law firms have experienced record years for billings. For some that were drowning under the pressure of their guilt and their ’shoulds’, there was some relief at first, because there were not as many things that they ‘should’ be doing or that they were neglecting. They had an excuse to do nothing but work. That abated over time, and they were once again lost as to why they were doing what they were doing and the value that they had.

Others who had been living more fully and nurturing the many dimensions of themselves and their lives also found their worlds getting smaller and more focused on work. With this many felt less and less satisfied. Increasingly, formerly healthy people began calling the Lawyers Assistance Program for assistance. When asked, it became apparent that they had felt their engagement with others, with exercise, with nature and with the arts, among other things, fade. They began to report a troubling increase in drinking and a kind of flatness to their lives, followed by a disenchantment with their work.

Many of these people slowly started to feel better as they gradually added healthy, nurturing things to their lives and cut down on – or cut out – the things that were stopping and hurting them. With support and accountability, these people made fairly rapid progress back to good health, although with less resilience than before the pandemic – that will take more time. For people who have been more profoundly affected or who entered the pandemic with addiction and/or mental health problems, the recovery is more problematic and certainly much slower.

The current culture of the legal profession is creating a dangerous disconnect. Law as a profession is a profoundly important and rewarding occupation. It provides challenges, a means to help others, a way to be of service and a strong financial reward. For most, if not all, the people I help who are impaired, injured or just fed up with the practice, law as something that you do to fill in time so that you can bill it is meaningless, destructive and difficult.

A global study by the International Bar Association (IBA) in 2020 found that one in three lawyers say that their work has a negative or extremely negative impact on their wellbeing, while the average Mental Health Wellbeing score for respondents is low enough to warrant a health professional to screen for depression, suggesting that a more formal assessment of mental wellbeing problems is warranted. Factors relating to time pressures were most commonly cited as having a negative impact on lawyers’ mental wellbeing.

As people speak up and as the research comes out, it is now clear how damaging it is to practice law in the incorrect way (i.e., as a ‘billing unit’ rather than as a professional).

Lawyers are seeing that they are not alone, and it is not a sign of weakness be troubled. They are beginning to expect, even demand, a better system. The same IBA study found that 76% of respondents aged between 25 and 29 think that their firms should be doing more to address mental wellbeing, while 28% of respondents overall want to see their workplace culture improved. Lawyers will want work and a work schedule that conforms to their needs and desires, not a stereotypical, one-size-fits-all approach that they must conform to. This is what a culture of wellbeing means. It means valuing and supporting the whole person.

This is not just a nice idea; it is a practical requirement. Young lawyers are increasingly leaving and expressing dissatisfaction. This is not sustainable from a business perspective. Perhaps even more importantly, to develop the best lawyers, we need to value and support their uniqueness. The best lawyers that I know, and have known, have taken care to stay connected to their whole selves. They have worked hard and valued the law, they have read widely and learned new and varied things, they have maintained friendships and contributed to both the larger society and the legal community. Many have exercised, played sports and looked at the larger world and ideas, spending time with their friends and families. All of these experiences they have brought to their practice.

Being a lawyer is so much more than just knowing the law. The broader and deeper our experience, the more we bring to our client service. So, from a business orientation, a culture of wellbeing is a wise move. Indeed, research shows that people with a sense of wellbeing provide better service, sell more, earn more, perform better at work, are more creative, work better with others and are more likeable. As employees, there is less turnover and they experience less burnout.

The old thinking was that if people begin to take care of themselves and bring their whole self to work, they will want to work less and ‘shirk off’. I say, emphatically, that this is not my experience. The people I see who are burnt out, tired of their jobs and fed up with the practice of law are suffering from a lack of meaning in their work, from trying to fit a mold and model that does not work for them and from feeling isolated and unsupported in their work. They have proven that they work hard; they usually even like working hard, if the work has meaning to them and if they have been supported and helped – and feel competent – in that work. In fact, ‘shirking’ is a product of not living one’s fullest life. In my experience, a lawyer ‘shirking’ is a result of extreme disillusionment, burnout or some other underlying problems.

Given more support for their own uniqueness, some may work at their law practice less because they have parenting work or other commitments as well. Many will work better, more efficiently, more effectively and in a more sustainable way. Few, if any, will want to shirk their commitments and contribute nothing.

A true professional works for the sense of satisfaction and wellbeing that comes from using one’s resources in the service of others and society. Most of my clients are missing that and the practice of law has become too onerous. They long for a profession that respects and nurtures their true selves and supports them to be professional and bring their unique gifts to work. Again, research shows that there is a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction among lawyers, particularly young lawyers, and many are thinking of leaving the profession. Earlier this year, an IBA study revealed that 20% of lawyers aged 40 and under are considering leaving the profession in the next five years. We are already hearing about the rapid and frequent turnover of lawyers and of the difficulty in recruiting new talent.

Similar results are being found around the world. Clearly, change is needed. Among other things, flexibility in working practices is often referred to, as is prioritizing wellbeing (individual uniqueness) and reinvigorating the ‘meaning’ and purpose of the work.

Individually, we will benefit by being supported to make personal changes and to develop an awareness of what we need in order to develop our wellbeing and ensure that we are nurturing all dimensions of our life. This work need not be daunting or overwhelming; rather, it is best incorporated into our lives as a continuous process. In fact, the ABA defines wellbeing as “a continuous process in which lawyers strive for thriving in each dimension of their lives”.

What I, and others, are hoping is that the pandemic has brought to the attention of the various institutions in the legal profession the need for, and value of, these changes.

Derek LaCroix QC

Author | Executivedirector

Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia


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