By Matt Fawcett, General Counsel at NetApp
We have serious problems
Law has chronic mental health and substance abuse problems. The statistics are widely available and particularly grim. A 2016 Hazeldon Betty Ford study found that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression, and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. Law consistently ranks among the careers with the highest suicide rate.
It’s not hard to speculate why. We are in a combative and competitive business that claims a heavy price from the professionals who practice it. Our work and social cultures reward intensity and excess and punish perceived “weakness.”
This is not new. Way back in 1990, a John Hopkins study found that lawyers were four times more likely than the average person to experience depression. It’s no wonder that many lawyers, me included, do not want their children following in their footsteps. This problem has been with us a long time. We are simply hearing and talking about it more now.
We need more than empty promises
A well-publicized ABA “well-being pledge” has recently been making the rounds of BigLaw. Many firms have signed it, often issuing press releases celebrating the accomplishment. The pledge proposes “a seven-point framework to reduce substance use disorder and mental health distress.” The actual points tend to be basic, ranging from “Challenge the expectation that all events include alcohol,” to “Actively and consistently demonstrate that help-seeking and self-care are core cultural values.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with these ideas. They are… fine. A concern I have with the pledge is that the act of “signing on” feels like a superficial exercise at the expense of the real issues. If I was running a law firm, I would likely feel pressured to sign on simply because competitors did. Like any vague and aspirational promise, it is worthless without specific and real action. When you have deep cultural –and in the case of Law, structural – problems, change requires more than a showy public pledge.
My other concern is best articulated by Dan Lukasik, a lawyer who writes regularly about depression. He reacts to the pledge’s emphasis on problematic drinking and other forms of substance abuse over mental health issues:
I hope and pray that the efforts of the task force are successful. But I remain concerned that unless we place just as much emphasis (or, I would argue, more in light of the statistics) on the poor mental health of practicing attorneys, we will have missed the mark.
I agree. If we are going to create a meaningful movement to change Law for the better, we have to address the core issues of mental wellness and depression. Not serving quite as much beer at your next work event is simply not enough.
Let’s agree on our responsibilities
It’s helpful to step back and think about what our responsibilities to our people are… and are not. What are we really talking about? What does success look like here?
First, we cannot “own” the happiness of our people. That goal is far beyond the reach of any manager or employer, in any industry. Anyone who starts this conversation by saying “I want to make my people happy” is focusing on the wrong thing. What we can do – and what every effective manager is probably already trying to do – is to provide a positive work environment that enables people to contribute and thrive.
As a leader, I spend a lot of time thinking about the culture and setting in which my team works. I don’t create it, but I do influence it. Everything from how I work with colleagues, clients, and customers, to the way we design team meetings and offsites, to the trainings and company-sponsored activities we offer, contributes to that culture. I would like to believe that we are clear about the values that matter to us, and that we encourage, reward, and publicly celebrate people who exhibit those values.
This isn’t to say that my people don’t have a lot of work. We do, and we certainly aren’t immune to stress or work pressure. I can’t eliminate the stress and pressure that comes naturally with our demanding jobs. I can work to create an environment where long term satisfaction and fulfillment overwhelm temporary, though regular, frustration and anxiety. This is not easy and it forces me, and my management, into tough choices where we may “give up” potential short-term gains because we are committed to maintaining and improving our overall team culture.
Wellness is not a project
Wellness, whatever it means, is not the same thing as “work life balance,” a topic I have railed against before. A Mayo Clinic study of the medical profession found that emergency room physicians had relatively good work life balance, yet high levels of burnout, while neurosurgeons had relatively lousy work life balance, but comparatively much lower levels of burnout. The lesson: Law will not be fixed just by reverting to an 1,800 billable hour expectation.
The temptation for leaders confronting a problem like the mental health epidemic in Law is to turn to their familiar playbook. Just like when they face other big, uncomfortable challenges – diversity, for example – the leader wants to be seen to be taking action. Let’s form a committee! Let’s bring a special trainer in for an afternoon! Or, in this case: Let’s sign a pledge! Signing a pledge might be expedient, but it is ineffective. Even worse than being an empty exercise, it blocks real progress and change. It is a veneer of progress masking deep structural and cultural causes.
You will never hear me say to my team or my leadership: We need to work on wellness today. It is impossible to separate this issue from the way we think about and run our team. It is at the core, and it is something we work on every day, in every meeting, in every communication we have.
The bottom line for leaders in Law is simple: if your people need help, get started helping them. They don’t want public pledges, cat cafes, corporate fun days, or PowerPoint presentations. They want the opportunity to work in an environment where positive ideas and actions are rewarded and toxic, unhealthy behavior is not tolerated. To help your people be healthy, start by making their workplace healthy.
This piece was first published by Matt Fawcett on Linkedin