In recent years the American Bar Association has launched and encouraged participation in a Well-Being Pledge to improve overall wellness of those working in the legal industry. The signatories to this pledge now exceeds 400 law firms, corporate legal departments, and other legal service entities. The two-fold goals of this campaign are articulated by the ABA as follows:

Wellness in the Legal SystemFirst, recognize that substance use and mental health problems represent a significant challenge for the legal profession and acknowledge that more can and should be done to improve the health and well-being of lawyers; and

Second, pledge to support the Campaign and work to adopt and prioritize its seven-point framework for building a better future consisting of:

  1. Providing enhanced and robust education to everyone in the organization (including judges, lawyers, staff, and students) on well-being, mental health and substance use disorders;
  2. Reduce the expectation of alcohol at events by seeking creative alternatives and ensuring that non-alcoholic alternatives are always available;
  3. Partner with outside providers who are committed to reducing substance use disorders and mental health distress in the legal community;
  4. Provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources, including free, in-house, self-assessment;
  5. Develop proactive policies and protocols to support assessment and treatment of substance use and mental health problems, including a defined back-to-work/school policy following treatment;
  6. Show that the organization’s core values include taking care of yourself and getting help when needed by regularly and actively supporting programs to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being; and
  7. Use this pledge, and the organization’s commitment to these principles to attract and retain the best individuals in the organization (including judges, lawyers, staff, and students).

This seven-point initiative is an important starting point in addressing the mental health and substance abuse issues pervasive within the legal industry. The components of the initiative clearly recognize the scope of these problems. The fact that hundreds of legal entities have signed on to this pledge is further indication that this problem is widely recognized and acknowledged. The starting point for any impetus to change is the acknowledgement that a problem does exist.

In terms of initiating meaningful systemic change, however, the ABA program comes up short. For example, offering attorneys alternatives to alcohol at firm events will mitigate potential liability for law firms stemming from these events, but offer little to address the inherent aspects of law practice and law firm culture that contribute to these problems in the first place. Unless attorneys become better able to cultivate improved response flexibility and learn to transcend their analytical and intellectual tendencies, they will remain challenged in their ability to better tolerate uncertainty and discomfort that are inherent in human experience. Attorneys remaining challenged in this way, and who have become physiologically and/or psychologically dependent on alcohol to navigate discomfort will likely forego many firm events that do not provide alcohol, thus leading to more stress for these attorneys who may feel increasingly alienated from others in the firm who are able to participate in firm events without issues around alcohol consumption.

Obviously, the onus cannot be completely placed on the law firm to mitigate the mental health and substance abuse challenges of lawyers. But the real systemic change necessary to effectively address these ills will require the integration of significant changes to law firm culture that emphasize true “wellness” in the form of prioritizing more ongoing, meaningful connection among attorneys and other legal personnel.