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Scott Karson: Wellness

We have long known about the toll the legal profession can take on lawyers’ bodies, minds and personal relationships, with high demands at the office and in the courtroom resulting in a lack of work-life balance.

The statistics are alarming and have been well-documented dating back decades.

Here’s a short list:

·      Lawyers are more prone to depression, and at an elevated risk forsuicide.

·      They are particularly susceptible to stress-related illnesses like heart disease and high blood pressure.

·      There are higher rates of alcoholism and substance use among attorneys.

Add to the mix the stress and unpredictability of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that is impacting all of us with no end in sight, and it is clear that the legal profession is facing a wellness crisis of significant proportions.

While we have been assiduous in chronicling the difficulties attorneys face, we have not yet figured out how to fix them. What is needed is a holistic approach that takes into consideration the entirety of an attorney’s health from law school through retirement.

Even before I assumed my new role as President of the New York State Bar Association in June, I established a new Task Force on Attorney Well-Being, recognizing that lawyers cannot effectively meet the needs of their clients – especially at this unique moment in history – unless they first help themselves.

This overarching effort features nine working groups, each focused on a specific area related to wellness. The working groups will focus on emotional and physical well-being, substance use, the legal culture, the judiciary, education, bar associations, ethics and Continuing Legal Education.

The Task Force is co-chaired by Saratoga Springs attorney Libby Coreno and the Honorable Karen Peters, a former Presiding Justice of the State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department. Both Coreno and Peters have long worked on issues related to attorney well-being and bring a wealth of experience, understanding and knowledge to the effort.

Throughout the pandemic, Coreno has been co-moderating a unique effort to provide support through confidential Zoom sessions for lawyers, judges and law students. These sessions have provided immense comfort to those who were isolated and struggling due to the impact of the unprecedented public health crisis, which closed courtrooms and law offices.

The legal profession is tightly bound up in history and tradition. This is necessary as the foundation of the rule of law is built on adherence to precedent, which is intended to provide clarity, predictability and equal treatment.  But it also has its downsides, including a reluctance to embrace change.

It Is far past time for us to recognize that what is needed is a wholesale cultural shift, a move away from the old school belief that working long hours at the expense of one’s health and personal life is the only way to succeed.

It is not hyperbole to say that the very future of the legal profession rests on our ability to finally do something concrete to address the problem of attorney well-being. Young attorneys increasingly expect more from their workplaces – more diversity, more equity and more recognition that their contributions and their time matters.

A 2019 Above the Law survey of millennial lawyers found that nearly 75 percent of respondents said they would be willing to trade a portion of their compensation for either more time off, a more flexible work schedule or a reduction in billable hours.

The same survey found that half of these young lawyers believe the current law firm business model is broken and 66 percent viewed making partner as less desirable than it was a generation ago.

By the same token, we must also not overlook the unique needs of attorneys nearing retirement age. For so many of us, work is the defining factor of our lives. It is the very core of who we are and in the case of the legal profession, the concept that we are in service to a higher calling – upholding what is just and right – can be difficult to live without.

The work of this new Task Force is already underway. The working groups have started meeting and gathering resources. They aim to have a final report to present to the Bar Association’s executive committee next spring.

While we recognize the enormity of this effort, we are convinced of its timeliness and importance at this unprecedented moment when the legal profession – and society at large – finds itself at a crossroads and in need of big changes going forward.

My hope is that this effort will result in recommendations that will be beneficial not only to the legal community, but to other professions as we all seek to navigate the new normal wrought by the pandemic.

Scott M. Karson is president of the New York State Bar Association.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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