Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

Agate generously supports MinnPost’s Mental Health & Addiction coverage; learn why

Lawyer well-being emphasized at MN Supreme Court’s ‘Call to Action’ conference

“The law is a stressful job in terms of the demands that have always been placed on lawyers in the workplace,” said Joan Bibelhausen.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Back when she was a kid, Anne Brafford had her future mapped out.

“I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 11 years old,” she said. “I was motivated by the idea of wanting to make a positive impact on the world.”

Anne Brafford
Anne Brafford
Brafford grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, a period she referred to as “the era of all the civil-rights lawyers,” so she dreamed of earning her law degree and help make the world a better place. “That’s why I wanted to become a lawyer,” she explained. “When I went into the law I was so proud of what I would be able to achieve.”

And achieve she did. Brafford, the first of her siblings to go to college, practiced law for 18 years, moving up the ranks at a large corporate law firm.

“I became an equity partner at a firm in my 40s,” she said. “I held a lot of leadership positions,” but despite her professional successes, Brafford ultimately felt disillusioned. While she still holds her firm in high esteem, she was bothered that its primary focus, like most large firms’, was on making money, something that she said turned its lawyers into “billable-hour generators that lose the vision of being helpers and creators and making our society a better place.”

For Brafford, this all-consuming pressure to perform created intense anxiety. “That was what for me became the biggest challenge,” she said. “At the end of the day I’d go home and think, ‘Is this really all I really wanted to do with my one short life?’ I had this deteriorating sense of meaningfulness in my work that truly harmed my mental health.”

Article continues after advertisement

Many attorneys have found that legal work takes a toll on their psyche. This reality was highlighted in “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” a 2016 study led by legal advocate Patrick Krill and sponsored by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, that found that attorneys are significantly more likely to struggle with substance use, depression and anxiety than the general population.

This reality, which has always been accepted as a little mentioned part of the legal landscape, has become more acute in recent years, as the pressures of the digital world have meant that many lawyers feel they have to be on duty 24/7. The report’s publication — combined with a recent uptick in high-profile attorney suicides — forced that reality into the daylight, and the legal world was compelled to respond.

Brafford, who eventually left her law firm to earn graduate degrees in positive psychology, co-authored the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s response to the 2017 ABA/Hazelden report “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practice Recommendations for Positive Change.” Earlier this year she also published a follow-up, the “Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers,” a guide to creating healthy work environments for legal professionals.

Last week, Brafford was in Minneapolis to speak to an audience of attorneys, judges and other legal professionals at the Minnesota Supreme Court’s 2019 Call to Action for Lawyer Well-Being at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Brafford’s concluding talk, “Overcoming Barriers to Action,” detailed how legal organizations can work to fix the problems that are damaging to the well-being of lawyers.

Associate Justice David Lillehaug
Associate Justice David Lillehaug
Brafford’s “Path to Lawyer Well-Being” report inspired Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea to spearhead the one-day conference, explained Associate Justice David Lillehaug. The justices invited a range of the state’s top legal decision-makers, including partners and administrators at large firms, and representatives from public agencies that employ attorneys. More than 225 people attended the event.

“In my six years on the court we’ve never done anything like this on any subject,” Lillehaug said. “This is an issue in the legal profession that feels big enough that we were compelled to do this.” The conference needed to happen for the health of the profession, he added: “It is a moral issue. The statistics have been collected on lawyer well-being and they are stunning. We on the Minnesota Supreme Court feel that since we lead the state’s legal establishment, we need to step up and make lawyer well-being a significant priority.”

Brafford, who grew up in Iowa and now lives in Southern California, was excited to speak at the Minneapolis event.

“This issue of meaningfulness and well-being is one I focus on a lot because of my own personal experience,” she said. “Whenever I speak about this topic, it resonates with other lawyers. It is not an issue that gets the attention it deserves, and they are hungry to hear more.”

‘We are not going to put this on the shelf’

The practice of law has always had a certain amount of baked-in stress, said Joan Bibelhausen, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a free, confidential assistance program for lawyers, judges, law students and their immediate family. It’s something that lawyers traditionally accepted as part of the job.

“The law is a stressful job in terms of the demands that have always been placed on lawyers in the workplace,” Bibelhausen said. “Lawyers are dealing with the most difficult and challenging things that people and organizations face. They have a high level of responsibility and a great deal of exposure to tragedy.”

Joan Bibelhausen
Joan Bibelhausen
Historically, many attorneys dealt with the stress of their work through substance use. Some level of that behavior was accepted and even supported in the culture, with de rigueur three-martini lunches and cocktail-fueled partner meetings. Though some of that behavior had been fading in recent years, the ABA report shined a light on a problem that was too serious to be ignored.

Biebelhausen still remembers when she and her staff first read the report: “We said, ‘We are not going to put this on the shelf. What are we going to do with this?’ There are serious issues in the profession that need to be addressed.”

But how can the legal community address this problem? Because of the way the system is designed, careers in the law are even more stressful than medical careers, Biebelhausen said. In the law, she explained, “you have an adversarial system. That’s how things work.” When a lawyer reaches a boiling point and needs to take a break, “there isn’t the same professional support that there is for counselors, nurses, physicians. Even law enforcement has more supports embedded in the profession when something goes wrong at work.”

Lillehaug agreed. “The underlying problem is stress and toxicity in the profession,” he said. “Clearly lawyers are at greater risk than many other industries and professions, and there is no history of support when things get out of hand.”

Article continues after advertisement

Plus lawyers are taught that hiding their emotions can be the key to success.

“Lawyers tend to bottle up their emotions,” Bibelhausen said. “They don’t want to show weakness. Showing personal vulnerability can hurt your case. As a result, stress and anxiety come out sideways. Lawyers drink more. They might be depressed because of what they are exposed to and the demands of the job, but they feel they have very little they can do about it.”

“Culturally it is hard for any lawyer to admit weakness, especially in the transactional or litigation world,” Lillehaug added. “Everyone wants to be a winner. I don’t know if the profession attracts or incents these behaviors. Lawyers think of themselves as a winning, self-reliant people. The stress and toxicity that come from that attitude color the entire profession.”

The justices believe that problems in the profession have reached a boiling point, Lillehaug said. Last week’s Call to Action conference was designed to help legal leaders begin the long process of redefining the legal culture. It will be a big job, but it feels worth it.

“Clearly lawyer wellness is critical to the ethical practice of law,” he said. “Our goal in hosting this call to action is that law firms and public agencies that employ lawyers can step up the plate earlier, identify their colleagues that need help and help them get that help.”

A born helper

The desire to help is what drew Brafford to the law in the first place, so when she stepped away from her legal practice, she knew she couldn’t turn her back on the profession.

Brafford was inspired by the field of positive psychology, the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. She earned a master’s degree in applied positive psychology and has completed all coursework for a Ph.D. in positive organizational psychology. Her overarching goal is to help transform the legal profession, writing, researching and speaking about positive leadership, resilience, work engagement and burnout, meaningful work, high-quality motivation, work-life balance, political skill, and retention and advancement of women lawyers.

“I left to go back to school to learn about organizations thriving so I could bring my knowledge back to the profession,” Brafford explained. “I wanted to come back to create a greater sense of wellness for all. I’m a born helper. I want to help the field of law.”

Response to her “Path to Lawyer Well-Being” has been, Brafford said, “really positive. It was amazingly positive right from the outset.” While the Toolkit was just released a few months ago, many firms have responded quickly: “A number are creating positions like, ‘director of well-being.’ The next phase is going to be helping firms figure out how to do this in a sustainable way. It can’t be a fad.”

It is important to emphasize that the changes encouraged at events like last week’s Call to Action have to be lasting, Brafford said. If they aren’t supported by larger, industry-wide change, efforts to enhance lawyer well-being could end up feeling like little more than window dressing.

“There is an effort to shine a light on the fact that these are systemic issues within the legal profession,” Brafford said. “Many law firms might translate this as meditation clinics, individual resilience, proper nutrition, physical exercise, which are important, but now we need to go deeper and figure out what is going on within these organizations that is contributing the poor well-being of their lawyers.”

There is no doubt that Brafford is encouraged by large-scale support for change in the legal profession. Events like the Minneapolis conference are a strong indication that people at the top are finally taking the issue seriously.

“When I was practicing law, firms didn’t see it as their responsibility to care about individual well-being,” she said. “Now organizations care. We have to figure out how do you actually care every day in every business practice.”

Sea change

There is hope that changes brought on by the work of legal advocates like Brafford will be lasting.

Biebelhausen said she feels most hopeful when she notices many top attorneys being willing to take a step back and truly examine their profession.

“People are now saying, ‘Does the legal profession have to be this way?’ ” she said.

If enough people in the legal profession question the way things have always worked, change can happen, Lillehaug said. “There have been enough lawyers to form a critical mass of inquiry that resulted in the national taskforce. The subject is more prominent in the profession with some very serious people behind it.”

Younger lawyers who have grown up in a culture with more open attitudes about mental health and addiction are influencing much of this change, Bibelhausen said.

“Law students are now starting to talk about this. They are asking future employers, ‘What is your firm doing to provide an environment where I can do my best work?’ Young male lawyers are taking advantage of their firms’ paternity leave policies. Just as firms have compensation committees, some are now setting up well-being committees.”

Other industry-wide shifts are also in the works.

Article continues after advertisement

“National law firms are looking at ways to reduce stress and respect people’s need to have personal time,” Bibelhausen said. “These may require big changes in the organization, including having a walking meeting instead of one where you sit still. Providing resources and links to counselors. Our organization provides free counseling sessions to any lawyer on any issue. We want to make sure that members know that it exists.”

To help make sure that firms stand by their efforts to enhance the well-being of their attorneys, the American Bar Association, with the leadership of Krill, has developed a pledge for lawyer well-being, Lillehaug said. Representatives from local firms that have already signed on were introduced at the event, and other legal employers were encouraged to add their names to the list.

Brafford said she feels “cautiously optimistic,” by steps like these, but she emphasized that the profession is still at the beginning stages of a long, sometimes painful process.

“What’s going on right now is the easy stuff,” she said. “Signing a pledge, scheduling in-office meditation and yoga sessions. We have to start somewhere, but once we really get into the systemic issues of, ‘how do we really change the legal system?’ — that’s where the rubber will meet the road.

“I feel like we are on the precipice of something really big,” she continued. “A whole bunch of people who grew up in the current system and benefited from it will have to accept that change. That will get more challenging, but the profession needs to do it if we are going to survive and thrive in the future.”