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4 Strategies for Building the Habit of Lasting Resilience in the Legal Profession

Jan 03, 2019

The legal profession has historically avoided talking about the problems of mental health and substance abuse among attorneys—until now.

In early September, the American Bar Association’s Working Group to Advance Well-Being released a pledge to address the problems of substance abuse and mental health among attorneys. This pledge calls upon law firms to:

• 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.

• Pledge to support the campaign and work to adopt and prioritize its seven-point framework for building a better future.

So far, 42 of the nation’s leading firms have signed onto the pledge and committed to addressing this pressing problem.

This is a watershed moment for the legal profession. It represents a clear shift toward building greater awareness around this issue and taking decisive action to mitigate the widespread concerns surrounding attorney well-being.

The ABA’s pledge also raises an essential practical question: What are the most effective and efficient strategies for achieving this important goal?

To begin answering this question, we have outlined four essential principles for implementing an effective well-being strategy:

  1. Lead with benefits: In the legal profession, there is often stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse. The implicit norms at firms often promote the unrealistic expectation that attorneys should have unlimited mental and emotional endurance and be unflappable in the face of pressure. As a result, it can be difficult for those who are struggling to seek help. One solution to this problem is to lead with the benefits of well-being training. Rather than pitching the program with a frame of dysfunction—overcoming burnout, anxiety, or being overwhelmed—it’s often helpful to emphasize the benefits of this training: increasing productivity, becoming more resilient to stress or achieving peak performance.

  2. Form habits: The biggest mistake many firms make is thinking that these changes can happen overnight with a single one-off solution. We’ve all experienced this problem firsthand. You go to an amazing off-site or workshop and you feel inspired to make changes in your life. But in the absence of ongoing support and accountability, after a week or so, you go right back to your default habits. What we know from the emerging science in this area is that habits don’t change overnight. It requires daily engagement and accountability to shift the deeply rooted patterns that are the cause of burnout and substance abuse. As a result, we have found that the most effective solutions will include accountability over time, habits that are easy to develop and some form of human support.

  3. Be efficient with time: Extreme time scarcity is an inescapable part of the legal profession. Attorneys face powerful incentive structures that often lead them to prioritize work over all other aspects of life. Given these constraints on attorney time, effective well-being solutions must find a way to maximize benefit while minimizing time commitment. A leading firm we are connected with, for instance, started resilience training by delivering a one-hour monthly workshop series. During the first session, three attorneys showed up. During the second, only two showed up. The problem? Time efficiency. Attorneys simply didn’t have the time to sit through an hour-long talk. As a result, we pivoted to a well-being training system based on a blended learning model and ultra-efficient content and practices: short digital videos, short monthly check-ins with a coach and practices that attorneys can integrate into the midst of their lives. Attorneys, we found, will never have the time for long seminars or practices that require them to set aside 30-60 minutes each day. The only way to get lasting results is to build a program that is radically time efficient.

  4. Create firm-wide habits: We have found that the most powerful way to promote well-being across an entire firm is to create daily rituals that offer all employees a chance to experience the benefits of well-being practice. These don’t have to be elaborate practices. In fact, one of our favorites is what we call “The Arrival.” It’s a 60-second pause at the beginning of a meeting that gives people the opportunity to do whatever they need to do to be fully present: Take a few breaths, send that last text or get up to stretch. The benefits of implementing these kinds of firm-wide rituals are two-fold. First, these rituals give attorneys permission to focus on training the skill of well-being while at work. Second, they offer daily reminders to turn these practices into regular habits. This also allows firm leaders to show their support for the practice of well-being and model these habits for the rest of the firm.

The ABA’s pledge is a powerful reminder of the cost of attorney stress, burnout and substance abuse. These problems have a profound impact on the lives of attorneys leading to a long list of mental, emotional and physical problems. And yet they also impact the firms where these attorneys work. The cost of these issues is lost productivity, higher health care spend, and an erosion of firm values and culture.

As a result, we now know that offering attorneys the tools for building resilience and well-being isn’t just good for individual attorneys. It’s good for the firm itself. This training can cut costs by reducing turnover, increasing productivity, and lowering health care spend. It can also build brand awareness by signaling the firm’s willingness to invest in resilience to the rest of the industry and potential clients.


Lee Miller is chair emeritus of DLA Piper and board director at Abundant Venture Partners. He is a former member of the DLA Piper Global Board and the US Executive Committee. Miller was one of the principal forces behind the national and international expansion of DLA Piper over the last two and a half decades.

Dr. Nate Klemp is the co-founder and chief innovation officer at Life Cross Training (LIFE XT), a company devoted to giving professionals the tools to train resilience, well-being and peak performance. Along with Eric Langshur, he is the co-author of Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Well-Being.

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