The Legal Ethics of Lawyer Wellness

The recent report of the ABA’s National Task Force for Lawyer Well-Being, entitled “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” is striking for several reasons.  It’s the detailed description of the scope of the crisis in lawyer wellness, examined in a comprehensive analysis.  It’s the tone of the report–an urgent call to action–which is rare for any ABA committee.  But perhaps most striking is the fact that, for anyone who is a lawyer or who knows or works with lawyers, the scope of the problem and the crisis it has created matches familiar experience.  Addiction, anxiety, stress, depression, and suicide are familiar to the profession and have been for some time, which makes the report required reading for any lawyer.

Significantly, the report makes the compelling point that “lawyer well-being influences ethics and professionalism,” directly linking a lawyer’s wellness to the affirmative ethical duties of competence, diligence, truthfulness, communications, and relationships with people other than clients.  This highlights the ethical responsibilities of lawyers, law firms, law schools, regulators, judges, and bar associations to “build a more sustainable culture” for the legal profession in a five-step call to action:

“(1) Identifying stakeholders and the role that each of us can play in reducing the level of toxicity in our profession.
(2) Ending the stigma surrounding help-seeking behaviors. This report contains numerous recommendations to combat the stigma that seeking help will lead to negative professional consequences.
(3) Emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence. Among the report’s recommendations are steps stakeholders can take to highlight the tie-in between competence and well-being. These include giving this connection formal recognition through modifying the Rules of Professional Conduct or their comments to reference well-being.
(4) Expanding educational outreach and programming on well-being issues. We need to educate lawyers, judges, and law students on well-being issues. This includes instruction in recognizing mental health and substance use disorders as well as navigating the practice of law in a healthy manner. To implement this recommendation effectively, more resources need to be devoted to promoting well-being.
(5) Changing the tone of the profession one small step at a time. This report contains a number of smallscale recommendations, such as allowing lawyers to earn continuing legal education (CLE) credit for well-being workshops or de-emphasizing alcohol at bar association social events. These small steps can start the process necessary to place health, resilience, self-care, and helping others at the forefront of what it means to be a lawyer. Collectively, small steps can lead to transformative cultural change in a profession that has always been, and will remain, demanding.”

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