Welcome to AccelPro Employment Law, where we provide expert interviews and coaching to accelerate your professional development. This interview is part of our AccelPro Career Tools series, where we explore topics including wellness and client relationship management. Our host is internationally recognized journalist, author and NPR host Celeste Headlee.
Today we’re featuring a conversation about wellness and seeking help in the workplace. Our guest is Bree Buchanan, senior advisor at Krill Strategies and former Board President at the Institute for Well-Being in Law.
At firms, there may be an expectation of 24-7 availability for clients and unclear policies for employees facing behavioral health issues. Buchanan discusses signs someone may be in need, healthy habits, setting boundaries and how to ask for help.
The episode transcript and supplemental materials are available below.
1:34 | Institute for Well-Being in Law.
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline – Call or Text 988.
Institute for Well-Being in Law Annual Conference - January 23-25, 2024.
Well-Being Toolkit for Legal Employers and Lawyers by Anne Brafford.
I. AWARENESS OF HEALTH ISSUES IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION
Celeste Headlee, Host: What issues with wellness are particular to the legal profession?
Bree Buchanan: There are a variety of behavioral health issues that the legal profession is really struggling with and has been for a very long time. I think really when law became less of a profession and more of a business—ever since that shift, we've seen increasing pressures and difficulties for lawyers practicing, and so some of the things that we see are major depressive disorder, lots of anxiety. I mean, the whole of the United States is anxious right now. Right? But law firms’ lawyers really have been for quite some time.
And then we also have a lot of what we think of as maladaptive coping mechanisms, which is using drugs and alcohol to deal with a lot of really uncomfortable feelings around anxiety, depression, stress, burnout—all of these things that we're seeing in really large numbers in the legal profession.
CH: Have there been changes, especially since the pandemic and the rise in remote work, in some of these issues in the legal profession that have either for better or for worse impacted wellness?
BB: I think that there has been a lot of awareness that has been raised around behavioral health issues around depression and substance abuse and stress and burnout because since 2016 there's been a group of us who started a well-being and law movement in the United States and trying to raise awareness and really feel like we've been very successful in that piece.
There are lots of consultants, like myself, who talk and teach around well-being strategies. There's law firms where some of the biggest ones are creating positions called well-being directors, and they could be HR, professional development, talent management, etc. We're seeing a beginning that would really be categorized I think as an awareness of the issues, which of course is a first step.
And then starting to talk about it. We have discussions like this podcast, like, there's a lot of presentations, law firms hire consultants to come in and talk about meditation or other strategies. We're doing that, but we know what really needs to happen. We really need to look at the policies, practices, the way law is conducted as a business right now, and that's the really tough stuff because we're talking about culture change and the legal profession is an old school profession and it does not change quickly.
CH: I assume that you're talking at least in part about a culture of overwork and billable hours and the pressure to let your personal life suffer.
BB: Absolutely. It's that 24-7, 365 culture and never being able to turn off or unplug that is really a driver of the lack of wellness in the profession, and particularly for younger lawyers. Once you get to be working as a lawyer, a lot of times you've been chasing that dream since, gosh, you were in elementary school. Always the best, always straight A's, always doing everything right, and then you carry that sense of perfectionism into the law firm. But we're still human and human beings break, and human beings wear out. And there's not a real acknowledgement of that.
But that's what we've been seeing. I think, increasingly, when you look at the statistics of how much disengagement there is, how much burnout there is in the legal profession, that's really been driven by that on-the-clock, all the time, weekends, after hours…et cetera. That's a huge piece of it.
And Celeste, I know that you write and think about rest. That's something that I think about too. And yeah, we've got a long way to go in that area. And I think a lot of it is just how do we humanize the legal profession? You shouldn't have to leave or set aside what is some of the basic tenets of pieces of being a human being to be a lawyer, to be able to have a family, to be able to interact with your children, to be able to have an opportunity to go on a vacation every now and then—to have an opportunity to make friends and spend time with them and not be mired in loneliness, which we know is an epidemic in the United States right now as well.
II. SIGNS YOU OR A COLLEAGUE MIGHT NEED HELP
CH: I want to get to some really practical, actionable tips people can take away today, and there's two different sets of these, right? There are the ones that they could use for themselves. There are also the ones that they might be able to use for their team. So, let's begin with that awareness that you said was key. If I'm a lawyer, what are the signs that I might be in need of some help in terms of wellness?
BB: What we're looking for really is a change. Have you always been a happy kind of perky person and now you're always dour and stressed and angry? That's a significant change. Do we also have the level of anxiety interfering with your ability to function—just the daily course of getting through what you have to do? Has that become extremely difficult because of your anxiety or because of your depression? And if that's impacting your relationship with your family, it's impacting your work—when you see it start to break through despite your best efforts, that is the time to stop and think about maybe I need to do something differently. Perhaps we can learn how to meditate. That's a really hard thing to do. It's very effective, but not a lot of people do it. We can go to the gym more. That can be helpful, but who has time for that, right? So having that awareness that you need to stop and take time is important.
Consider also if you've reached the point where maybe you need to see an individual therapist. And a lot of people say, “I don't have time for that,” or “That's for crazy people” and that's just not the case at all. You have somebody there that's just for you, one-on-one. It's a confidential time each week when you can go and share your deepest and darkest—what’s bothering you, and there shouldn't be such a high bar before people avail themselves of that.
And law firms are getting better about making sure they have good behavioral health resources. Some are even bringing in therapists on site, which I think is fabulous. You know, making it really available and easy to do that. So, we shouldn't wait until the point where we're borderline breakdown or suicidal before we avail ourselves of those resources that are out there. So that's one thing, really stopping, assessing yourself when you start to struggle, and being willing to ask for help from another person.
CH: I'm pulling out lots of little nuggets in here that are not only good for us as individuals, but as team leaders. If I'm a manager, I can make available things like meditation apps, or bring in a therapist, or give people gym memberships even.
How do I look for signs? Am I looking among my team members for changes in people's relationships, or looking for signs that people are becoming impatient?
BB: Right, you're looking for personality changes in people. You know, there are plenty of lawyers who say, “Well, I'm always grumpy.” But a change could be that they've always answered emails within 24 hours or something, and now they just don't, or they go in the office and lock the door and don't come out, or they never turn on their camera when they're on a Zoom meeting. That should be a signal; a little red flag that goes off.
And then from a leadership perspective, what you really need to do, and this takes time, is to reach out to that person and have some one-on-one interaction and say, "Now I really respect you as a lawyer. I think you do great work," if that's the truth, and that “I have noticed that there's some changes in you. This is what I've seen, and how are you doing? What's going on? How can we help?" You're not there to diagnose. You don't say, you know, "Bob, I think you’re an alcoholic.” That is not going to go over very well.
CH: What if that's the truth?
BB: Well, it could be, but if you're going to be successful, start out with, “These are the changes that I've seen in you,” the objective facts that you can't really argue with. What you want to do is open up an opportunity for that person to start talking, because that is the first step towards healing. If you can get that person to just step out of themselves and talk about it, that is the first step towards accessing help, and that's something that we really want to see just on the very basic level.
III. SETTING BOUNDARIES
CH: One of the things you talk about is healthy boundaries, and you also mentioned earlier that the legal profession doesn't necessarily change quickly or easily. So what do I do if I am in a law firm where I know I need to establish healthy boundaries, but maybe my clients or senior partners don't believe in healthy boundaries. What if I'm getting texts or emails from clients at 11 o'clock at night, at 5:00 AM in the morning or while I'm at my kid's birthday party. What do I do?
BB: Yeah, and that's an all-too-common event. Clients are paying so much money they have an expectation to be in your back pocket 24-7. If that's something you're experiencing, that is a difficult situation because you're talking about potentially cutting back on your accessibility to a client, so that's a tough one. Hopefully, you develop some mentors or a mentor at the firm, somebody who is a little bit further down the road than you, that you have an open and honest relationship with who you can go and talk to about this, and I would start there.
Different firms have different attitudes towards that particular situation. You have the right to strategize around that and try to figure out a better way, so talk to mentors, "What's the backstory on how we can approach this?" Talk to your supervisor. Say this, "You know, I was at my daughter's birthday party and this came up and I helped them, but I don't want to have to keep doing that because it has this impact. What can I do differently?" And depending on the response over a period of time, and how firms treat those circumstances, you start to see attrition.
In the United States right now, we know from a study that was done a year ago, 25% of women in the profession are considering leaving. Not their job, leaving the profession of law because of mental health, stress, or burnout. One in four. Now it's 17% of men, so they're not too far behind, but one in four. And I think that statistic right there should set off all kinds of alarm bells because we work so hard to bring women up into leadership positions, and we're going to start really losing ground.
CH: What would be one strategy that you've used, or that you've recommended that you have found to be surprisingly effective?
BB: The thing that I have utilized the most, for me, is developing a meditation practice.
CH: But it's hard! Lawyers [and others] are trying to multitask all the time, and they've got several cell phones going off and 85 tabs open…
BB: Yep. And to turn all that off and develop a practice takes a lot of self-discipline. But honestly, if you're looking for something that's going to allow you to concentrate, to dig down, to be incisive and insightful in your work, to be able to have a clearer view towards solutions of difficult intransigent problems, to reduce stress and anxiety, all of these things, meditation gets at that.
And so, what I've asked people to do is just pick 10 minutes a day and try to do that five days a week. That small amount will have an effect on you. Do that for a month and it will have an effect. Again, it's like telling somebody to go to the gym. It's a heavy lift, no pun intended, but it is the most effective thing that you can do.
Another thing is to take your vacation. Your level of resilience and well-being is impacted by whether or not you take vacation, and so many lawyers leave so many days on the table. So if you're out there and thinking, I don't feel like I can take a vacation because people won't think I'm serious, or something to that effect, before you adopt that viewpoint go and talk to your supervisor, talk to other people at the firm. Because what I hear from leadership in firms is they really do want people to take the leave that is given to them. I wouldn't just assume that you can't take a vacation.
IV. BREE’S JOURNEY IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION - AND ASKING FOR HELP
CH: Let's switch gears just a little bit. Earlier you talked about lawyers as little kids dreaming of growing up to be Atticus Finch. Was that whole description of dreaming of being a lawyer, was that your path to the legal profession?
BB: Oh, Celeste, I wish I could say it was something as lofty as that. I jokingly tell people I became a lawyer because I was really bad at math. There are probably a lot of people that are like that, you know. In the seventies I was offered job options of a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor—which was pretty progressive even for that time, but there wasn't a lot of imagination in it. And so, yeah, that became my path and what I really wanted to do more than anything else is help people who were struggling, help people find a better life. And so, when I started off, I was doing domestic violence representation for legal aid.
I went the opposite direction of big law and went into the litigation trenches representing women who had been victims of domestic violence. So that was kind of a wringer to go through, certainly.
CH: How quickly did you realize that you might need some help sustaining this profession?
BB: You asked when did I realize, and the thing is that there's a difference between when you realize it and when you ask for help. And so, I knew I needed change and to do something differently long before I started asking for help. I didn't ask for help until I was 45 years old, and I tried to use the old ways of coping to manage burnout and high levels of stress.
I have a history of depression that I brought with me into the practice of law. I mean, I had that before I went to law school. All of these things come with really uncomfortable feelings, and so I started using alcohol to self-medicate, which is sort of almost the industry standard in law. And I tell people, I went from two glasses of wine a night when I was 25 and started practicing and, by the time I was 45, that had grown to two bottles. Obviously that is unsustainable.
And it impacted my health; it impacted my career, and for me, I had to get to that point of losing everything. I lost my job, I lost my marriage before I was willing—and you've got to be willing—before I was willing to ask for help and accept it. And a big motivator, a huge motivator of what I've done ever since then is to help people get to the point where they're willing to ask for help before they have to lose everything.
A lot of these behavioral health disorders, particularly addiction, are progressive diseases. Depression can be a progressive disease and it can just get worse if you don't ask for help. We have everything to lose, and we don't have to if we can just be, in some ways, humble enough to realize that we're human. And be willing to ask for help from a therapist, from a 12-step program, from your doctor, your general practitioner. A lot of them are now trained in how to identify a lot of these issues that we've been talking about and know how to make referrals.
I brought my depression to the practice of law. For many, they developed depression from dealing with the practice of law. but know that there is always help there. So many of the firms are trying to up their game around offering a better employee assistance program, offering robust resources, but all of that becomes irrelevant if people don't feel like they can ask for help.
So much of what I talk about with law firms is checking your culture, your policies, and your practices. Are there things that you're doing that inhibit what we call help seeking? Is there such a stigma around these issues in their firm that if somebody does start to develop one of these behavioral health issues, do they feel like they can ask for help? Is there anybody they can go to? Do they even know, from reviewing the firm practices or policies, who they're supposed to talk to, what they're supposed to do? I coach firms about having policies in place on how you're going to protect that person's confidentiality, how you're going to onboard them back into the firm if they take a break.
And we need to have a lot of transparency around this. So again, people feel like the way is lit for them to move forward to ask for help. And right now, the way it's done, 98% of the time this sort of thing is just not dealt with. That's not in the policies. You don't talk about it in your review process. And so, there's just this sort of cloud of unknowing around it. We can do a lot just by making it transparent and obvious what people can do to get help.
CH: And this is part of the work that you do, not only as a consultant, but through the Institute For Well-being in Law, of which you are not only co-founder, but former Board President and Acting Executive Director, which means you obviously feel change can be made even though it sounds like what you're talking about is systemic culture change.
BB: Yeah, you bet. It really is. It’s a big thing, but I see lots of glimmers of hope for the future. And one of the biggest things is just simply looking at the cohort of young lawyers that are coming on board into law firms. They have grown up talking about these topics. They have no problems talking about having severe anxiety, and they really don't have a lot of problems asking for help and wanting others to be able to live in a mentally behaviorally healthy environment and ask for help on behalf of others. I've seen that regularly.
I see so much hope for the future because of just who these younger lawyers are, and I hope that they maintain that view when they ascend to leadership and take over the reins of firms. They can create a whole new world based on that worldview and the vision for what things should be. I hope they stick to it, and I wish them the very best.
This AccelPro audio transcript has been edited and organized for clarity. This interview was recorded on August 28, 2023.
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