Getting Real About Wellness in the Legal Industry: Conversation with Dr. Larry Richard (Pt. 1 of 3)

JD Supra Perspectives

"Wellness is a set of integrated and systemic practices that should be deeply embedded in your firm’s culture..."

When I wrote recently about wellness in the legal industry, I didn’t anticipate how many new conversations it would trigger. One of the most interesting interactions I had was with Dr. Larry Richard, an expert on the psychology of lawyers. Dr. Richard practiced law for ten years before earning a Ph.D. in Psychology. He’s studied lawyers for over 25 years and shared his insights in this dialog.

Since this was a long conversation, I’ve broken it into three sections. In this first part, we discuss the causes and implications of the wellness crisis in legal.

MATT:  You’ve thought a lot about the wellness crisis in the legal profession. The problem is not new, but we’re finally starting to see more attention on it. Why is that?

LARRY: After many, many years of hiding from the truth and essentially ignoring the problem, we’re finally starting to confront this. This tipping point, I believe, is due to the confluence of several factors. 

First, the wide dissemination of several confessional articles we’ve seen over the last few years by prominent recovering lawyers who struggled with addiction or depression, and by survivors of lawyers who ended their lives by suicide. For the first time, we’re hearing the voices of real people in our industry who are suffering and have the courage to speak up. 

Second, the ABA, in partnership with the Hazelden Clinic and Patrick Krill, released an important report in 2016 detailing the alarming increase in substance abuse among lawyers. 

And third, because of all the swirling change, law firms are now facing a hypercompetitive market for both clients and for talent. They can’t afford notto pay attention to wellness.

MATT:  I’ve seen many of these stories and I am awed at the candor and courage of each person who shared their story. What is it about law and about lawyers that makes us particularly susceptible to these kinds of issues?

"Law has a built-in bias toward the negative..."

LARRY: Law has a built-in bias toward the negative. We are trained in law school to “think like a lawyer.” One of the main things this involves is learning to challenge every assertion, to be skeptical, to look for faults, problems, things that are wrong or could go wrong, to pay attention to what’s not working instead of to what’s working, and to be vigilant about the motives of others.

MATT: You are suggesting that the very nature of our practice, being immersed in conflict and skepticism, creates a serious occupational hazard. 

LARRY: Yes, precisely. My friend and colleague Dave Shearon has frequently written about how lawyers must face values conflicts every day in their work, and how this alone can erode well-being. 

"...the practice of law was ranked as the loneliest occupation."

According to a study published earlier this year in Harvard Business Review, the practice of law was ranked as the loneliest occupation.

MATT: This worries me for so many reasons. Societally we are trending towards more isolation, with digital nomads, flexible work spaces, and digital interaction replacing human interaction. It seems logical that all these trends could hit lawyers disproportionately, as work expectations and billable hour requirements already tend to isolate us relative to other professions. 

I also worry about this from my perspective as a General Counsel. We are not a small company, but we have many “islands” of lawyers, that is, often just one or two lawyers in specific countries or regions supporting local client groups. There is an obvious risk of further isolation in this model that I did not experience when I was in private practice, where I was always surrounded by dozens of “like-minded” people who were at least in the same situation. 

Leaders in law – corporate and private practice – need to take this seriously.

LARRY:  The bottom line is that what we do every day for a living puts us at risk for undesirable mental states and their consequences. Law is based on an adversarial model.  As we internalize this model, we become less empathetic and more tolerant of “we-they” thinking. Research shows that this type of thinking produces negative emotions.

Decades of cognitive behavior therapy and neuroscience research show that our thoughts actually generate our feelings. So negative thoughts generate negative feelings. And we know that a steady immersion in negative feelings can lead to anxiety, depression, and palliative behaviors like drugs, alcohol, and so on, designed to numb us to those unpleasant mental states.

MATT:  Why do you think the industry has been so slow to respond in meaningful ways?  The skeptic in me would say that the inherent structure of a law firm partnership – for example, the need for regular attrition to maintain a pyramidal structure – creates significant disincentives for meaningful investment in employee wellness. But my personal experience with law firm leaders tells me I am painting with too broad a brush. What do you think of the current wave of activity and focus around this, for example the “wellness pledge” that many firms are signing?

LARRY: I think our industry really struggles to consider and recognize the full scope of the problem. You wrote about this yourself in your recent piece. We see many firms and organizations that turn to this area that just don’t prioritize it that highly. To their credit, they’re doing something, and they usually have the right motivations. But they treat this area like a “nice-to-have” that takes place after all the really, truly important work is done.  And that’s just a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. They act like wellness is the icing on the cake, when it really is the cake itself.

"...our industry really struggles to consider and recognize the full scope of the problem"

MATT: I love that analogy. Can you expand on that?

LARRY: Wellness is a set of integrated and systemic practices that should be deeply embedded in your firm’s culture and should touch every aspect of the practice that touches human beings.  

Many of the stressors we face are either outside our control or they’re things that we really don’t want to or can’t afford to change. But we do have choices. We can change how we respond to stress on an individual level, or we can change the conditions and environment within which we practice law — that is, change the current law firm culture into a “positive law firm culture,” i.e., one that supports and drives thriving and well-being. Such a big cultural change is hard, but it is very necessary. And it is also in the organization’s own best interest.

Think of it as the last remaining untapped source of competitive advantage for your firm.


Stay tuned, Part 2 will post later in March.

[As senior vice president, general counsel, chief compliance counsel, and secretary for NetAppMatthew Fawcett is responsible for all legal affairs worldwide, including corporate governance and securities law compliance, intellectual property matters, contracts, and mergers and acquisitions. He has overseen the development of NetApp Legal into a global high-performance organization with a unique commitment to innovation and transformation.]

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