September 22, 2014

WINDS OF CHANGE (Part 1): Attorney Wellness Leaders

rhodesGoogle “law school wellness programs” and count the hits. Of course you’ll get U of California at Berkeley (Boalt) and  U of San Francisco, but hey, that’s California, you’d expect that. But how about Duke, Harvard, U of Chicago… and closer to home, DU Sturm College of Law.

Lawyer assistance programs organizations like the Colorado Lawyers Assistance Program (COLAP) have changed their mission statements to adopt a far-reaching wellness orientation. They’re also reaching out to law schools, with the idea of helping new lawyers integrate personal and professional well-being into their careers from the get-go.

Beginning January 1st, the Ohio Bar amended its CLE requirements to require classes in “alcoholism, substance abuse, or mental health issues, which shall include instruction on any of their causes, prevention, detection, and treatment alternatives, as applicable.” Also required are classes in ethics that include consideration of “the Lawyer’s Creed and A Lawyer’s Aspirational Ideals.”

Why am I telling you all this? Because it would be too depressing to start by telling you that CNN ran a story last month about how lawyers now rank 4th among all professions in suicide rate. The story also cited the all-too-familiar statistics about how lawyers lead the way in substance abuse, depression, and other mental disorders. Just another tiresome “lawyers are unhappy” story that won’t change anything? Let’s hope not – not if the law schools and LAP’s and CLE Boards I’ve mentioned have anything to say about it.

The “Lawyer’s Creed” and “Aspirational Ideals” aren’t about rules and whether somebody is technically over the ethics line. They’re about ideals, about how to make the world of law safer and happier, more productive and rewarding, and ultimately more competently and justly administered for lawyers, clients, judges, and everybody else involved in the legal process.

Aspirational ideals, wellness education, and assistance programs go way beyond the vague notion we picked up in our mandatory pre-graduation ethics class that somehow we’re supposed to let the authorities know when somebody is struggling so much we can’t ignore their behavior anymore. Instead, they’re introducing a major paradigm shift so radical that it’s hard to get your head around if you’ve bought the conventional “aspirational means optional” point of view.

Among other things, that paradigm shift is based on the stunning idea that the law can be a life-enhancing career. No, this isn’t about holding hands in a circle and singing Kumbaya. It’s about enlightened self-interest, about deciding that it’s not okay anymore that we allow our profession to run us down, stress us out, and sometimes even kill us. It’s about embracing radical notions such as the one on COLAP’s webpage that says, “Problems are not a sign of failure but an opportunity for growth.” That’s not a surprising phrase to see on one of those motivational plaques, but as applied to high-achieving, competitive, alpha-controlling lawyers? Truly stunning.

Can you imagine personal wellness resources being part of normal life when you went to law school? I can’t either. Thankfully, the winds of change are blowing.

Kevin Rhodes is a lawyer in private practice and a registered mentor with the Colorado Supreme Court’s CAMP program. He offers career coaching for lawyers and leads workshops for a variety of audiences, including the CBA’s Solo and Small Firm Section and the Job Search and Career Transitions Support Group. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

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