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Say More: Well-Being in the Legal Profession: Oxygen, Aspirin, or Bling?

When I was admitted to practice law in Indiana 24 years ago, I didn't think much (okay, not at all) about how doing what I needed to keep myself well might impact my clients or my practice. Well-being wasn't part of the lawyer lexicon then. There was no discussion in law school about work-life balance, no suggestion that our chosen profession might come with some serious side effects, and at least in Indiana, the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program (JLAP) was in its infancy and not widely known.

It wasn't until 2010 that I became aware that JLAP existed, and then only because I was "voluntold" to help work the registration/information table at the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) conference, which was held in Indianapolis that year. I think I probably did something to piss off my boss and this was my punishment, but it changed my life. I still only had a vague understanding that there were some lawyers and judges who needed "assistance" because they were "impaired" (language comes straight from Indiana Admission and Discipline Rule 31, which created the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, and it still reads that way today.) I was intrigued, though, to meet another lawyer/social worker, JLAP Executive Director Terry Harrell, and to know that there was an organization doing this work.

In 2013, I joined the JLAP staff. At that time, there was definitely a sense among the LAP community (there is a lawyer assistance program in most states, the UK, and Canada) that lawyers tended to be more anxious, depressed, and addicted than the general population. Then came the empirical studies: law student research released in 2015 and lawyer research released in 2016; research on judicial officers wouldn't come until much later, in 2019. The studies confirmed that our colleagues were suffering and that the suffering started in law school. There were beginnings of talk about wellness -- the Indiana State Bar Association had a Wellness Committee that was encouraging lawyers to get exercise, eat healthy, and stop smoking -- but the overall message was still largely focused on illness or dis-ease.

In 2017, everything changed. The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being released its report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change. The report defined well-being as "a continual process of seeking to thrive in each dimension of one’s life: Emotional, Occupational, Intellectual, Spiritual, Physical, and Social." It went on to link lawyer well-being to the professional duty of competence and made recommendations for various sectors of the profession.

Six years and dozens of research studies and articles later, well-being is firmly ensconced in our vocabulary. Some law schools offer classes on well-being; most law schools offer some type of well-being activities. Firms, bar associations, and other organizations have well-being committees, and some employ a Director of Well-Being. We're all talking about it, so now the question becomes what is our level of investment?

We're all talking about it, so now the question becomes what is our level of investment?

Thought Kitchen cofounder Lesley Crane has a mentor who broke down the idea of investment as follows: everything people might invest in can be seen as oxygen, aspirin, or bling. Think about your own personal budget. What gets paid first? The necessities like housing and food (oxygen), right? Then come the things that happen (aspirin) -- the car needs to be repaired, or the washing machine breaks down. If there's anything left over, then we can splurge on the fun stuff, the bling.

Ten years ago, well-being in the legal profession wasn't even bling; it wasn't part of the daily discussion. Today, a lot of us talk about it, but are we practicing it or integrating it into our profession? Does this sound familiar? "Oh, I really want to (fill in the blank with your well-being activity of choice), but I can't take time away from (fill in the blank with your work responsibility of choice)." If you enjoy the privilege of fairly good physical and mental health, it can be easy to categorize well-being as bling, something you'll get to if you have time. The thing is, well-being is more than the absence of illness. What might it look/feel like to take a tiny step to prioritize your well-being before you realize you need to?

During my time with JLAP, and still in a lot of the work Thought Kitchen does with lawyers and judicial officers, well-being was and is considered aspirin. Most people call JLAP because they are experiencing some discomfort. Lawyers and judicial officers tend to reach out to me for coaching because they're unhappy in their current job or they've neglected their well-being and it resulted in a disciplinary complaint. I'm grateful that JLAP is there to administer the aspirin, and that I have the opportunity to develop some new formulations of aspirin that I always wished were available during my tenure with JLAP. And also, my heart breaks a little every time I hear a client say, "I wish I had done this work before I had a complaint filed," or, "Why didn't we talk about this in law school?" The social worker/change maker in me longs to pass out oxygen masks to my colleagues before they need an aspirin.

How about you? What is your relationship with well-being? There's no wrong answer. Whether it's oxygen, aspirin, or bling on any given day, I invite you to get curious about why you regard it in that way and how it might look/feel to take a tiny step from bling to aspirin or from aspirin to oxygen. Just try it on for size and see how it fits.

Hungry for more? Join Thought Kitchen and the Indiana State Bar Association Well-Being Committee on November 8 for a free one-hour CLE on this topic.

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