Well-being pledge an important step forward

What’s a well-being pledge for legal employers? Many of you know that, in 2016, the Law Society of Ontario’s Mental Health Working Group, after extensive and rigourous information gathering, came out with its important report, The Mental Health Strategy Task Force.

What’s a well-being pledge for legal employers?

Many of you know that, in 2016, the Law Society of Ontario’s Mental Health Working Group, after extensive and rigourous information gathering, came out with its important report, The Mental Health Strategy Task Force. Since that time, this excellent, comprehensive and sophisticated report has underpinned how the LSO approaches mental health and addictions. Other legal regulators and organizations in numerous jurisdictions in North America have, as well, embarked upon an effort to have the profession approach mental health and addiction in a more nuanced, compassionate manner.

So, when, in an effort to expand and build upon its previous work in this area, the LSO initiated further information-gathering sessions and requested that I again make submissions, one of the things it wanted to know was what’s new in the wider lawyer wellness world. Being the keeners that we lawyers are, it’s not surprising that there’s a lot that’s being studied, explored and implemented. And one of the most exciting and innovative initiatives currently being actualized is the aforementioned ABA Working Group’s Well-Being Pledge for Legal Employers.

The idea for the pledge had its roots in the highly regarded and widely disseminated 2016 study of lawyer wellness conducted by CoLAP and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. The study confirmed the disproportionately high levels of addiction and mental health challenges among lawyers, as compared to the general population. Despite these concerning facts, it is also widely known that lawyers are reluctant to seek help for such problems due to rampant stigma throughout the profession. Therefore, as one powerful tool in combatting this stigma, CoLAP created this behavioural health campaign and pledge to attack the problem from the employer side, by encouraging a movement toward healthier legal work environments.

As described by the ABA itself, the pledge “is designed to support lawyer well-being and address the profession’s troubling rates of alcohol and other substance-use disorders, as well as mental health issues. Based on a framework developed by working group member Patrick Krill, the campaign’s goals are to raise awareness, facilitate a reduction in the incidence of problematic substance use and mental health distress and improve lawyer well-being. From education to policies to culture, the seven-point pledge identified in the campaign reflects the core areas on which legal employers should focus and the concrete steps they should take as they seek to achieve those goals.”

The preamble of the pledge begins as follows: “Recognizing that high levels of problematic substance use and mental health distress present a significant challenge for the legal profession, and acknowledging that more can and should be done to improve the health and well-being of lawyers, we the attorneys of (firm name) hereby pledge our support for this innovative campaign and will work to adopt and prioritize its seven-point framework for building a better future.” Clear enough. The pledge is designed to create a movement toward  lawyer well-being by enlisting employers in making these issues a priority.

The seven points of the pledge include providing “enhanced and robust education to attorneys and staff on topics related to well-being, mental health, and substance use disorders.” It also means creating “visible partnerships with outside resources committed to reducing substance use disorders and mental health distress in the profession: healthcare insurers, lawyer assistance programs, EAPs, and experts in the field,” as well as giving “confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources, including free, inhouse, self-assessment tools.” It also means creating “proactive policies and protocols to support assessment and treatment of substance use and mental health problems, including a defined back-to-work policy following treatment” and “actively and consistently demonstrate that help-seeking and self-care are core cultural values, by regularly supporting programs to improve physical, mental and emotional well-being.”

Almost 100 of the most prominent law firms, private companies and law schools in the U.S. have become signatories to the pledge so far. The wellness movement in the legal profession has taken off and one of the organizers, Tracy Kepler, tells me that she is thrilled to hear that Canadian legal entities are next in line. 

“We are always looking for more champions to spread this movement of change toward improving the health and well-being of the legal profession,” she says.

To become a signatory to the pledge, contact Kepler at tracy.kepler@americanbar.org and state your intention. Thereafter, they will do an annual check-in to identify the firm’s efforts toward implementing the pledge. Each firm creates its own plan and strategy based upon its own needs, abilities and priorities. The more that legal employers and law schools become aware of and become partners in promoting wellness in their ranks, the more we can defeat mental health and addiction stigma and get people the help they need and the health they deserve.  There is definitely something new under the sun.

Doron Gold is a registered social worker who is also a former practising lawyer. He works with lawyers and law students in his role as a staff clinician and presenter with the Member Assistance Program as well as with members of the general public in his private psychotherapy practice. He’s available at dorongold.com.

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