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News & Press: Montana Lawyer

President's Message: We all have a part to play to improve lawyer well-being

Wednesday, November 1, 2017   (0 Comments)
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The Honorable Leslie Halligan of Missoula is a 4th Judicial District judge. Before her appointment as district judge, she served as a standing master in the 4th Judicial District and as a deputy county attorney in Missoula County.
And fishing helps her strike a good work-life balance.

We’ve known for years that stress and high rates of depression and substance abuse are serious problems in the legal profession.   

A 2016 study conducted by the ABA and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation determined that 21 percent of licensed attorneys are problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression and 19 percent show symptoms of anxiety.  Not only are these significant percentages, these statistics are more than numbers, they reflect the struggles of our friends and colleagues. 

We need to do better as a group to take care of ourselves and each other.

The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, a task force initiated by the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, has created a road map to addressing these serious and potentially deadly problems. Missoula’s own Chris Newbold, executive vice president of ALPS, was a member of this task force.

The task force’s report, titled “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” reminds us of the role that we must take to address these issues.  The “we” includes employers, bar associations, judges, law schools, and, yes, you.

If you need a reason why you should take action on well-being, the report offers three:

  • Improving lawyer well-being is an important way to make your firm or legal organization more effective – it can reduce turnover, increase productivity and profitability, improve client satisfaction, and give you a competitive advantage.
  • Well-being influences ethics and professionalism. Studies have suggested that as many as 70 percent of disciplinary proceedings and malpractice claims against lawyers involve substance use or depression, and often both.
  • Promoting well-being is the right thing to do. Untreated mental health and substance use disorders ruin lives and careers, and they affect too many of our colleagues.

There are specific actions all of us can take. Acknowledge these problems and take responsibility. If you are an organizational leader, demonstrate a personal commitment to well-being. Facilitate, destigmatize, and encourage seeking self-help. Foster collegiality and respectful engagement throughout the profession. Guide and support the transition of older lawyers. De-emphasize alcohol at social events. Start a dialogue about suicide prevention.

The State Bar of Montana has long taken attorney wellness seriously – it’s why we started the Lawyer Assistance Program and why we continue to offer quality CLE programming.  Presentations on wellness, through inspiring individuals like Cathy Tutty, a Butte attorney, who engaged and enlightened attendees on the importance of wellness at the recent Women’s Law Section CLE.  The State Bar of Montana is also answering the call by offering a number of free CLE webinars. The first of these, at noon on Dec. 6, will address problem gambling and is presented by Jeffery P. Wasserman of the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems.

As President, I am exploring the establishment of a committee or commission to help guide and focus our efforts.  If you have interest in this area, please reach out and let me know.  Wellness is so much more than work-life balance.

I share the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s hope that its report creates a movement to improve well-being in the legal profession.

I encourage you to download a copy of the “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” which is available on the State Bar website, www.montanabar.org, and to do your part, individually and collectively, to improve our profession.