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Why It Matters to New Hampshire Lawyers

By Terri Harrington

The lawyer well-being movement is taking a large leap forward in New Hampshire with the addition of McLane Middleton as a signatory to the ABA Lawyer Well-Being Pledge. Currently, there are 196 pledge members who have signed the Well-Being Pledge since its inception in 2018. So far, McLane Middleton is the only employer based in NH who has committed to it.

The purpose of the Well-Being Pledge Campaign is to improve the substance use and mental health of lawyers, judges, and law students by emphasizing the importance of healthy work environments. The Well-Being Pledge Campaign transitioned leadership from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being to the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs in 2019. ABA-CoLAP kick-started the transition with an anti-stigma campaign to move toward more open, honest, and productive discussion of lawyer well-being throughout the legal profession.

Some of the biggest corporations in the U.S. and largest multi-national law firms were the first to sign on to the Well-Being Pledge in 2018. They immediately recognized the importance of establishing improved work environments for legal practitioners in the quest to maximize productivity, retention, and profitability. The best legal work takes place in an environment that recognizes the disproportionate effect of stress, substance abuse and burnout in the legal profession.

Of the 196 signatories to the Well-Being Pledge, 19 are Boston based law firms, including the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General. This makes our sister state to the south one of the leading states embracing both the importance of lawyer well-being and taking public, practical steps working toward better overall health of MA lawyers. New York City leads the pledge signatories with 31 multi-national based law firms as well as smaller, local law firms signing on. California is third with 16 law firms and six law schools as current signatories. A total of 26 law schools, including the University of Maine School of Law, Suffolk University Law School and the University of Connecticut Law School, have all signed the pledge recognizing that law schools can provide a healthier alternative to the traditional law school environment and to foster continued well-being as a priority for its law graduates.

The decision to sign the ABA’s Well-Being Pledge was a natural one for McLane Middleton, according to Executive Director and CEO, Cathleen Schmidt. The firm, she explained, was already working on a strategic  plan in 2018 which incorporated some of the findings from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being report in 2017.

Before signing the ABA’s Well-Being Pledge, the firm created a Well-Being Committee made up of attorneys at all levels, from senior partners to new associates, as well as paralegals.

The committee asked for input regarding issues that were impeding sustainable physical, mental and emotional health of all employees. They discussed the need for culture, inclusiveness, and connection. This is a current hot button issue fraught with the potential for discourse and disagreement, but vital to a healthy, inclusive workplace.

The discussion also included flexibility to provide time, resources, and support to foster physical and mental health through exercise, community engagement and supportive services.

The pledge was finally voted on by the Board and signed in April of 2020 by Barry Needleman, the Managing Director of McLane Middleton.

The pledge, in and of itself, is not a magic bullet in addressing the complicated and entrenched barriers to attorney well-being. It is in both the process of identifying those issues specific to a particular workplace and creating targeted action steps to address those issues that creates needed change. This is not easy work.

And make no mistake, ignoring the issue will not make it go away. Now that a pandemic has taken hold and shows no sign of dissipating anytime soon, this issue is even more pressing. The imposed isolation of working from home, the inability to socialize and travel freely, along with the financial strain brought to bear by this pandemic, is causing stress and substance misuse rates to increase to all-time highs.

There will be no “going back to normal” with an American workforce returning with abnormally high rates of depression, anxiety, and substance misuse. It will fall to employers, legal and otherwise, to deal with those employees who are returning with less than optimal well-being.

I challenge all NH legal employers to look at the work McLane Middleton undertook and to honestly assess the well-being of legal professionals. The surest way to retain trained talent, to foster loyalty, boost productivity, and maximize long-term sustainable profitability, is through the education and support of lawyer well-being. This pledge is not about signing a piece of paper to create window dressing; the pledge is about the recognition that lawyers, judges and law students have some of the highest rates of substance misuse, anxiety, depression and burnout amongst professionals. Creating change to sustain a healthier workplace for legal practitioners is the right thing to do. Practically speaking, it is also the tried and true path to a highly skilled and productive law practice.

NHLAP is available to meet with any legal employer, large or small, public interest or private, educational, or in-house to move NH forward in this incredibly important movement taking place in the legal profession.

 

New Hampshire Lawyers Assistance Program would like to thank the members of the McLane Middleton Well-Being Committee for its hard work and commitment to the sustainable and practical changes necessary to foster attorney well-being in New Hampshire: Charla Stevens, Chair; Patrick Closson; Lexi Cote; Steve Dutton; Jennifer Finch; Linda Garey; Cam Shilling; and Jeremy Walker.