Attorneys and law firms have long had to deal with the mental health challenges that are so prevalent in the legal profession even in the best of times, and with COVID-19 both magnifying those existing stressors and creating some entirely new ones, many law firms are doing what they can to make sure their attorneys and staff don’t get overwhelmed.
“Just as we moved to a remote status, we were preparing to implement a new fitness and wellness plan,” said Pierce Campbell of Turner Padget Law, which has offices throughout South Carolina. “Because the world has changed, we are having to modify those plans. We are now looking for creative ways to implement those group activities.”
A large part of law firms’ wellness programs have a team approach, with attorneys and staff gathering for exercise and the like. But with everyone stuck at home, jogs with colleagues at lunch hour are no longer part of the program, and firms have looked to other avenues to help keep their attorneys and staff healthy, in particular using Zoom and Webex meetings to keep attorneys connected. Firms are encouraging their attorneys and staff to meet not just for work, but for fun, too.
Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte has a program called “Lunch Ladder” that matches attorneys in different practice areas. Before the pandemic, lawyers met for lunch at a restaurant; now they meet via the internet. Attorneys at the firm are also cooking and exchanging healthy recipes. At Womble Bond Dickinson, its attorneys who work from its North Carolina and South Carolina offices are holding virtual lunches, trivia nights, yoga, and happy hours, as well as a monthly show-and-tell.
“They are bringing a child, or a pet, or something interesting in their homes to show people who they are as a person,” said Cindy Pruitt, the firm’s chief talent officer who manages its wellness program.
When the pandemic hit full-swing in March and Robinson Bradshaw closed its offices, the firm knew it needed to immediately start planning for a new phase in its wellness program, said Kate Maynard, the firm’s general counsel. The reality is that lawyers are stressed out and clients stressed out, Maynard said.
To that end, the company contracted with Laura Mahr, an attorney in Asheville and founder of Conscious Legal Minds who coaches attorneys on a variety of wellness subjects, including mindfulness and resilience–two characteristics that are particularly necessary in such uncertain times. Mahr encourages attorneys to cultivate calm, which leads to confidence, which leads to clarity.
“One of the things I’m doing is coaching firms about how to deal with the added stress of the unknown, because COVID-19 is changing our lives week to week,” Mahr said.
In March, attorneys may have been stressed about the logistics of moving their office operations home. After that, many worried about how to balance work and home lives that had become almost indistinguishable from the other. Now as restrictions ease, there’s the decision of whether to go back to the office or not.
Michael Kahn, founder of another attorney wellness coaching firm, ReelTime CLE in Charlotte, said that many attorneys have been on autopilot and haven’t been aware of how their concerns about money, canceled plans and events, and lost time with loved ones are affecting their mental health and how that can manifest itself in the shapes of pessimism, isolation, an intolerance for weakness, and, in particular, unrealistic expectations.
“We need to have realistic expectations about our ability to perform at pre-COVID levels as we work from home and are under the same roof with spouses and partners who may be working from home, and kids learning online,” Kahn said. ”Leaders of firms need to recognize that as well.”
Mahr said that it is essential that leaders of law firms be attuned to the fact that many of their attorneys are going through an extremely difficult time. She said she’s heard that leaders of some firms aren’t so well in tune with that, but it’s crucial that they communicate to attorneys and staff in a clear and comforting voice.
“They are not coming at it from an emotionally intelligent point of view,” Mahr said. “They are not thinking that their staff is in an emotional crisis. They are not giving them the kind of communication that would cause them to feel relaxed and safe. If you have top leadership on shaky ground, it’s going to shake down to the core of your firm. It’s going to shake your support staff, it’s going to shake your associates, and it’s going to shake your clients. If you invest in the mental health of your staff and your attorneys and the leadership, their nervous systems are going to relax. They are going to have the tools they need to regulate their system, so their brain can do what it has to do as a lawyer.”
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw