The Bar Addresses Lawyer Wellbeing and Misses the Mark

Why the recent bar comment on lawyer wellbeing does not go far enough.In January 2018 the Virginia State Bar Standing Committee on Legal Ethics asked for public comment on a proposed new comment to be added to the  Rules of Professional Responsibility.

The new comment is: “A lawyer’s mental, emotional and physical well-being impacts the lawyer’s ability to represent clients and to make responsible choices in the practice of law. Maintaining the mental, emotional and physical ability necessary for the representation of a client is an important aspect of maintaining competence to practice law.

I didn’t think the proposed comment goes far enough and I think the Bar doesn’t take seriously the impact that running an efficient, profitable business can have on a lawyers’ well-being.

As a practicing attorney with over 34 years of experience and as the founder of Great Legal Marketing, I have read (and reread) the American Bar Association report about lawyer wellbeing. Of course, I support the proposed comment; who wouldn’t? It sounds logical, and it is well intended. Adding a comment about lawyer wellbeing to the Rules of Professional Conduct will make some feel better, but it isn’t going to improve lawyer wellbeing until the established bar promotes education on law firm practice building.

I met recently with a young lawyer who formerly worked with a large New York-based law firm with an international brand. When this lawyer ran into some health issues that prevented him from working full time, he asked the firm for this accommodation: Please reduce my required hours to 6 days a week, 10 hours a day. The firm’s response was: We don’t have a position like that here.

The shocking thing was not that such cesspools exist, but that this young lawyer was actually surprised to hear me tell him that there were ways to make the same money practicing law that did not involve working more than five days a week, eight hours a day.

Throughout law school and his early career, no one had ever even suggested that there were sane ways to practice law, have a life, and still make good money.

In our work with over 1,000 solo and small-firm lawyers over the last 12 years, we have found that a primary driver of stress-related complication (depression, dependence on drugs, poor health habits) is because most have never been introduced to and learned the sound business principles that would actually make their law practices (1) fun, (2) profitable, and (3) better overall for the clients they serve.

These principles include

  • Marketing for good clients
  • Hiring and training great employees
  • Understanding the “money flow” of a law firm, including how to track and measure employee productivity, investments in marketing and how to take profit off the table to secure your own financial future
  • Building firms that tap into your passion
  • Creating systems that maximize referrals
  • How to stand out in a very crowded and chaotic marketplace
  • How to turn prospects into clients
  • How to develop a tribe of evangelists who will rave to others about you
  • Why “slowing down to speed up” results in a better you in all aspects of your life
  • Looking around at how other successful business got that way and asking yourself “how could I import those ideas into law?”
  • How to take what you already know and build out new practice areas that meet the need of the market

In my office, I have testimonials from many lawyers whose very lives have been changed when they began to understand what running a real business means. Some have reported massive reductions in weight, blood pressure and dependence on drugs and alcohol once they got their businesses under control. We have hundreds of testimonials from lawyers who, while not reporting direct health benefits, do report that for the first times in their lives, they are enjoying their law practices.

For whatever reason, the established bar shudders at the very notion that lawyers should even be discussing topics like these. While the ABA task force recommends mandating CLE credit for programs that address lawyer well-being, most states, Virginia included, do not permit credit for educational courses directed at building practices that will make lawyers happier.

On February 5, 2018, Virginia Lawyers Weekly, Justice Williams Mims urged a culture shift within the legal profession. The proposed comment is laudable, but it’s no more powerful than a bowl of chicken soup: it might help, and it won’t hurt. Recognizing, promoting and incentivizing (through CLE credit) education for lawyers that teaches them how to build better businesses, has the power to show lawyers how, in Justice Mims’ words, to work to live, rather than live to work.

Ben Glass
Ben is a nationally recognized expert in attorney marketing and the owner of Great Legal Marketing.