The Missing Ingredient to Solving The Lawyer Wellness Crisis: Build a Better Business (Excerpt from Play Left Fullback)

“In times of change, learners will inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition

The Task Force Report on Lawyer Well-Being was Ugly

In 2016, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being published its report on “lawyer wellness.” Subtitled, “Creating a Movement to Improve Well-Being in the Legal Profession,” the findings of the report were ugly. Turns out that many lawyers are not all that satisfied with the path they have chosen as their life’s work. Some find that the pressures of being a lawyer in today’s ultra-competitive, hyper-fast, consumer-driven environment are so challenging that, over-worked and under-paid, they become anxious and depressed, then turn to drugs and alcohol and other self-harming behaviors, including suicide, to escape the pressure.  Sadly, younger lawyers tend to be more likely to be adversely affected by the supposed “norms” of the profession.

This is not good for clients or society as these lawyers who are “unwell” will often find themselves burned out, the subject of bar complaints and malpractice claims. At the very least, the advice they give and the work they do will not be their best. How can one be the creative lawyer that clients need when they are in financial and personal distress?

Lawyer unhappiness is not good for families, either. Sixty-hour workweeks missed soccer games and piano recitals, and a spouse who is left wondering, “Will this ever get better?” will suck the life right out of you.

Even those who do not totally flame out, destroying themselves and the lives around them, will often wake up asking themselves: “Is that all there is? Did I really work as hard as I did in school and in my career up to now for this?”

The Report’s Findings Should Not Have Surprised Anyone

Many in the legal profession expressed surprise at the findings of the Task Force report. The Committee on Lawyer Well-Being in Virginia (where I practice) said in its “Profession at Risk” report that the data in the report, “Sent shockwaves through the American legal community.” State bar journals across the country exploded with, “It’s Time to Change” articles from bar presidents and executive directors.

While the findings of the Task Force may have come as a surprise to some, anyone who is actually in the trenches meeting clients, trying cases, attending hearings, taking depositions, and yes, hanging out with other lawyers at professional and social events knows that many lawyers live lives of abject misery. Endless worry and uncertainly about where the next client is coming from, disappointed spouses and kids, together with out-of-control client demands and poor time management drive lawyer unhappiness.

Life is really stressful when you feel like you have worked very hard to get where you are yet don’t make enough money, don’t have enough time to enjoy the money you make, aren’t representing people you like to represent doing the work you enjoy most and aren’t working with business partners, associates and employees you like to work with.

That life sucks.

The Proposed Answers to the Crisis Are Nowhere Near Good Enough

The “answers” from the National Taskforce, the American Bar Association, and every state bar that has attempted to address the problem of lawyer “unwellness” are wrong. Every state that has formed a committee to study or published proposed solutions to the issue has arrived at this general list of responses to the problem:

  1. Emphasize that well-being is part of a lawyer’s duty of competence, as though we didn’t already know this.
  2. Spend money (typically by increasing the mandatory dues that lawyers already pay) and appoint (more) committees to explore, “health and wellness initiatives, including meditation classes.”
  3. Change the “tone” of the legal profession to make health and well-being a top priority.
  4. Provide more funding (again, funded by increases in mandatory dues) for those state-wide organizations which provide assistance to lawyers who need behavioral and health assistance services.
  5. Create Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses, and, in some cases, require lawyers to attend such courses, on “professional health initiatives.”

The Ignored Solution – Build a Better Business

These answers will never be sufficient to solve the problem.

Teaching lawyers how to build a better business—one that serves their families, their clients, and the community—should be a TOP PRIORITY for everyone involved in the profession. The real shock about the National Taskforce report is not that lawyers are in distress—it’s that no one who has looked at the issue has even suggested that building a better business is a crucial ingredient for lawyer wellness.

As long as the profession continues to refuse to acknowledge that the skills that make one a good lawyer are not the skills that allow one to grow a profitable and fun business, AND THAT BOTH ARE NECESSARY if lawyers are truly to be “well,” then we will continue to try to fix major hemorrhaging with Band-Aids.

We are spending time on the wrong issues. Let me give you an example:

In my home state of Virginia, we are required to attend 12 hours of mandatory continuing legal education every year. That requirement does not mandate that we do anything other than show up (or attend an online video). It’s like getting a participation trophy. No one’s checking that lawyers are learning anything that might actually be useful to a client because there’s no requirement that (1) the classes we attend be applicable to our practice area, and (2) that we actually have listened and absorbed. Even though there is not a shred of evidence that mandatory CLE makes the lawyers in Virginia any better than, say, Maryland lawyers, where CLE is not required, the requirement will never go away because, according to a footnote buried deep in an appendix to Virginia’s Lawyer-Wellness report, the Virginia State Bar collects over $500,000 in CLE late fees alone (yes, read that again).

Do you know what the Virginia State Bar doesn’t think you should learn about?

Yes, that’s right – running a profitable business.

Here is a partial list of vitally important education you cannot get CLE credit for in Virginia:

  1. Marketing, business development, and sales training;
  2. Client development methods and strategies;
  3. Enhancing profits;
  4. Strategic business planning;
  5. Improving cash reserves;
  6. Employee morale and motivation, and
  7. Hiring and retention.

The Solo and Small Firm Market is Desperately In Need of Business Advice

Sorry, but you can’t run a business unless you are highly skilled in each of the above areas. These topics should actually be a TOP PRIORITY for the bar, especially the solo and small firm market in which most practicing lawyers live.

The fact that the bar finds these topics “just not worth the time” should not stop you from living your life and choosing to get better at them because you will be happier and richer when you master them. A great lawyer who doesn’t know how to get clients, produce a profit, hire and manage a staff (all while “Still Getting Home in Time for Dinner,” the subtitle of my first book for lawyers) is useless.

  • Useless to himself because he will always be stressing about the next client;
  • Useless to his family because he will never be there for them;
  • Useless to his clients because you can’t do your best work when stressed to the max;
  • Useless to society because there will be no time for pro bono work, and
  • Useless because he is much more likely to burn out, turn to substances for relief, and cheat on his clients.

But an average lawyer who figures out how to run a business that serves himself and his family, that produces enough profit to hire great staff who can deliver not only quality legal care but terrific customer service, now that lawyer will be a hero to his family and an icon in the community.

Isn’t that what we want?

Play Left Fullback by Ben GlassAbout the Author: Ben Glass is a personal injury and long-term disability attorney in Fairfax, Virginia. He is the author of numerous consumer and business books, including Renegade Lawyer Marketing, (How Today’s Solo and Small-Firm Lawyers Survive and Thrive in a World of Marketing Vultures, 800-Pound Gorillas, and Legal Zoom) and Great Legal Marketing, (How Smart Lawyers Think, Behave and Market to Get More Clients and Still Get Home in Time for Dinner).

Republication Notice:

Excerpted from Play Left Fullback, How Challenging the Status Quo Will Help America’s Solo and Small Firm Lawyers Build Better Practices, Be Heroes to Their Families and Restore America’s Trust in Lawyers, by Ben Glass, Mascot Books, 2020. Available at Amazon.com. This article may be republished as long as this notice is published with the article.

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