The Importance of Promoting Mental and Physical Wellbeing in the Legal Profession

Jeremy Walker Headshot
Jeremy T. Walker
Director, Litigation Department
Published: New Hampshire Bar News
April 20, 2022

Regardless of whether one works in private practice or the public sector, one thing we lawyers all know – the practice of law is demanding.  It constantly taxes our minds and, because it is a jealous mistress of our time, we often lack the time necessary to safeguard and promote our individual mental and physical wellbeing.  Indeed, it is not only demanding on lawyers, but all those in the profession.

At McLane Middleton, we devote significant time and resources in striving to have engaged and healthy employees.  Our firm comprises over 200 attorneys, paralegals, and administrative staff, and I am fortunate to work with a team of professionals who work incredibly hard to be their professional best on behalf of our clients.  As our firm grew over the past 20 years, the demands on our time increased along with our growth.  Not only do we need to meet our clients’ needs and deadlines, but we have more non-client demands to keep our business running.  And of course, with modern technology, we are always an e-mail or text away from being reminded about work at any time on any day.

Our firm obviously is not unique to this problem, and law firms and public legal agencies are often so busy, they run the risk of not making the time to ensure that they implement steps necessary to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees.  After all, practicing law is a people business, and if our lawyers, paralegals and staff are not physically and mentally well, that does not bode well for our business.

Recognizing this critical need, our firm formed a Wellness Committee about 15 years ago, and provides an annual budget for the Committee’s use.  I currently co-chair the Committee along with our Human Resources Director and we meet monthly.  Our Committee comprises between 10-15 members and includes attorneys, paralegals, staff as well as two representatives from our benefits administrator, CGI Benefits Solutions.  The fundamental goal of the Committee is to ensure that our firm provides the necessary resources for all employees to lead as healthy a lifestyle as possible.

The Committee is not simply about encouraging pushups and sit ups, although we certainly encourage taking the time for physical exercise.  Our focus generally is on holistic wellbeing, and we provide resources for our employees to continually strive for their best physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

We know that one’s wellbeing is multifaceted, and everyone has different needs, so our initiatives vary.  For instance, we strive to offer exercise classes that are free to our employees three or four days of the week.  We offer boot camp classes on two nights, a yoga class and at times we have offered a pilates class as well.  Our firm is fortunate that our landlord allows us space in the building to conduct the classes, and employees appreciate being able to participate in a class right after work before heading home.  For those employees who prefer private gyms, our benefit administrator works with our health insurer to provide employees an annual $150 reimbursement toward gym membership.   A few years ago, the firm subsidized the purchase of Fitbit® devices for all those who wanted one and a number of our employees are working on increasing their daily steps.  Every year we run a “fitness challenge” for a month where employees who commit to participating in a fitness activity each day can submit a raffle ticket and we provide weekly prizes to raffle winners.  In the past we have organized group activities such as ice skating or “couch to 5k” running programs.

In addition to the physical health offerings, our Committee offers education seminars regarding all aspects of wellbeing.  We have been fortunate to have one or two representatives from our benefits administrator who attend each monthly meeting and help the firm better take advantage of the various offerings from our health insurer.  In the past we have brought in speakers to provide tips for better time management, anxiety and stress reduction, nutrition, financial wellbeing, etc.  Prior to the pandemic, we held an annual “Health Fair” for which we invited various health related vendors who set up at our firm for a half-day, and employees could take the time to go the health fair and learn about a range of health topics and products.  As our employees return more routinely to the office, we hope to bring that back later this year.  We also will look to continue our tradition of supplying apples or oranges on particular “Fruit Fridays.” While none of these initiatives can ensure that all of our employees will take steps to improve their physical or mental wellbeing, we are finding that many of our employees take advantage of the resources.

We also know that those suffering from mental or physical health issues typically want to maintain privacy as they address these issues.  Accordingly, a critical component of our work as a committee is to educate our employees as to the myriad resources we offer so that if some of our colleagues are suffering, they know they have options and resources available without having to ask for them.  McLane Middleton offers an employee assistance program through KGA where all employees can go for free assistance, ranging from free mental health counseling appointments to help finding an apartment or child care.

As studies performed by the American Bar Association and others have confirmed, attorneys in particular are subject to some of the highest levels of mental health issues ranging from depression and anxiety to substance abuse disorders.  In 2020, we as a firm committed to and signed the American Bar Association Well-Being Pledge, by which we have pledged to actively promote and encourage help-seeking and self-care as core values of our organization.  In conjunction with this pledge, we have enacted our Well Being Policy which incorporates many of the initiatives discussed above.

We believe our wellness efforts at McLane Middleton have had a positive impact, and we know that the money we spend on our wellness efforts pays dividends that far exceed the costs.  There is no doubt that employee engagement and wellness make businesses more productive, but we must not let the constant demands of our profession allow us to relegate this to a lower tier concern.  Our Wellness Committee is here to stay at my firm, and I would encourage all businesses in our profession to stay focused on the mental and physical wellness of their colleagues.