Operationalizing Well-Being

From The Practice March/April 2020
Law firm approaches to mental health and well-being

In September 2018, the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession launched a seven-point pledge campaign for legal employers “to raise awareness, facilitate a reduction in the incidence of problematic substance-use and mental health distress and improve lawyer well-being.” The seven points of the pledge to reduce substance use disorders and mental distress in the legal profession are as follows:

  1. Provide enhanced and robust education to attorneys and staff on topics related to well-being, mental health, and substance use disorders.
  2. Disrupt the status quo of drinking-based events:
    • Challenge the expectation that all events include alcohol; seek creative alternatives.
    • Ensure there are always appealing nonalcoholic alternatives when alcohol is served.
  3. Develop visible partnerships with outside resources committed to reducing substance use disorders and mental health distress in the profession: healthcare insurers, lawyer assistance programs, EAPs, and experts in the field.
  4. Provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources, including free, in-house, self-assessment tools.
  5. Develop proactive policies and protocols to support assessment and treatment of substance use and mental health problems, including a defined back-to-work policy following treatment.
  6. Actively and consistently demonstrate that help-seeking and self-care are core cultural values by regularly supporting programs to improve physical, mental and emotional well-being.
  7. Highlight the adoption of this well-being framework to attract and retain the best lawyers and staff.

As the lead story to this issue of The Practice notes, the pledge has since garnered more than 180 signatories (as of March 17, 2020) spanning some of the country’s largest law firms, corporations, and law schools. Beyond simply signing the organization’s name to the pledge, signatories must annually renew their commitment by attesting to their progress with specific programs and progress they have made in accordance with the pledge.

Kirkland has taken a clinical approach to its well-being program.

Robin Belleau, firmwide director of well-being at Kirkland & Ellis

Notably, the majority of signatories are law firms. Though not yet as widely adopted as initially hoped for, the ABA pledge represents a significant step in the right direction. In this article, we explore some of the steps law firms are taking to operationalize mental health and other well-being programs within their organizations by shining a light on some of the major decision points and milestones they are likely to face as they consider how best to build out mental health and well-being functions. We focus our attention on four key considerations: leadership, structure, function, and impact.

Leadership: The right person for the job

Whatever form a given mental health or wellness effort takes, someone has to steer it. Thus law firms are immediately faced with two questions: What type of roles are best suited to leading a well-being effort in the firm, and what type of background is best suited to those roles?

One route firms could take is to create new roles that explicitly deal with lawyer well-being. This sort of “institutional elaboration” is not new to the legal profession. Indeed, when firms became increasingly complex businesses in the 1990s and 2000s, they began hiring chief operating officers and developing structures, such as finance, data analytics, strategy, and so on, around the role. Similarly, while firms have long had diversity committees, recent pushes toward diversity and inclusion have led to the creation of chief diversity officers. And, when clients began making stronger and stronger demands for innovation initiatives, law firms began hiring chief innovation officers. This institutional elaboration strategy is similar to the approach recently taken by Kirkland & Ellis, which, in March 2019, appointed former executive director of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program (LAP) Robin Belleau as its first firmwide director of well-being. “Kirkland has taken a clinical approach to its well-being program,” Belleau says in a recent interview with The Practice. “They set out to hire someone who can provide clinical support, resources, and programming to their staff.”

Belleau’s background gives her a unique perspective and an ability to address those components. A lawyer with eight years of practice experience as a public defender and state’s attorney, Belleau understands how the profession of law can impact lawyer well-being. “Straight litigation takes its toll on you after a while,” she concedes. “And I sat down and looked at all the aspects of the job that I did like and that I didn’t like and figured out that I wanted to be a therapist. It turns out there’s actually a lot of crossover between the two jobs.” For one, her clients still call her “counselor,” she quips.

After earning her master’s degree in counseling, Belleau worked for a number of years serving many of the same populations she served as a public defender and state’s attorney in her capacity as a licensed clinical professional counselor. Then she discovered her state’s LAP. LAPs are nonprofit organizations that support individuals throughout the legal profession dealing with mental health issues, offering services that often include confidential assessment, therapy, and education. Belleau joined the Illinois LAP as clinical director before becoming the executive director of the organization. When she saw that Kirkland was hiring a director of well-being, she was intrigued—if not a little surprised. “Large law firms were not a type of firm that we had a lot of contact with at the Lawyers’ Assistance Program,” she recalls. “It was mostly solo practices, small firms, and midsize firms, but not necessarily Big Law. I was very excited to see that this is something that bigger law firms were starting to pay more attention to.” She’s now been in the role for a year.

I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about [my own mental health]. I kept it a complete secret.

Kimberly Gold, a partner at Reed Smith and the inaugural chair (and co-founder) of its Mental Health Task Force

While Kirkland & Ellis hired a specific individual into a dedicated role, other structures and leadership methods are gaining traction at other firms. For instance, in January 2020, Reed Smith named Kimberly Gold, a partner in its New York office, the inaugural chair (and co-founder) of the firm’s new Mental Health Task Force. Gold’s practice focuses primarily on technology and data issues in addition to life sciences and digital health matters. While Gold stresses that she is passionate about her work in these areas, she notes that this is not actually what brought her to lead Reed Smith’s charge on mental health issues. As she explains, it was her own experiences as a lawyer, and the experiences of her colleagues, that moved her to act on mental health. Noting her Reed Smith colleague Mark Goldstein’s courage in speaking out last year about his own mental health struggles as an inspiration, Gold explains that it was her own mental health journey more than anything that primed her for her leadership role on the Mental Health Task Force. “Ultimately, I think it came from having experienced mental health issues as a junior attorney,” she says. “I kept it quiet.” For Gold, those early experiences with mental health—and the lack of support that existed at the time—still resonate with her today. She explains:

I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone about it. I kept it a complete secret. When I finally got the help I needed from a professional, he thought I should take a leave of absence, but it didn’t seem possible. I didn’t feel like I could even tell people at work that I was dealing with these issues, because no one talked about it. And so, I think about the position I was in and what would have been helpful to me at that time. My hope is to support our colleagues who may be facing those types of issues and reinforce that a lot of people experience mental health problems—especially in the legal profession—and that we should be open about it. We should be talking about it.

Belleau and Gold serve as two examples of leaders working to improve mental health and wellness within law firms. There are others. Morgan Lewis has notably created at least two roles to improve mental health and wellness in the firm—a director of employee well-being who is in charge of the design and execution of wellness initiatives and a chief engagement officer who is in charge of thinking big picture when it comes to firm culture and the employee experience. Allen & Overy recently appointed its first-ever mental health partner whose role is centered on creating a culture and reducing stigma around issues of mental health. Many other firms have created committees around wellness and mental health led by human resources professionals (such as Mintz Levin) or partners (such as Cooley or Akerman). The issue of leadership is a question any law firm will have to grapple with to give their mental health efforts a chance to succeed.

Structure: A movement takes form

From an organizational perspective, one central question to any concerted wellness effort is what form it will take. As Ron Goetzel notes in “Piecing It Together,” workplace wellness programs come in different shapes and sizes. And, though these mental health and wellness initiatives at law firms often constitute separate efforts from their health benefits and related programs, the two have the potential to overlap in useful ways.

These well-being efforts are not singular, isolated projects.

For instance, Belleau’s well-being position is housed in the firm’s benefits and human resources department. And while she is the person most explicitly in charge of the firm’s wellness efforts, she stresses that she must work collaboratively across the organization. “The decision to house this position in the benefits department was deliberate,” she explains. Belleau continues:

While there is not a dedicated “well-being staff,” I am surrounded by great people who help make my role more effective. For instance, here in the benefits department in Chicago, we have one person whose primary focus is to work on fitness initiatives. We have another person who is very helpful finding in-network providers when I’m referring someone out for therapy. My supervisor is actually in charge of leave of absences, and we’ve actually cross-referred to each other. It’s worked out really well.

Reed Smith’s task force is composed of lawyers and professional staff throughout the firm. “Anyone can join—we don’t need to know their motivations for wanting to get involved,” Gold notes. Perhaps owing in part to this welcoming ethos, the task force comprises a diverse group, including more than 100 members spread across the country and globe with a mixed gender and racial composition. Indeed, the task force itself was born out of an affinity group at the law firm with inclusion at its core: Looking for Excellence and Advancement of Disabled Attorneys at Reed Smith (LEADRS). Likewise, though the task force has its own dedicated budget, it ultimately has a “dotted line” to the chief diversity officer, the head of LEADRS, and the firm’s broader well-being program, Wellness Works.

Gold and her team have divided into five subgroups based on areas of focus—what they call “advisory teams”—focused on stigma and culture, policies and practice, education and resources, mental health and substance abuse services, and outreach. “Dividing it up seemed to be the most efficient approach, because everyone has ideas and it’s very hard to execute with a large group,” notes Gold, who in addition to her task force responsibilities is also a partner in the firm with a busy practice. “Outreach, for example, would be the team orchestrating outside conferences and speaking engagements. Policies and practices is looking at the firm’s policies and thinking through recommendations they might make.” In other words, each advisory team is substantively engaged in its subject area, focused on advancing the mission of the task force—challenging the stigma around mental health, ensuring everyone in the firm has access to help, and building a positive culture around those issues—as a clearly defined component of a larger initiative.

The task force decided on this structure and division of labor for itself in the beginning. And, though she cautions that the task force is relatively new and that roles and responsibilities are still being defined, Gold notes that it has worked out well so far. Each advisory team meets individually and has its own lawyer chair, professional staff chair, and human resources liaison. As the chair of the overarching task force, it is Gold’s job to aggregate input and coordinate efforts. She explains:

I work closely with someone from our HR department and someone who leads our Wellness Works program, which existed long before I formed the task force to promote wellness initiatives. And the Wellness Works program still exists, but most activities are now in partnership with the task force. Having said that, I chair the group, lead our monthly meetings, and serve as the liaison to diversity and inclusion leadership and to management on mental health issues. But I can’t do it all. Like many others on the task force, I’m still a practicing lawyer, and that’s why the advisory team structure really helps make it all work.

It is worth noting that in the cases of both Kirkland and Reed Smith, these well-being efforts are not singular, isolated projects. Both Belleau and Gold speak to the importance of understanding mental health and wellness through the lens of intersectionality, whereby various details of an individual’s identity and experience will naturally come to bear on their mental health needs and strategies. (Case in point, at the time of our interview Belleau was preparing for a panel presentation titled “The Intersection of Wellness and Diversity.”) It is unsurprising, then, that both efforts take a collaborative and inclusive approach to their work within the firm. “Stigma is different for every single person, but it is definitely different for different populations as well,” says Belleau. “A one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t do.”

Substance: The work of well-being

Then, of course, there is the work itself. Those considering initiatives of their own might be wondering: What are these initiatives doing? What is the substance of these efforts?

Belleau serves her clients—that is, the firm’s lawyers and staff—through what she calls a two-pronged approach: firmwide education and personal service. The first prong focuses on leading programming around mental health, substance abuse, and well-being for everyone in the firm. For example, Belleau notes that she has engaged different audiences through in-person events ranging from a presentation on resilience at a leadership conference to hosting a “wellness fair” that brought in roughly 20 vendors to speak to different aspects of wellness.

The second prong is all about connecting one-on-one with individuals at the firm to understand what is going on in their lives, offer assessments, create plans of action, and refer them to local services that can help them carry out those plans. “A big part of my job is vetting resources in all of the different states and countries that we have offices in,” Belleau says. She continues:

Because for attorneys, we, unfortunately, just think differently. We process information differently. We can be somewhat defensive and have a lot of defense mechanisms we can employ. We’re not always the best client. So, I can’t send attorneys to just any old therapist. That might be totally fine for someone who’s not involved in the legal profession. So, I have contacts across the country and throughout the world. For instance, I’m going to New York in a week or two. Part of that trip will be meeting with various providers to see if they would be a good fit for our people.

Similar to Belleau, Gold stresses the need to educate, educate, educate—which has the knock-on effect of destigmatizing mental health issues. Of note, Reed Smith had recently given a webinar presentation on stigmatization of mental health issues in the profession and the role of LAPs in supporting the mental health of lawyers. Moreover, in March 2020, Reed Smith launched its #StopTheStigma campaign, a partnership between the firm’s two-year-old Wellness Works initiative and the Mental Health Task Force. According to reports, campaign events and activities include education programing led by a certified psychologist, a video series featuring lawyers and professional staff at the firm and mental health allies sharing their stories, leadership training, and a “Wear Green Day” to raise awareness.

A number of firms have moved to deemphasize alcohol at law firm events.

Kirkland and Reed Smith are hardly alone in leveraging events—whether hosted by themselves or others—to speak out on mental health and wellness issues. Some events might focus internally— Latham & Watkins brought in Patrick Krill, a key researcher behind the 2016 ABA-Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study, for a series of presentations on addiction and mental health. Others might approach the issue of stigma in a more externally facing context. Kim Koopersmith, chairperson of Akin Gump, recently spoke on a panel at LegalWeek New York 2020 titled ”Real Talk: Addressing the Stigma Around Mental Health in the Legal Profession,” on creating a law firm culture more conducive to discussing mental health issues in the workplace.

Another element of mental health and wellness initiatives might be actual mental-health-related services offered in-house at the firm or by a partnering organization. Schiff Hardin, for example, has offered both chair massages and mindfulness meditation sessions as part of its wellness offerings. Hogan Lovells garnered press coverage after it brought a therapist in-house two days per week in its Washington office and one day per week in its Baltimore office back in 2016. Many firms, however, seem to have centered their energies on reducing the barriers to and even directly connecting their lawyers with professional counseling services, whether making onsite therapists available or offering 24-hour access to remote counselors. Indeed, a significant part of Belleau’s role as a “lawyer-therapist” at Kirkland is about offering members of the firm with a bridge to the care they need. The lawyers and staff, she explains, are responding to that offer. “After this interview, I actually have three client calls—two attorneys and a staff person,” Belleau says. “I’m not sure why they’re calling me yet, but they’ve reached out, which is really thrilling because one of the concerns I had when I first started here is: Will people feel like they can reach out to me and that it’s a safe space?”

Another possible element relates to culture creation—efforts to affect the status quo at law firms in hopes of shaping it into a safer space for mental health and well-being. Among the most prominent examples are the moves by a number of firms to deemphasize alcohol at law firm events. The second point of the ABA’s seven-point well-being pledge directs firms to “disrupt the status quo of drinking-based events,” so perhaps it should come as little surprise that early signatories like Honigman and Cooley have been vocal proponents of reducing the prominence of alcohol at firm events. Seyfarth Shaw is approaching the issue of firm culture in a novel way through its Inspiration Project, which offers $4,000 grants to a set number of employees to help them “pursue inspirational projects focused on health, wellness, lifelong learning, or making an impact in the firm’s communities.” These broad efforts to reestablish workplace culture at law firms likewise help to address the issue of stigmatization of mental health issues, making future initiatives more likely to succeed.

These are at least a few examples of what the work of well-being looks like in law firms. As firms who made the ABA pledge approach their yearly commitment renewal, perhaps new types of programs, events, and creative uses of funds will surface as well. But beyond the various steps a given firm might be taking to fulfill their pledge or otherwise address mental health issues, there is a separate question of impact—and how it is being measured. In other words, what are these efforts accomplishing?

Impact: Defining success

All these new roles and initiatives are broadly about improving mental health and well-being within their respective firms and, to another extent, across the legal profession. That being said, each concerted effort—whether a novel role in the firm, a new program, a committee, or some combination—will have its own goals and, ultimately, metrics of impact and success.

Belleau cautions that attendance at events is not a stand-in for impact. “For instance, if we’re giving a presentation, we cannot simply measure it by how many people attend,” she says. “Someone might attend the program, go back, share maybe some information or an anecdote from the program with a colleague; for that colleague, it might click with them. Maybe they go on to reach out for help.” And they may not even call her, Belleau explains, but reach out to someone external to the firm. That would still be a win—the firm’s mental health and well-being efforts ultimately resulted in someone getting the help they needed—but there is no reliable way to track that connection. “The idea behind these types of programs is we’re planting seeds,” Belleau says. She continues:

We don’t expect that we’re going to solve the mental health crisis facing the profession. What we can do is try our best to make things easier for our colleagues and do our part to help the profession move in the right direction.

Kimberly Gold

We hope they go out there and they multiply even though we may never know what our impact was. One question that I get a lot is: Are you hoping to reduce your expenses through medical insurance? But actually, if they increased, that could be a good thing, too, because it could mean more people are reaching out for assistance. So there’s a variety of different ways that you can really look at this.

What Belleau does look at is the number of people who reach out to her personally for help—and she finds plenty to be encouraged by. “I’m getting people from the staff side, I’m getting associates, I’m getting partners, and they’re coming from all the different offices,” she adds. “That has been very exciting because not only do people know that this program exists, but they feel like it provides a safe-enough space for them to really use it.”

Nevertheless, Gold echoes Belleau’s hesitance to embrace easy-to-understand numbers as the only sign of success. “It’s hard to measure because our biggest successes may only come to the surface through individual feedback,” Gold notes. “For me, success is our employees feeling comfortable talking openly about mental health and substance use issues and seeking help when they need it. That’s a really big cultural shift, but it may not be the easiest thing to measure.”

Here to stay?

It is important to emphasize that many of these efforts—especially the ones borne out of the 2018 ABA well-being pledge—are young. “We don’t expect that we’re going to solve the mental health crisis facing the profession,” says Gold. “What we can do is try our best to make things easier for our colleagues and do our part to help the profession move in the right direction.” The organization structure around those efforts varies from one firm to the next, as does the content. Some emphasize education and destigmatization, whereas others are keen to make services available in the hopes of improving their lawyers’ and staff’s well-being. At this stage, goals remain fairly broad, and therefore measuring success remains difficult. But this could change in time. The ABA published a well-being toolkit for lawyers and legal employers in 2018 that recommends measuring easily quantifiable data like attendance and other tangible forms of engagement but also measures of satisfaction with the firm’s well-being initiatives, the extent of learning and skill building, and even behavioral changes resulting from the initiatives. It remains to be seen whether firms will find effective ways to assess their efforts along these lines. At the same time, any firm undertaking a well-being initiative will likely also agree that if their efforts improve the mental health of even one of their employees, it is worthwhile.


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