COVID-19 has been a historic public health crisis, but it’s also been a mental health crisis that has intersected with the legal profession’s ongoing concerns over promoting the mental health of attorneys and their staff. Large law firms at least have the advantage of being able to devote significant financial resources to mental health promotion. Smaller firms typically don’t have that luxury, but experts in the field say that many of the biggest things that firms can be doing to help their attorneys and staff don’t have to cost much money.
Those efforts can include law firm leaders making sure that they stay on top of the stressors that they and their attorneys and staff are facing, providing wellness and counseling services for both attorneys and staff, hosting low-cost activities that can build employee morale and connectivity, and letting attorneys take some time out of their to practice each day to practice self-care.
“Folks have had loss,” said Michael Kahn, an Charlotte, North Carolina, attorney and co-founder of ReelTime Creative Learning Experiences, which provides coaching and wellness seminars for law firms. “Life is different now, and you might not be performing at a level that you usually expert from yourself and others.”
It may seem obvious, but one of the best things that leaders can do is make sure they check in with their attorneys and staff just to see how they are doing. They need to be especially cognizant of the strain that the pandemic has put not just on their attorneys and staff, but themselves as well, said Kahn, who advises firm leaders to “be vulnerable and acknowledge that the pandemic is hurting them, too.”
“We only have a limited amount of capacity to cope with negative events,” Kahn said. “Tornadoes and hurricanes begin and end and you deal with cleanup. With the pandemic, we don’t know when the end is going to be, and the capacity to deal with this kind of catastrophe has been tapped.”
That can be especially true for legal aid attorneys who are immersed in the chaos of the pandemic and the trauma that poverty and systemic racemic has imposed on indigent clients, said Sean Driscoll, a spokesperson for Legal Aid of North Carolina.
“That constant exposure takes its toll,” Driscoll said. “We want our employees to have access to services that can help them maintain the physical, mental, and emotional fortitude necessary to continue this work.”
To that end, LANC contracts with an employee assistance program that provides wellness services to its attorneys, paralegals, and staff. The pandemic prompted Pisgah Legal Aid Services in Asheville to contract a company that provides similar services, and it’s available to all attorneys and staff. They now have access to counseling and webinars on healthy living.
Promoting wellness and building camaraderie when people are working at home can be a challenge. Beyond employee assistance programs, law firms can offer virtual activities to keep wellness at the forefront, said Lindsey Joyner, a partner with Gallivan White & Boyd in Columbia, South Carolina, and chairwoman of the South Carolina State Bar’s Wellness Committee.
“I don’t believe that encouraging wellness in a firm setting requires a lot of money, although it is great that some large law firms pay for gym memberships and stuff like that,” Joyner said. “It can be done on a shoestring, or no budget.”
Joyner suggests challenges that can be fun and build relationships. She cites a walking challenge, where people count their number of steps they walk using their phone or smart watch and tally the results each week. At the end of the month, they calculate the number of miles traveled together and pick a place on the map that they’ve “reached” as a team, and as a reward have a virtual lunch with food from that region. A bingo wellness challenge has people do healthy things such as meditating for three minutes a day or walking a mile a day on another and other activities over a month.
Or firms can have a financial challenge: people give up something that they usually pay for–coffee outside of the home, say–for a week or month and see how much money they can save. Joyner also suggested a virtual “lunch and learn” with experts who speak on a particular wellness topic.
Individually, attorneys can take steps every day to improve their mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing, Kahn said. “Energy replenishers” during the work day are especially important. A cup of tea in a favorite mug, sitting on the floor with your dog or cats and playing with them for five or ten minutes, or going outside for a 10-minute walk can work, Kahn said.
It’s also important to have something to look forward to each day. For Kahn, it’s his book club, or strumming his guitar with friends via Zoom.
Equally important for law firm leaders and attorneys and staff to be kind to themselves and each other, and they should focus on what they can control and let go of what they can’t, Kahn said.
“We are all beginners at this, and the fact that it is all so uncertain can really take its toll on us,” Kahn said.