Welcome to the Bar

In this installment of the Wellness Corner, our focus is on new lawyers. This month we welcome around one thousand new lawyers into the Virginia State Bar and the Young Lawyers Conference. To our new colleagues, your three-plus years of study and preparation have paid off and we are thrilled to welcome you to the profession. As you likely know by now, being an attorney requires a lot of time and energy, and the conditions under which we practice will vary from firm to firm and specialty to specialty. Needless to say, “pressure” is a word and a feeling all of us experience from time to time. Thus, it is important to understand and accept this element of practice in order to recognize its causes, its effects, and its cures.

Understandably, we all handle these pressures differently, so it may not be surprising to learn that a quarter of practicing lawyers struggle with substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and stress. In fact, studies have reported that young lawyers in the first ten years of practice experience some of the highest rates of alcohol abuse and depression. Our profession has taken notice of these concerning patterns as illustrated by The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, an August 2017 report published by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being (the “Report”). As you embark on your practice, it is important to understand the very real risks it can present to your overall health and fitness—both mentally and physically. This understanding, in turn, will prepare you to act to avoid such pitfalls in your own careers.

The Report defines ‘well-being’ not just as physical health, but as “a continuous process toward thriving across all life dimensions,” which include the emotional, occupational, intellectual, spiritual, social, and physical aspects of life. As young lawyers, we must be conscious of our own well-being and take daily steps to secure it for our own good. We need to remember to advocate zealously not only for our clients, but also for ourselves and for each other. The Report estimates that 65% of current equity partners will retire within the next decade, so preserving the well-being of young lawyers in the Commonwealth will have a substantial impact on the health of our industry in the coming future.

Of course, maintaining a healthy well-being can be difficult, especially for the newest attorneys among us. We are inherently driven individuals, generally maximizing our opportunities to prove our worth to our supervising attorneys. Moreover, our job is to help others overcome problems, and that often involves carrying the weight and emotions of our clients. This all takes a toll on our well-being. The result is that we often fail to take the time to assess our own problems and to take steps to address them.

The Virginia State Bar has recognized the issues of well-being throughout our legal community and is taking significant steps to raise awareness of this topic. For example, the VSB is actively preparing a resource guide that will be made available to all Virginia lawyers. It has approved well-being as a topic for continuing legal education credits, and it has encouraged various initiatives—including the Young Lawyers Conference’s very own Wellness Initiative—to tackle lawyer wellness issues head on. Activity-wise, statewide and local bar associations are organizing wellness activities such as yoga-in-the-parks, hiking, and other outdoor opportunities. In addition, Lawyers Helping Lawyers is a non-profit organization endorsed by the VSB and other statewide attorney affiliations that provides free, confidential, non-disciplinary services to attorneys with substance abuse struggles. Needless to say, well-being is a significant focus for our profession, and more and more resources are becoming available for lawyers of all ages and experience to use so that we can all take better care of ourselves.

So what can you do? First, recognize the problem and take some time to understand the concerning patterns plaguing our profession. Second, understand the resources available to you and take action to be a part of the solution. Please check out the VSB’s webpage on lawyer well-being. There are a number of helpful resources, including a link to read the Report referenced above. You can also follow the YLC on social media for information on wellness events in your area. Finally, once you understand the “risks” associated with the practice of law and know where to look for help if needed, make it priority to address your personal well-being every day.

One thing we can all do is to practice civility towards one another. Practicing law “the Virginia Way,” as Deborah Elkins called it in her September 14, 2014 article in Virginia Lawyers Weekly, can at least stabilize one variable we encounter daily in our practice. While we are constantly at odds with each other, that opposition is a result of the clients we have, not who we are personally. So, when opposing counsel takes a position you may believe is unreasonable, remember that their position may be a product of their client’s wishes and not their own. Let’s make a concerted effort to be civil with each other where we can. Our collective well-being will be better off for it.

About the Author

Tiago D. Bezerra is an associate with the Law Office of William A. Marr, Jr. focusing on representing homeowners’/property owners’ associations and condominiums, and small businesses.