Back to Basics: The Occupational Risks of the Practice of Law

I grew up a latchkey kid. You know them—the kids whose parents work full time and so they ride the bus home alone, let themselves in the house, prepare their own dinner, and are left relatively to their own devices. To ensure we would grow up as functional human beings, our home was filled with conversation and words of advice. I remember very fondly the advice my grandmother regularly gave me: go outside, create healthy habits, be nice, and make good friends. Little did I know, that advice would be also relevant to my future legal career.

Early this summer, Virginia’s newest group of lawyers stood at the Greater Richmond Convention Center to be sworn in as licensed attorneys. For those of us who don’t remember, the swearing-in ceremony ultimately consists of a few members of the bar telling bright-eyed, newly-minted attorneys harrowing tales of practice. Notably, this year was different—while the new attorneys sat waiting for their name to be called, they were regaled with talks not about lawyering as a profession, but rather about wellness and the Virginia State Bar’s commitment to the practice.

Of note in the presentation was the new Special Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, established by VSB President Leonard C. Heath, Jr. in 2018. The sole mission of the Committee was to produce a report on the occupational risks of the practice of law in Virginia. The report, aptly titled “The Occupational Risks of the Practice of Law,” was published by the Special Committee on Lawyer Well-Being this past May.

The report breaks down the occupational risks of lawyering into four major categories: Physical Risks, Mental and Emotional Risks, Adaptation Risks, and Self-Actualization Risks. Among the heaviest risks are the sedentary nature of work, long hours, little sleep, vicarious trauma, the adversarial nature of the job, technology addiction, external pressure, and so on and so forth. In addition to identifying the risks, the report graciously identifies “Practice Pointers,” or ways to help a lawyer minimize the effects of the risks.

Admittedly, the report seems daunting at first glance. The last thing I wanted to do as a young lawyer was read an article about how this profession I’ve chosen will eventually lead to an early death (I’m half kidding). However, as I sat down to read, I noticed a common thread throughout the article that felt familiar and made the whole thing digestible—a lawyer can mitigate risk factors by incorporating some simple, everyday habits. Habits, in fact, that we often teach children as they come of age.

For example, to mitigate the risk of technology addiction, a lawyer can put down his or her phone and go outside, away from the lure of the ever-addicting screen time—go outside. To help with professional demands, long hours, and no sleep, a lawyer can be more purposeful in daily planning and focus on preserving his or her overall health through a healthy diet, exercise, and sleep, to maintain an edge during the workday and maximize productivity during more appropriate work hours—create healthy habits. To help cope with the isolating nature of the work, vicarious trauma, and the need to display confidence and conceal vulnerability, a lawyer can interact with other lawyers at lunch, on a sports team, in bar associations like the Young Lawyers Conference, or simply inter-office to create a social network on which to rely when he or she needs a sounding board for issues only other lawyers would understand—be nice and make good friends.

So yes, while law is a physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially demanding profession, there are simple steps a lawyer can take to mitigate the ever-evolving set of risk factors, and they’re the same steps we were taught as children—go outside, create healthy habits, be nice, and make good friends. If kids can do it, we can, too.

About the Author

Allison Smith is a 2018 graduate of the University of Richmond School of Law. She is currently the Senior Law Clerk in the Chesterfield County Circuit Court. In addition to the Young Lawyers Conference of the Virginia State Bar, Allison is a member of the Family Law Bar.