News Post

The Duty of Attorney Wellness by R. Champ Crocker

A dominant issue affects attorneys, our courts, and the general public: attorney wellness (and lack of it). American statesman and lawyer Daniel Webster said, “Most good lawyers live well, work hard, and die poor.”

What did Webster mean by “live well?” Was he talking about lawyers enjoying emotional health, physical health, and a purposeful life? I doubt it–he probably was referring to lawyers’ vulnerabilities to indulgence and over-exposure. Webster biographer Irving H. Bartlett noted that despite being one of the country’s highest paid lawyers, he was often in debt and borrowing money from others.

“Fewer American leaders have had a greater appetite for the good things in life.” Webster “bragged openly about his knowledge of good food and drink. Eventually, people said he drank too much, even in public–and sometimes they were right.” Daniel Webster, W.W. Norton & Co., 1978.

In 1954, Boston lawyer John Mullen wrote a letter to the editor of the ABA Journal, saying, “In a very literal sense, many lawyers ‘work themselves to death.’” And drawing on Webster’s quote, Mullen said, “The statement that ‘most good lawyers live well, work hard and die poor’ is as true today as when it was uttered by Daniel Webster 104 years ago.” (“Views of Our Readers,”) ABA Journal, February 1954). In 2019, Webster’s observation still rings true, dire as it is.

Lawyers face additional challenges than in Webster’s day–the demands of complex discovery, educational debt, and technology addiction–which should make wellness more of a priority than ever before.

The ABA Report

The American Bar Association created the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being in August 2016. It began by defining it as:

“well-being as a continuous process whereby lawyers seek to thrive in each of the following areas: emotional health, occupational pursuits, creative or intellectual endeavors, sense of spirituality or greater purpose in life, physical health, and social connections with others. Lawyer well-being is part of a lawyer’s ethical duty of competence.”

Think about that last sentence–lawyers have an ethical duty to be well. The task force endorsed amending the Rules of Professional Conduct to reflect this duty.

After a year of studying the issues, the task force released its findings. The task force released its final report, which says: “To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being.” This is the full 73-page report, and I encourage you to read it.

The task force’s report is thorough and far-reaching. Much of the report focuses on substance abuse and psychological problems–lawyers are not immune. The good news is most state bars have resources to help lawyers struggling with substance abuse or psychological problems. The Alabama State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program is a good example of a state bar using lawyers to help other lawyers with these problems.

The Virginia Report

Following the lead of the landmark ABA report, in May 2019, the Virginia State Bar President’s Special Committee on Lawyer Well-Being released “The Occupational Risks of the Practice of Law.” Every lawyer should read this report.

One main purpose of the Virginia State Bar study was to try to find out why lawyers experience wellness problems at disproportionate rates when compared to the general public. The study identified several occupational risks for lawyers.

Physical Risks

You may be asking, “How is there a physical risk to practicing law?” The Virginia report found several. The first is the sedentary nature of practicing law. We spend most of our time sitting down. Studies show prolonged sitting causes health risks from storing calories to posture problems caused from being slumped over your keyboard. The report suggested lawyers understand these risks and try to be physically active during the day, whether it’s walking to court or to lunch or setting reminders to stand up and stretch throughout the day. The report cited an ominous report from the Mayo Clinic, which determined those who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to the risk posed by obesity and smoking. (Edward R. Laskowski, What Are the Risks of Sitting Too Much?, MAYO CLINIC (May 8, 2018)).

It makes sense to put reminders on your calendar or phone to get up and move around because if you’re like me, if it isn’t on the calendar, then it won’t happen. Exercise is important, which I will talk about on a personal level later in the article.

Another physical risk is the long hours. We all face competing demands from the bench, the bar, and our clients–and we owe a duty to all three. The result is we work long hours, which leads to exhaustion and burnout. The demands may never change, but the way lawyers manage these demands can change, by planning each day, limiting interruptions, and establishing reasonable expectations with our clients. The Virginia study also recommended lawyers take regular vacations.

If you’re like me, it’s difficult if not impossible to be away from the office for more than a few days, but there are court holidays basically every month–three-day weekends can be a good way to recharge.

Sleep deprivation was identified as a physical risk. Sleep deprivation is proven to cause increased risk of illness and injury, not to mention lapses of judgment. Will Meyerhofer graduated from New York University School of Law and joined a prominent Manhattan firm. Soon after starting his career, the young lawyer gained 45 pounds, was sleep-deprived, and frequently ill. He said, “I was a nervous wreck. I was shattered … Even though I got to the very top, I was treated like an idiot and I felt I didn’t belong in the field. I was a mess. At the end of the day, I really only looked forward to seeing my dog.” (“How Lawyers Can Avoid Burnout and Debilitating Anxiety,” Leslie A. Gordon, ABA Journal, July 2015). Meyerhofer is an accomplished author and columnist who wrote about his struggles in his book, Way Worse Than Being a Dentist–the Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning (2011). If you aren’t getting enough sleep you are putting yourself at risk of committing malpractice. You need seven to nine hours of sleep every night.  The Virginia report recommended establishing a bedtime and avoiding screen time for at least an hour beforehand. Cutting screen time is hard to do, especially after being in court all day and having dozens of emails to respond to, but it’s necessary to put down the phone. I deleted certain social media accounts from my phone this year and have slept much better.

Other physical risks cited in the Virginia report include excessive time working indoors, which can disrupt biorhythms, and simple aging. While aging is not a litmus test of legal capacity, lawyers should know their own limits, have regular medical examinations, and have a succession plan to protect clients and colleagues.

Daniel Webster was one of the most successful lawyers of all time. He made (and spent) a fortune, and he argued more than 200 cases before the United States Supreme Court. Late in his life, as a United States Senator, Webster delivered the “Seventh of March Speech” in support of the Compromise of 1850. In this famous speech, Webster said, “I am nearly broken down with labor and anxiety.” This comment–paired with his observation in the same year about lawyers “living well, working hard and dying poor”– was really a warning to our profession. No matter how successful you are, is it worth ending broken down?

Mental and Emotional Risks

The adversarial nature of our work was the first mental and emotional risk in the Virginia report. It concluded that they “promote feelings of anger, guilt, and fear that can lead to depression and chronic stress.” How do we keep the client’s problem from becoming our problem? The report suggests being aware of “emotional contagion,” which is when people “catch” each other’s feelings when working together, which can affect one’s judgment and decision-making. Emotional contagion occurs in groups large and small. Some organizations have a positive culture, others not so much. This includes law firms.

Another occupational risk is the individual nature of the work. Legal work can be lonesome. Most of us have spent plenty of time at the office after hours or on weekends, alone, working for our clients. There is nothing wrong with that, but it’s also important to be active in something other than your law practice– whether it’s your local bar, volunteering in your community, or just having hobbies.

The Virginia report identified a host of other mental and emotional risks that go with this profession related to the pressures of deadlines, prolonged subjection to others’ problems, practice management, and the business of law. Lawyers often face these risks every day, sometimes all at once.

The Atticus Finch Complex

To Kill a Mockingbird has inspired generations of lawyers and non-lawyers alike. Doesn’t every young lawyer want to be like Atticus Finch? I did. North Carolina-based attorney Katie Guest Rose Pryal warns about the danger of the Atticus Finch Complex. In her 2016 essay, “American Lawyers Have an Atticus Finch Complex, and it’s Killing the Profession,” Pryal wrote about the “unfortunate side effect” of being inspired by Finch:

In my experience, too many of these young Atticus wannabes took up the law because of a misplaced savior complex, not because they wanted to serve others, a drive lawyers are ostensibly taught to aspire to. The problem with a lawyer with a savior complex is that he is easily disenchanted. Many, if not most, poor clients involved in our legal system are “guilty” in the eyes of the law. Indeed, once you step into a courthouse, it is difficult to find a client as purely innocent as Tom Robinson.

Pryal further suggests that the legal system doesn’t need saviors: “It needs clear-eyed lawyers who recognize that all members of U.S. society have a right to a fair trial and a right to an attorney who is not overworked, underpaid, and abused by the system as well, as many public defenders can be.” Pryal points out the same problems in the civil justice system and suggests lawyers should “set aside the unrealistic expectations of being a savior and embrace the legal work that actually needs doing.”

The Oxford Dictionary defines “disenchantment” as “a feeling of disappointment about someone or something you previously respected or admired.” If you’ve ever been to a law school graduation, you don’t see a room full of disenchanted people. You see happy, ambitious people who are ready to take on the world. Yet, we all know lawyers who are disenchanted– maybe because they never had their Atticus Finch moment. The other possibility (I would suggest a likely one) is that lawyer disenchantment is rooted in a lack of wellness.

My Wellness Journey

Practicing law is stressful. So are other professions. For lawyers, the question that should claim our attention is, “How can you resolve someone else’s problems if you’re not taking care of yourself?” In the fall of 2014, I was constantly in court, in depositions, or meeting with my client. My practice was busy. My life was busy (I had one child and another on the way). I had slipped into having the mindset that any fitness activities or recreation made me “less” of a lawyer. My law practice had become who I was, not what I did for a living, which added stress. One morning I was in a hurry to court and the elevator was busy, so I galloped up the courthouse staircase. Halfway up, I had to stop. I felt faint and lightheaded. I was out of breath. I was sweating. Uncomfortable, embarrassed, and slightly disheveled, I stopped and cooled off for a few minutes. I made it to court on time, but felt distracted by what happened on my way there. Days and weeks passed, and this memory eventually went to the back of my mind.

A few weeks later, during the holiday season, I woke up the day after Christmas and could not get out of bed. I had a sharp, intense pain in my lower back so severe that I could not stand up. So, I languished in bed for several hours until I could get on my feet. The back pain lingered. I knew something was wrong. I went to my doctor. Desperate for relief, I was hoping to get a quick fix so I could get back to my life. My doctor told me, “I can give you some relief, but if you want to fix your back you need to lose 40 pounds.” Forty pounds? I’m thinking, “How do I do that?” I didn’t have the will, and I sure didn’t have the time. That was always my excuse for not being physically active–I never had time.

Fortunately, my doctor is a local facilitator of a nationwide wellness program. So, I reluctantly went to the orientation for the program. After hearing the spiel, I said yes. I wasn’t yet thinking about changing my lifestyle; I just wanted relief from pain. I quickly learned wellness is not a diet. Diets don’t work. Improving my diet was part of the solution, but physical activity and mindfulness are major parts of overall wellness. The program changed my life. I lost 32 pounds in eight weeks, and 70 pounds for the year in 2015. I’ve kept off the weight and practiced self-control (some days are better than others). Running became a passion for me. I started running short distances, then 5Ks, and I’m now training for my eighth half-marathon.

Kentucky attorney Helen Bukulmez is the self-described “Hiking Lawyer.” She says physical movement, hiking, is essential to her overall wellness:

“Don’t get me wrong. My hiking trips don’t resolve any of the issues or the problems I bring to its peaks; but these hikes adjust my mental and emotional well-being to see the potential solutions or, alternatively, to see how small they are in comparison to my overall life.”

Knowing stress is inevitable to her career as a lawyer, Bukulmez says hiking helps her cope:

“I’ve had to deal with some serious work-related problems, be it an abusive client, an unfavorable decision, or a disrespectfully opposing counsel. At the end of a long, challenging hike, none of them survives the mental, physical and emotional adjustments that a hike is able to place on my existence.” “Improving Mental Health through Movement,” Yvette Hourigan and Helen Bukulmez, Kentucky Bar Association Bench & Bar Magazine, March/April 2016.

You don’t have to run marathons or hike mountains to be well. We are all running our own race. Just put one foot in front of the other and move forward.

Had I only gotten physically healthier and lost weight my wellness journey would have been a failure. The most important race isn’t for a medal: it’s the race of life. I had gone to church all my life, but with time I had gotten complacent in my faith. The journey I started in 2015 wasn’t just physical; it was also about getting my spirit in better shape. Running is the perfect metaphor for life, so we should all examine what we are running toward. Is it money? Prestige? Power? Consider the Apostle Paul’s words:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” I Cor. 9:24-25.

I am far from perfect and still a work in progress, but I firmly believe faith and service to others is essential to wellness. You will enjoy practicing law more and do a better job if you are healthy. Here’s my wellness advice for lawyers:

  • You can’t do your best job in helping someone else if you aren’t well yourself.
  • Find an outlet–running, walking, biking, something. Too many lawyers have no outlet which causes a burnout.
  • After you find your outlet, go do it without your phone. There aren’t many emails or messages that can’t wait one hour.
  • You have a choice: Make time now to achieve wellness or make a lot more time later for sickness.
  • Your responsibilities go beyond you. Think about your family, your partners, your staff, and your clients. They all are depending on you to be well.
  • Wellness requires keeping your body, mind, and spirit in shape.
  • Find accountability partners–a fitness group, an instructor, or a class.
  • No results + excuses ≠ results.
  • There are 24 hours in a day. You have the time.
  • Do it now. If not now, when?

This article began with Daniel Webster’s quote about lawyers living well, working hard, and dying poor. I hope you will reflect on your own wellness, and the competing notions of living well and achieving wellness will become one for your benefit, for your clients, and for the people who are depending on you. The work will always be hard, but achieving wellness is the best way to manage the demands of this profession. Maybe the work won’t be as hard if you’re willing to fight as hard for your own wellness as you are for your clients. And if you do, no matter what you have in the bank, you won’t die poor.

By R. Champ Crocker

Champ Crocker is a member of the United States Supreme Court Bar, the Alabama State Bar, the Birmingham Bar Association, and the Cullman County Bar Association. He earned his J.D. from Samford University, Cumberland School of Law and his B.A. from Vanderbilt University.

This column appears in the November 2019 Issue of The Alabama Lawyer  magazine.