Create a Culture of Well-Being

Individual attorneys can take steps to advance their own mental wellness. They can engage in healthy lifestyles, limit the stresses in their personal and professional lives, and seek help when the need arises. When individual attorneys take steps to promote their own wellness, they simultaneously promote greater wellness in the legal profession.

Individual effort, however, is not enough, and the legal profession will not achieve wellness unless the organizations that employ lawyers also commit to wellness. While improving wellness across these organizations will likely be in their best economic interests, in the form of reducing turnover and increasing productivity, it will also make their organizations better places for their employees. It will also require those organizations to change.

Change does not occur in organizations without leadership. Less than half of all organization change efforts meet their long term goals. Most of the time, change efforts fail because of employee resistance and lack of management support. So the question becomes, “What are the actions that an organization must take to effectively change?”

Leaders in organizations are both the impetus for and drivers of culture change. Culturally the legal profession has been slow to embrace attorney wellness and has, at times, celebrated self-destructive tendencies, such as overwork and the ability to “power through” personal challenges. To break these cultural patterns, leaders in legal organizations cannot simply expect that change will occur without their active participation. Change is more likely to occur when leaders across the organization are willing to participate in the efforts for the betterment of a healthier whole.

Consequently, if an organization expects to promote change, its leaders must embrace a strategy that will allow it to forge a path to success. This path, derived from John Kotter’s book Leading Change should include:

  • Establishing a Sense of Urgency: As described throughout this document, attorney wellness is a crisis that the legal profession must confront. And, if it is a crisis throughout the profession, attorney wellness is a challenge that legal organizations must confront openly and honestly. Unfortunately many organizations, including legal organizations are change resistant. If the leadership does not clearly establish “why” it’s important for legal organizations to promote attorney wellness in a manner that can overcome complacency, particularly with mid and entry level attorneys, any subsequent efforts may fall short.
  • Creating the Guiding Coalition: Many efforts to promote attorney wellness fail to thrive, despite good intentions, because leaders in the organization have not established ongoing responsibilities and support for them. The leaders in the organization must lead change from the top, they must play an active role in supporting attorney wellness, and they must identify and charge the people who are going to lead the efforts to promote wellness. That guiding coalition must necessarily contain visible leaders in the organization, but it should also include others, such as those vested with human resources or managerial functions, who can enable success.[
  • Developing a Vision and Strategy: Attorneys are busy professionals who face competing demands for their time and attention. Unfortunately, it’s also true that many attorneys most in need of help are reluctant to admit it or seek it. To build empathy and shared purpose and overcome some of the tendencies that could prevent a wellness effort from taking hold, the guiding coalition must first develop a vision of what the organization hopes to achieve and then develop an ongoing strategy to implement the vision across the organization.
  • Communicating the Vision: Most organizations underestimate the challenge of implementing change and fail to account for this difficulty when communicating their vision. A coordinated communications strategy must first address the problems that prompted the organization to focus on attorney wellness and then provide ongoing messaging about both the ongoing commitment and resources that will be focused toward addressing the problem.
  • Empowering Broad Based Action: By their nature, many legal organizations are both hierarchical and siloed. In such an environment, attorney wellness runs the risk of becoming classified as another person or department’s “problem.” Breaking down the hierarchy, removing structural barriers, and thinking deliberately about how to empower people across the organization to work together to address attorney wellness creates broader-based support for a shared goal.
  • Generating Short Term Wins: Most change efforts fail because they never start. Many organizations announce their ambitions and pledge to address a problem and then set to work figuring out how to address it. A better strategy recognizes that change is incremental and identifies some short-term wins that the organization can claim and highlight. This strategy allows the organization to maintain interest in solving the problem, demonstrate to skeptics that progress can occur, and sets the foundation for additional efforts.
  • Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change: Attorney wellness is a multifaceted problem, and the strategy for promoting attorney wellness must therefore be multifaceted as well. During the process, it’s important to take a step back and assess progress on multiple fronts, consolidate the gains that have been made across the organization, communicate them, and use them as the impetus for making more change.
  • Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture: As described above, leaders play a vital role in creating and sustaining organizational culture, and attorney wellness efforts risk becoming short lived if they do not become part of the organization’s culture. Leaders must continuously renew the focus on attorney wellness, demonstrate that it is consistent with the organization’s best business interests, and invest stakeholders across the organization in building attorney wellness into the organization’s ongoing business practices.


ActionChallenge Level
1.      Recruit committed leaders
 High level leaders and managers in all types of legal organizations need to be involved from the beginning. A staff member, or a committee with “power” people and champions, should be designated as the well-being coordinator for the organization. In law firms, equity owner buy-in is critical to demonstrate personal commitment to well-being.
2.      Define well-being in your organization.
 Reach a consensus with as much lawyer and staff input as possible on what constitutes well-being within the culture of the organization.  Track the suggested areas contained in this template.  Create any new areas deemed important.
3.    Identify priorities to address as an organization.
 Analyze the gaps between the defined well-being environment from Recommendation #2 and the current firm environment.
4.      Create a well-being action plan.
 Consider the following recommendations in your action plan:
The elimination or modification of existing policies that may be barriers to well-being.
The creation of new policies to promote well-being.
Provide training and education on attorney well-being and include during new lawyer orientation.
Include general engagement with internal well-being programs in performance reviews.
Ask about any well-being issues during exit interviews.
Support all staff members in their personal well-being plans.
Inform attorneys of the resources offered by the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program (COLAP),