The Disciplinary Board as Regulator, Not Sanctioner: Advocating Wellness Practices to Avoid Misconduct

As part of a month-long campaign exploring lawyer well-being as misconduct prevention, the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is providing interesting insight and strategies to help promote wellness and reduce stress amongst lawyers. They have published 4 articles as part of this campaign:  

Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!

Why Does the Practice of Law Tend to Challenge Mental Health? frames the issue. The prevalence of mental health disorders and alcohol abuse, the article explains, is extremely high among those in the law profession. Pre-existing mental health issues are exacerbated by the stresses of law school and legal practice. As a generalization, the practice of law attracts type A, high achieving personalities, more likely to experience anxiety, stress, and depression. Given the long hours and significant pressures of the job, stress and burnout are exceedingly common. On top of that, the historical culture of law and its permissiveness towards heavy drinking exacerbate this issue. 

Legal Employers’ Role in Combatting Mental Health Stigma explains that education is key to addressing employee mental health. The Board suggests that law firms “offer frequent and diverse CLE programming on topics of wellness, mental health and substance use issues, stress management, and mindfulness”. Though these wellness initiatives are important, the article acknowledges that they alone they are not enough. Employers and leaders can take steps to improve employee mental health and work environment, including expressing appreciation, keeping workloads manageable and providing resources, transparency and an environment where employees feel safe expressing concerns.  

Preventative Wellness Strategies for the Legal Community explores humans’ response to stimuli and reaction to a given situation or stressor. Modifying our response to stress, it says, can help to prevent burnout. The article offers suggested techniques, including the practice of mindfulness and meditation.

Healthy Stress vs. Burnout: Recognizing Risk Factors for Attorney Disciplinary Action, discusses the difference between healthy stress and burnout. Healthy stress, it says, provides useful motivation. Burnout is “a chronic state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion precipitated by prolonged stress that an individual believes cannot be abated.” If left unaddressed, burnout can lead to substance abuse, depression, etc.

The Board’s wellness initiative is a healthy step forward away from a regulatory regime that only thinks “reactively” in terms of “discipline” and also thinks “proactively” to problem avoidance. Just as the maintenance of competence through continuing education is valued and promoted, the maintenance of an attorney’s mental and physical health should be considered equally important.