How to Communicate Your Policy on Self-Care

March 19, 2019

A recent call to action written by the Young Lawyer Editorial Board of The American Lawyer paints a sobering picture of the toxic cultures many young lawyers endure. By illuminating the connections among seemingly unrelated issues like impostor syndrome, profits per partner, and even the hesitancy to take bathroom breaks, this piece makes clear the need for serious reconsideration of working conditions older lawyers have taken as facts of life for a long time.

We’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the importance of providing marketing and communication support for younger lawyers to help them build their business and, indirectly, safeguard their mental health. But for law leaders who have seen the light on attorney mental health—who know something must be done to counter the staggering rates of suicide and substance abuse—thoughtful internal and external communication is key to showing you are serious about change.

What can you do?

Destigmatize terms like “self-care” right alongside practicing what they mean. Millennials have spent ten years or more as a punching bag, particularly in more conservative media, because their reputed sensitivity, need for feedback, and disinterest in convention material rewards makes them confusing, annoying, and even threatening to people from older generations. A term like “self-care”—which is really just a new way of saying work-life balance—often earns eye rolls from more senior lawyers who feel they “sucked it up” and endured, and younger lawyers should too. The problem is that the circumstances now really are different (hello hundreds of thousands in student debt, for starters), and “sucking it up” doesn’t work for everyone. It didn’t breed healthy habits then, and it doesn’t now. Lead by example in squelching contempt for self-care in office talk. Don’t indulge boasting about the good old days, because the good old days also meant exclusively white and male firms, full of men who drank way too much scotch and barely knew their children’s middle names. A call for self-care is not a sign of weakness. It is a rational response to unhealthy work cultures.

Articulate a firm policy on self-care. Lawyers should go to the funerals of people who mattered to them. They should stay home when they are sick or when their children are sick. They should find time to exercise, to eat three meals a day, to go to the doctor and, yes, to go to the bathroom when they need to. Young lawyers have internalized an idea that these things are not okay. They got it from somewhere. Make sure you are countering that message loud of clear.

Align your performance review process with your values—and then talk about it. Not even the most sophisticated communication strategy can save you if you are only paying lip service to more humane policies but continue to prize billable hours above all else, even your lawyers’ mental health. But most firms are exploring new ways to evaluate work, encourage collaboration, and compensate team members more fairly. So talk about what you’re doing, in both internal communications and recruiting material. Make it clear that your firm means what it says about valuing a balanced and healthy life.

Elevate and celebrate—and reward—lawyers in your firm who have enriching lives outside work. Showcase the ways they are active in their communities and engaged with activities that have nothing to do with bringing in new clients. Create an internal award or annual event. Foster formal and informal mentoring opportunities so that younger lawyers can connect with and learn from folks with more life perspective. It is not healthy for anyone to derive his or her entire identity from a single thing like work, but law firms have encouraged and rewarded that habit forever. And whatever you’re doing, talk about it, document it through pictures, through the firm’s internal newsletter. Communicate to your lawyers that you value them because of, not in spite of, the fact that they are also fully realized human beings.