A Cause Well Worth It

Colorado law schools discuss planned lawyer wellness initiatives

Last year was an important one regarding lawyer well-being with Colorado’s Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, having launched a new self-assessment program for law firms and counsel Jim Coyle’s role in the development of a national report on wellness. And although lawyer well-being isn’t a new topic, it appears the law schools have taken the message to heart to carry the heightened focus on attorney wellness into 2018 with new programs and initiatives.

“It’s just knowing that you’re not the only one, because it all boils down to that competitiveness,” said Andrea Maciejewski, a second-year student at the University of Colorado Law School. She has helped take the lead on the school Student Bar Association’s Wellness Initiative and said she hopes the initiative helps to reduce the stigma associated with getting help in times of stress. 

Maciejewski said she first started thinking about plans for the initiative at the end of her first year. She took an interest in attorney wellness after attending an unrelated lecture where a professor said looking at a firm’s programs for improvement can tell a lot about its ethics.

“I started thinking about that in conjunction with student wellness, because there are always rumblings among professors and the administration about [student health],” Maciejewski said. “But from what I could see at the time, there wasn’t anything obvious that was happening. So I figured it makes sense to start just really committing to it.” Maciejewski said a few other student leaders have taken the charge with her on the wellness initiative.

They plan for the Wellness Initiative to lead programs such as Wellness Week in the spring, in order to encourage law students to take advantage of the myriad health resources and professionals the university offers. 

Maciejewski said she hopes she and her fellow leaders can build the Wellness Initiative, which has existed in the past, into a strong program that remains in place even after they leave the school by having the administration closely involved.

“What we tried to to is build it in such a structure that it’s with the school, not with the students,” she said.

The law schools’ newest initiatives come on the heels of a national report on lawyer wellness, “The Path to Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” which contained 44 recommendations for different stakeholders in the legal profession, including advice to de-emphasize alcohol at social events. 

CU Law School senior assistant dean Whiting Leary said the law school has strongly supported that sentiment for student events even before the report came out. 

“Some of my learning on that actually came from students who are in recovery, so they’re sober,” said Leary. “And when there’s alcohol at everything, it doesn’t just reinforce it being part of the culture, but it also can be alienating for people who do not drink.”

According to a 2016 study often referenced in the national report, 25 percent of surveyed law students qualified as “at risk” for alcoholism, and 17 percent suffered from depression. Forty-three percent reported having binge-drank in the previous two weeks.

“As a dean, one feels a profound sense of responsibility and care for your academic community,” said Bruce Smith, dean of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. He said he has taken an interest in lawyer well-being for many years, and he called the prevalence of binge drinking a “worrisome and revealing finding.” He said he was pleased to see alcohol abuse addressed in the national report, and it has been important to Smith as a dean to not contribute to that challenge.

“It’s not that I view myself as a person who is trying to take the moral high ground,” he said. “It’s just that we wanted to recalibrate the tone and the orientation” of law school culture.

Smith said that while the risky behaviors detailed in the report didn’t necessarily surprise him, what he found refreshing was the report’s collaborative approach to taking responsibility for well-being challenges in the legal profession. 

The recommendations it offered were directed toward attorneys, educators, jurists, mental health professionals and other experts, and Smith said other reports often seem to place the responsibility solely on law schools for addressing problems.

“There is a responsibility here for all aspects of the legal profession,” he said.

Smith’s plans to continue addressing lawyer wellness at DU go beyond alcohol abuse. He hopes to make substantial investments in initiatives that address professional fulfillment, such as programs that provide public-interest opportunities for law students who might otherwise shy away from the sector because of the difficulty of breaking in or loan debt. 

Smith added he also wants to focus on helping students develop professional competencies such as control over their schedules, projects or work environment.

He said an important question to ask students is “how do you want to live your professional life?” 

Though law students and practicing attorneys can experience many of the same stressors, Maciejewski said the competitiveness of law school seems to exacerbate stress to an extent practicing attorneys may not experience because of the pressure to achieve the best grades and get the best jobs.

“The more competitive the school becomes, the more I see that as a problem,” she said. “I think as we go up in ranking, as students come in smarter, brighter [and] more passionate about what they do, they also are more aware of the fact that they have to do better than the person next to them. 

And so it affects how we treat others and how we treat ourselves, and how we go about our day to day.”

Maciejewski added she believes other law schools should develop wellness initiatives of their own, saying it’s important to tackle well-being and instill healthy habits before people start practicing law.

“It doesn’t make sense to try and treat the problem at that point,” she said. “We need to start with our students … when they’re really learning how to be attorneys from the beginning. … Part of this project is making our community of attorneys better.” 

—Julia Cardi

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