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:  

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.

With over 25+ years experience, Ellen Brotman began her career as a law clerk in the United States District Court, Southern District of New York. She has served as an Assistant Federal Defender in Philadelphia, PA and practiced in small, medium and large firms with a focus on criminal defense, appellate advocacy, professional responsibility and ethics. She has defended a wide variety of high-profile criminal cases, including political and public corruption, securities fraud, tax fraud, money laundering, currency structuring and other white-collar crimes involving complex trial, sentencing and appellate issues. Ms. Brotman also has extensive experience representing lawyers before the Disciplinary Board of Pennsylvania. She has been recognized as a Best Lawyer and SuperLawyer since 2007 in the area of criminal defense and has served on the boards of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She is the founder and owner of BrotmanLaw, Philadelphia, PA.

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