Breaking the Stigma: Prioritizing Well-Being in the Legal Industry
By Kelli Radnothy
May 2023

Establishing and maintaining a well-being practice is a heavy task for most professionals, but the legal industry presents some unique challenges. With the general high-stress nature of the job, the long hours, high stakes, impossible deadlines, emotional clients, and never-ending to-do lists, things become overwhelming quickly. Factoring in time for oneself on any given day, much less on a regular basis, seems impossible.

Over the course of the pandemic, we witnessed a rise in awareness of mental health and well-being in the workplace. After all, many of us were working in our homes, so there was a major boundary break between personal and professional space, catapulting many of us into a work-life cycle that quickly drained us of energy and mental capacity. The combination of isolation and high-stress projects quickly incubated feelings of despair and was a fast track to burnout for many of us.

One great outcome of the pandemic is that we’re seeing employers focus efforts on mental health resources and integrated workforce support. Both retention and recruitment considerations look quite different post-pandemic. Employers need to provide incentives for quality candidates to stay and must also offer attractive benefits for future quality candidates. We know the legal industry is here to stay. We also know the future of the legal industry looks vastly different from the legal industry of the past.

Fortunately, there are organizations creating impact in establishing sustainable well-being practices within the legal industry. These organizations are providing guidance for legal professionals in creating a more whole and intentional workplace. The Institute for Well-Being in Law is one of these organizations, formed in December 2020 to carry on the work of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. One of their campaigns aligns with the first week of May, which is Mental Health Awareness month, and is coined “Well-Being Week in Law.” I encourage you to peruse their website and dive into the wealth of resources they provide.

The fact this organization shifted to be inclusive of all legal professionals gets huge kudos from me. Acknowledging the value of all legal team members and equally celebrating the contributions made by all, attorney or not, enhances diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. These initiatives feed a healthy and whole workplace, enhancing the potential for well-being of all involved. Let’s continue shifting the mindset to see well-being as a core component of professional development and, ultimately, success. We must acknowledge that mental health is a pillar of wellness and, without intentional focus and commitment, mental health will continue to be overlooked.

In light of the guidance from the Institute for Well-Being in Law for the Well-Being Week in Law, I thought it would be fun to use their framework. They have provided numerous practical approaches to integrating well-being into our busy lives, as well as a variety of accessible resources for organizations and individuals. For Well-Being Week in Law, they’ve broken down components into five different categories or themes, then aligned them each with a day of the week. Identify which theme(s) most resonate(s) for you in this season, and then align it with a day(s) of the week. This will help establish a routine to prioritize your whole well-being.

Stay Strong – Physical Well-Being
Our physical health is often the first factor we think of when considering our own well-being. Ironically, it’s also the one factor we tend to ignore when things don’t seem right. It’s important to have a baseline to work from, mainly to know when to seek help, but also to know what feels good for our body. Ways to support our physical well-being may include:

  • Fueling the body and mind with nutritionally dense, whole foods
  • Engaging in regular activity and functional movements
  • Getting adequate amounts of sleep, rest, and recovery
  • Becoming aware of and listening to our body
  • Seeking professional care when necessary

Align – Spiritual Well-Being
Spiritual well-being often gets a bad rap. I think it’s the word spiritual. It’s as if spirit is a scary word or terrifying thought. Let’s flip the script here and instead appreciate spirit for equating to purpose. When we know our purpose or have purposeful intention, action is natural. I think of it as flexing and contracting my spirit muscle. When I’m fully in the zone, fully feeling my purpose to the core, my inner spirit is beaming with joy and gratitude. Participating in activities, both professionally and personally, that align with our interests and values helps bring meaning and purpose to life. Setting goals, assessing, re-assessing, and achieving goals all feed this spirit within. Don’t be afraid to tend to the spirit. You may be surprised by the outcome! Ways to support our spiritual well-being may include:

  • Meditation or journaling
  • Time in nature or outdoors
  • Practicing gratitude and reframing negative or critical internal dialogue
  • Exploring a new activity

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
– Howard Thurman

Engage & Grow – Occupational & Intellectual Well-Being
We’ve all heard the phrase before, “Never stop learning.” It is the truth, especially in the legal industry. In order to grow, we must seek knowledge and understanding. We must feel empowered to move out of the fixed mindset and into the growth mindset! Find activities that drive curiosity, provide satisfaction, create intellectual challenges, and foster creativity and intellect. Knowing ways to stimulate our intellect will create longevity in critical thinking and knowledge retention. Ways to support our intellectual well-being may include:

  • Ask questions to generate interest and spark curiosity.
  • Find a mentor or sponsor to help propel you along the path.
  • Engage in creative and/or intellectually-stimulating activities.
  • Identify your core values, ideal work setting, strengths, and weaknesses.
    • Enhance strengths.
    • Improve areas needing attention.

Connect – Social Well-Being
Connection is a basic human need that is both independent of and dependent on others for success. We look to connect with our community, to be needed within the group(s)s we are in, but we also need to connect with other humans on an individual level. Research is showing that loneliness correlates with other mental health concerns, highlighting how integral friendships are to our well-being. Having a strong support network has been shown to improve not only mental health but also physical health! The mind to body connection is real and cannot be denied, friends.
It’s important to cultivate strong connections inside and outside of work, no matter your experience level or age. Ways to improve connections and overall social well-being may include:

  • Practice active listening.
  • Get involved in your community.
  • Engage in an activity you enjoy, AND engage with others participating in the activity.
  • Make time regularly to listen to those who matter to you.
  • Reach out and connect with friends when they come to mind. It’s always nice to receive a hello from a good friend!

Feel Well – Emotional Well-Being
Garnering emotional intelligence is a lifelong practice. Learning to acknowledge and identify emotions, applying tools to process and manage emotions, and developing skills to express emotion in a healthy manner is work for all of us. No one is exempt from pain and suffering in the human experience, so practicing empathy and compassion, not only for others but for oneself, is essential to emotional well-being. Tapping into how we feel to make informed decisions ignites the mind to body connection, often making things you may have thought impossible possible. A few ways to support our emotional well-being may include:

  • Seeking counseling or therapy
  • Open communication with others about mental health to build trust, break stigma, and increase access to mental health resources
  • Practice positive self-talk. Would you talk to your closest friend this way? No. Then why talk to yourself in this manner?
  • Incorporate activities that bring you joy. Sometimes this is simply putting a smile on someone’s face.

We must break the stigma around mental health, especially in high-pressure working environments. Acknowledging that mental health is a pillar of well-being will allow for more focus on the wellness of the whole person. Our well-being is not a luxury! Well-being must be made a critical priority to support the whole being each and every one of us uniquely represents.