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Culture of lawyer wellness takes hold in Virginia

wellness_mainHOT SPRINGS – Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons appeared before the Virginia Bar Association in January 2018, shortly after he had appointed a Virginia Committee of Lawyer Well-Being.

The state program was an analogue to a national task force of which Lemons had been a member. The purpose: to promote lawyer wellness in the legal profession in Virginia.

He said at the time that study after study indicated that lawyers were at greater risk for alcohol and substance abuse, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Lemons said that there needed to be “culture shift” within the legal profession.

Lawyers need to work to live, rather than live to work, he added.

Supreme Court Justice William C. Mims, who was tapped by Lemons to chair the Virginia effort, has been busy in the past 18 months, working to engage lawyers and share methods to achieve wellness. He also was active in seeking rule changes to encourage and promote wellness.

Mims gave a progress report on his group’s success and accomplishments at a presentation at the Virginia Bar Association meeting July 26.

The sought-after culture change has been achieved, he said. “We no longer are reactive” when it comes to wellness, he added.

He listed some of the achievements of the past year and a half:

TWO STUDIES. Two substantial studies of lawyer wellness in Virginia have been completed.

The Supreme Court’s committee put together its findings.

And Newport News lawyer Leonard C. Heath, who served as president of the Virginia State Bar for 2018-19, made wellness his signature issue for his year in office. The VSB published a lengthy report earlier this spring.

LAW SCHOOLS.  One of the committee’s four work groups focuses on law schools and bar admission. Mims said that wellness is now a topic that is included in the first days of law school, at orientation. And when students are applying for the bar, there is no stigma for having received counseling or any professional help during school, he said.

RULE 1.1. New Comment 7 was added to Rule 1.1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, Mims noted. It provides that a lawyer’s mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing impacts his or her ability to represent clients and make responsible choices in law practice.

The Comment states that maintaining the mental, emotional, and physical ability

necessary for client representation is an important aspect of maintaining one’s competence as a lawyer.

CLE CREDIT.  Lawyers now may get two of their 12 annually required continuing legal education credits in lawyer wellness topics, he said. Virginia CLE will provide two hours of wellness CLE for free.

RETIREMENT WITH DIGNITY. A recommendation for the VSB Committee on Lawyer Discipline was adopted by the Supreme Court: A lawyer who is subject to an impairment investigation by the VSB office of bar counsel can elect to transfer permanently to disabled or retired status, avoiding an adjudication of “impaired” and allowing “retirement with dignity.”

TWO LEOS.  Two different legal ethics opinions on wellness have been produced by the bar and approved by the high court. LEO 1886 provides the duties of a managing or supervisory lawyer in a firm where there is a lawyer who suffers from impairment but who has not yet committed misconduct or been a risk to a client. And LEO 1887 addresses lawyers over whom no one has supervisory authority.

WELLNESS ASSESSMENT. This spring the Supreme Court adopted a $30 wellness assessment for all active members of the VSB. This money will help to expand Lawyers Helping Lawyers, which has been retooled and renamed the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program.

Mims said that previously LHL had a budget of about $250 thousand a year. With the money provided by the assessment, the new JLAP will have an annual budget of $775 thousand a year.

JLAP will be able to open 100 more cases a year than previously, and the program will be able to have six employees working in three offices to help judges and lawyers with issues.

Mims said he knows some lawyers may not like paying the extra $30, and he added, if you have to blame someone, “Blame me.”

But he noted the money was necessary.

“In a self-regulated profession, we truly are our brothers’ keepers,” he said.