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JLAP encourages lawyers to “connect” at virtual fall retreat

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Though Virginia has begun to reopen since COVID-19 caused businesses to shut down in March, people still are encouraged to stay at home and follow social distancing guidelines whenever possible.

Therefore, rather than cancel its yearly event entirely, the Virginia Judges & Lawyers Assistance Program will host the 16th Annual VJLAP Fall Retreat entirely online.

“Rates of addiction, anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, burnout and suicide are higher in the legal profession due to its unique occupational risks and stressors,” said Janet P. Van Cuyk, Tidewater Regional Program Manager of VJLAP. “These problems, when unaddressed, can impact an attorney’s competence and could result in violations of an attorney’s ethical obligations.”

The two-day retreat, which will be held on Sept. 17-18, will feature six wellness workshops for legal professionals with topics to include addiction, performance training and codependency in the workplace.

“Experts will take deeper dives into mental health and substance use issues that individuals may face, as well as occupational wellness on the larger scale of our legal profession,” said Margaret Ogden, wellness coordinator for the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Van Cuyk said that the online retreat seeks to promote “connection” among lawyers in recovery or to individuals experiencing anxiety and/or depression.

During a time of extreme isolation, “connection” is more important now than ever.

“The retreat’s six sessions are designed to educate participants about, improve the understanding regarding, address the impact of, and review the responses available to address the acute risks within the legal profession of experiencing concerns related to mental health or substance use disorders,” Van Cuyk said.

Ogden will be leading the first virtual event of the retreat, titled “Building a Better Workplace Wellness Initiative.” According to Ogden, many workplace wellness programs get a “bad rap” because they focus solely on physical fitness – such as step challenge or weight loss competitions – or take on a “one-size-fits-all” approach that doesn’t account for specific workplace risks.

Ogden will teach legal professionals how to incorporate wellness programs into their firms that focus more on mental and emotional health.

“As the research in well-being has improved, specifically as it comes to legal professionals, we can design initiatives that address lawyers’ emotional, occupational, social, spiritual, intellectual and yes, physical wellness in ways that are inclusive and evidence-based,” Ogden said.

When she was hired in 2019, Ogden said her position was focused intensely on outreach and facilitating stakeholder collaboration to address well-being in the legal profession. And, because her job required so much face-to-face interaction, a big part of her role was encouraging lawyers to minimize technology use when possible.

Ogden has since had to redirect this advice in the COVID-19 era.

“I am sometimes infuriated that I am encouraging attorneys to get out from behind our screens while I am myself trapped behind a screen,” Ogden said. “But finding creative ways to work wellness into our current limitations is a great channel for any frustrations.”

Though she was initially hesitant to jump into online events, Ogden has since become a proponent of virtual retreats and seminars. Primarily, she praises how much more affordable and flexible online events are for attorneys – especially for those who are adjusting to having their children at home full time.

“The VJLAP virtual fall retreat is free. You can attend from the comfort of whatever safe location you find yourself, and you can pop in and out of as many sessions interest you,” Ogden said. “Watching Justice [William C.] Mims speak about well-being while feeding your children lunch? Yes please! The future is now!”

Besides Mims, other speakers at the VJLAP Fall Retreat include Jim McCauley, VSB Legal Ethics Counsel; Jeremy Rakes of the Alabama Lawyer Assistance Program; and Lorie Hood, a disaster and crisis preparedness coach; and more.

The online event will be moderated by Tracy Winn Banks of Virginia CLE.

The topics we’ll be covering in the retreat have never been more pressing as lawyers are called upon to respond to the present moment with professionalism and resilience,” Ogden said. “I consider myself very lucky to work with the dedicated team at VJLAP and to be able to share their topical expertise with the rest of our profession.”