Putting Lawyers First

By Jeralyn Lawrence

The ability to advocate and to bring about change is infectious. The power to identify issues within the practice, to work collaboratively with all stakeholders and to present real solutions that are then acted upon and results achieved is incredibly rewarding. I thoroughly enjoy being part of a team that works hard to address issues that affect our lives and the comprehensive report by the Putting Lawyers First Task Force, it is a true testament to the power of collaboration and teamwork.

Ours is a hard and demanding profession. We have all read the statistics about the incredible number of attorneys who are depressed and anxious and too many of us have friends and colleagues who face these very real challenges every day. While we are all aware of the national headlines of the decline in attorney’s health and well-being, our investigation has confirmed that New Jersey lawyers are also suffering. We are a profession in crisis. Our attorney health and wellness working group conducted a survey where 1643lawyers responded. What that survey found was astonishing, scary and sad and the alarm bells are sounding.

Desmond Tutu once said: “we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.

At the beginning of my Presidency, I formed the Putting Lawyers First Task Force and presented this team of incredibly talented lawyers with the task of looking upstream to find out: Why are we falling in the river? What is the cause or the root of our stress? What can we do about this?

At a conference I attended, Chief Justice Rabner spoke of a book where people had grown comfortable living in an old, neglected house. If there was a leak in the roof, a bucket was placed under it or if there was a creaky floor, it was just stepped over. The Chief challenged the attendees to look deeper at the leaks and creaks and to be open to the possibility of change. I would ask the readers of this report to do the same when we look to areas that are making lawyers fall in the river of despair and to be open to real and meaningful change.

We know that the evolution of the business and practice of law and the ever-increasing demands from our clients will not slow down. Issues that are impacting attorney’s physical and mental health and well-being need to be addressed–ethics grievances and investigations, fee arbitrations, malpractice claims, not being paid in cases, not being relieved as counsel, dealing with negative, false and defamatory online reviews. These issues are some of the reasons lawyers are falling in.

“Putting Lawyers First” was an intentional name for this very important task force. Lawyers hardly ever, if ever, put themselves first. The court comes first, the client comes first, their firm comes first, their family comes first. Never us. We need to make sure we are also looking out for ourselves. While that may be difficult for us to do as we raise our families, run our practices and lead our lives, this is exactly the kind of mission we can embrace on behalf of the profession.

The Putting Lawyers First Task Force created working groups to investigate: attorney health and well-being, the ethics and fee arbitration process, malpractice, on-line reviews, getting relieved as counsel, getting paid in cases, and challenges for solo practitioners and those new to the profession. Each working group analyzed the positives, studied areas for improvement and made valuable recommendations for meaningful change. The goal of this report is to make an attorney’s life in the profession better and to provide the tools needed to survive and thrive in the ever-changing legal landscape.

First, change starts with us. Please consider doing your part to make this profession better. We all have difficulties and stress–even if it doesn’t appear that we do. It is imperative that we treat each other the way we want to be treated. That we are kind and that we are compassionate and show grace. It is critical to our collective health and wellness that we be good adversaries–good colleagues–and good to each other.

We are always under enormous pressure and always will be, but it will help the profession to take our needs seriously and find ways to make this practice better.

When the NJSBA mobilizes and puts its weight behind a challenge, it can be an impressive force. There is much work to do, and the work of the Putting Lawyers First Task Force sets forth a roadmap to lead our profession in a much better and healthier direction.

It has been a privilege and pleasure to form this Task Force and assemble it with the most dedicated and brilliant lawyers, all of whom are deeply and passionately committed to finding creative and constructive ways of Putting Lawyers First.

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