BY JENNIFER THOMPSON
Have you seen the movie Encanto? I’m a big Disney fan and have three kids, so it’s pretty much been on repeat in my house since December. Lin-Manuel Miranda created the soundtrack, so there’s that, too. One song that is particularly poignant is “Surface Pressure.” It tells the story of Luisa, the physically strong sister who uses her strength to carry the weight of all of her family’s burdens, but is silently being crushed by it all: “I’m the strong one, I’m not nervous / I’m as tough as the crust of the earth is.”
Luisa goes on to sing about how because she’s so strong, you should just give it all to her—all your burdens, worries, pressures.
Give it to your sister, it doesn’t hurt
And see if she can handle every family burden
Watch as she buckles and bends but never breaks
Sound familiar to anyone? It sounds to me like a lot of lawyers I know. Our profession begs clients to let us shoulder the burdens weighing on them, to take their problems from them and let us work to solve them. We take their worries and fears and make them our responsibilities. We’re the strong ones. We marshal law and facts to move mountains for our clients. We buckle. We bend. We don’t break. No mistakes.
Luisa then sings honestly about the cost of this super-human strength: “Pressure like a drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop, whoa / Pressure that’ll tip, tip, tip ‘till you just go pop, whoa.”
Wow. Yeah, I’ve felt this kind of pressure and from the conversations I’ve had with other lawyers, I think a large portion of our profession has, too. Is it any wonder that the study by the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation (the ABA Well-Being Study) found that our profession is grappling with serious barriers to well-being? And this was before you added in two years of a pandemic; back-logged caseloads; isolation from family, friends, and co-workers; increased household responsibilities; a racial reckoning; social unrest; a war.
The Minnesota Supreme Court’s Call to Action for Lawyer Well-Being cited the ABA Well-Being Study as its impetus. The ABA study asked major stakeholders in the legal profession—like bar associations—to take “small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession.”
(National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being Report, Aug. 2017, at https://lawyerwellbeing.net.)
The MSBA accepted the Supreme Court’s call to action. One of the ways it did so was by convening the Parental Leave Working Group. During the 2020-2021 bar year, the working group undertook great efforts to study the intersection between workplace pressures that undermine lawyer well-being (including court deadlines) and written parental leave policies, all with an eye toward developing recommended changes to the Rules of General Practice, Rules of Civil Procedure, and Rules of Appellate Procedure. The result of the working group’s efforts is a petition that the MSBA filed with the Minnesota Supreme Court in February 2022 to implement such changes to the court rules.
Change in how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated is change that requires much thought and careful consideration. In developing its recommended rule changes, the MSBA was committed to fairly, reasonably, and professionally balancing multiple (and often competing) interests, including lawyer well-being, judicial resources, and client interests. Lawyers who are empowered to take personal leave when it is necessary are not only doing good for themselves; they are doing good for their clients. Rules that require lawyers to seek input from their clients before seeking leave (as the proposed amended rules do) help remind lawyers of their ethical responsibility to keep their clients informed and engaged in their representation. And rules that uniformly and clearly outline how cases are to be handled during periods of leave create consistency and serve the profession’s interest in equity, as well as clients’ interest in a level playing field.
Lawyer well-being is a serious issue and to fully address it requires systemic changes in our profession. Tips on how to manage one’s inbox, set boundaries with clients, and incorporate yoga into your daily routine are all helpful, but they place responsibility on the individual for solving (or, perhaps better said, working within) the toxicity that exists in our profession. That is not fair, and those types of personal changes alone cannot solve the issue. The MSBA has taken a step to change how law is practiced and thereby to improve incrementally the well-being of our profession. It is on all of us to continue to look for meaningful ways to do so—the Supreme Court, after all, has called us all to action. And there is hope, as Luisa sings, that if we “could shake the crushing weight of expectations / Would that free some room up for joy / Or relaxation or simple pleasure?” I’ll save some popcorn and a seat on the couch for you and we can find out together.
JENNIFER THOMPSON is a founding partner of the Edina construction law firm Thompson Tarasek Lee-O’Halloran PLLC. She has also served on the Minnesota Lawyer Mutual Insurance Company board of directors since 2019.