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Penn Law to launch unique pilot program incorporating attorney well-being into Professional Responsibility curriculum

November 29, 2018

In January 2019, the University of Pennsylvania Law School will launch a groundbreaking pilot program that will incorporate a session on attorney well-being into every section of the mandatory Professional Responsibility course. The first such program at a top law school, this curricular module will expose students to the latest data about risks to health and career satisfaction among practicing lawyers, and equip them with tools to promote awareness and well-being in their future careers.

Penn Law is launching this pilot in response to series of 2017 recommendations from the American Bar Association, which addressed the burgeoning levels of stress, depression, and substance abuse within the legal profession. The ABA report, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” announced the formation of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being, and quoted former ABA president David R. Brink, saying: “Lawyers, judges and law students are faced with an increasingly competitive and stressful profession. Studies show that substance use, addiction and mental disorders, including depression and thoughts of suicide — often unrecognized — are at shockingly high rates.” 

Developed by Jennifer Leonard L’04, Penn Law’s Associate Dean for Professional Engagement and Director of the Center on Professionalism, and John Hollway C’92 MAPP ’18, Associate Dean and Executive Director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, the class sessions will emphasize the importance of lawyers’ health and wellbeing and discuss how it intersects with their professional responsibilities and ethical obligations to employers and clients.

“We take seriously our obligation to prepare our students for the realities of practice and to graduate attorneys into the profession who are equipped to serve the many clients who will depend on them,” said Leonard. “We are proud to pilot this program to better educate our students about the stressors inherent in our profession and to support their development of evidence-based behaviors to respond to that stress.”

 “Penn Law has always been focused on helping our students thrive as law students and throughout their careers as lawyers,” Hollway said. “The ABA’s Report underscores that well-being and developing the skills to manage stress and setbacks are essential to the ethical practice of law. We view these as life skills useful to our students, their families, and their clients today, tomorrow, and for the rest of their careers and lives.”

These interactive sessions will begin with a presentation of data on lawyer and law student health, and then explore topics like work engagement versus burnout, stress, resilience and growth mindset orientation, and substance abuse. The sessions will also prompt law students to reflect on their own stress responses in previous professional and personal situations.

With the support of Penn Law faculty and staff, students will develop personally-tailored plans to support and sustain their health across eight dimensions — physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, intellectual, social, environmental and occupational — once they enter legal practice. Throughout the class sessions, faculty will emphasize lawyers’ ethical obligations to better care for their health and well-being so that they are fully competent and able to serve their clients’ best interests. Students will also learn how data-driven approaches to improving health and well-being can make them better lawyers by supporting better executive focus, decision-making, and problem-solving skills.

“At Penn Law we are committed to helping our students succeed both in their first jobs after graduation and throughout their careers, said Ted Ruger, Penn Law’s Dean and the Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law. “To flourish in the law, as in life, we lawyers must be attentive to our own physical and mental health, and aim to develop awareness of risk factors that threaten our well-being as well as of solutions and techniques that can help.”

Ruger added: “I am pleased that our Professional Responsibility faculty and my senior staff colleagues at the Law School are so enthusiastic in implementing and supporting this important curricular innovation, which forms a core part of a broader suite of programming on wellness and professional development at Penn Law. We stand with the ABA in believing that attorneys’ well-being is an important element of their professional responsibility to their clients and to the broader profession, as well as to themselves.”