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Lawyer Wellness Q&A with Julie Norris

By Maximillian (Max) H. Matthies posted 06-15-2021 00:22


Julie Norris is the chief attorney development officer at Honigman LLP, where she leads attorney professional development initiatives aimed at career growth and development. Julie answers questions about lawyer wellness.

Many of the nation's largest firm have already signed on to support the ABA Well Being Pledge, and Honigman was one of the initial signers. Can you talk a little bit about why, well before lawyer wellness was sort of in the Zeitgeist, Honigman decided to sign the ABA pledge?

Sure, it's one of my favorite things to talk about because there is nothing more important than our attorneys’ health and well-being, and wellness has been a foundational principle of my professional development offerings. Deciding to participate as one of the inaugural signatories of the ABA Well Being Pledge, and the first Michigan law firm to do so, was a relatively easy decision. It felt natural to say yes, and David Foltyn, the CEO of the firm, was immediately supportive.

Was this in response to anything happening at the firm?

No. I’ve always thought that the key to exceptional attorney performance is to look at the attorney in a holistic way, going well beyond developing specific legal or client service skills. Well-being is a crucial aspect to the ability to perform at the highest levels. Wellness is not only a key to getting the work done but also makes innovation and endurance possible. That’s what today’s legal practice requires. So that's what motivated me to sign on.

The ABA toolkit points out that there is a business case for having wellness culture in law firms.  A healthy lawyer is a good and productive lawyer  Do you agree?

Absolutely, there is a very direct connection.  Doing the right thing is aligned with doing the smart thing.

The pledge involves more than just a signature. It involves seven core areas law firms should focus on and then identifies steps to take to achieve those goals. What are some of the steps that Honigman has taken to achieve these wellness and health goals?

I'd like to divide the answer to address pre-COVID and during/after COVID because the whole world is divided into those two timeframes right now.   Before the pandemic, I found the pledge helpful because it provided a checklist of sorts, a guide to the many different possibilities for wellness initiatives.  I had systematically chosen programming using the pledge’s seven steps as a guide.  For example, we started with disrupting the status quo of alcohol-based social events, both with our summer associates, where I thought it was particularly important, and also with other attorney social events. For the summer associates, we introduced a series of activities like kayaking, cooking, and touring Detroit, which had nothing to do with drinking, but still had people interacting in order to build relationships that would serve them at work.  In addition, for larger social events, we began offering “mocktails,” which provided a fun alternative drink with no alcohol. We held a contest to develop a Honigman signature drink by preparing three different recipes. The attorneys voted for a ginger flavored mocktail, which we began offering regularly. That was fun and was effective in making the point that that you don't have to drink alcohol in order to participate in social events.  

Are you collaborating with any resources out in the community to help check off the goals in the pledge?

Absolutely. We have engaged mental health experts who provide confidential counseling on substance usage and other challenging life situations. We also engaged an outside consultant to facilitate a digital health workshop, which focused on how we use our electronic devices, our phones, iPads, social media, etc. It addressed people’s daily habits and how to make small shifts in those habits in order to create a healthier balance.

What other actions has Honigman been taking?

We implemented a weekly meditation program. It started out with meditation vans parked outside on Detroit’s streets.  We'd walk a minute or two outside the office to get to the van and have a guided meditation for 10 minutes before returning to work. When that vendor sold their business, we moved to a weekly, remote meditation program, which enabled us to expand to all seven offices across Michigan and in Chicago. That change enabled us to continue the meditation program seamlessly during the pandemic.

Do you know of any other law firms doing meditation on a regular basis? 

Not that I know of.  Last summer, our summer program was 100 percent remote, and we did a six-week resilience boot camp for the summer associates and plan to repeat it this summer.

I also developed a year-long leadership training program for our new equity partners, and the program includes a substantial module on health and well-being, so that these ideas are baked right into the leadership core competencies.

When the pandemic struck and it became clear that we and the rest of the world were going to be radically affected, we recognized that our attorneys would need to hear from leadership more often in order to stay grounded and be informed. In response, we established frequent town hall meetings during which our CEO, our vice chair, our COO, and I spoke openly about how the pandemic was impacting the business. Our general counsel began sending frequent written communications aimed at morale building by offering humorous historical facts and discussions about upcoming holidays.  These interactions have helped to lighten the mood and create a feeling of connection. In order to address feelings of isolation that can come from working at home, I recently reengaged the consultant who had presented on digital wellness to teach a “Courage to Connect” workshop. Seven practice groups signed up and connected with each other on a deeper level, which I think will have long-lasting impact.

Last May was the first Lawyer Wellbeing Week, and we fully participated in that by publicizing the public workshops and supplementing with Honigman-specific programming. After the pandemic struck, we also started parenting affinity groups. I have had enormous empathy for our parents of young children who are working and taking care of their kids at the same time. It was enormously difficult. The affinity groups were organized based on the ages of the children and met twice a month. We have also expanded what we call the Workstyles Program, which offers a generous stipend for home office technology. It now includes the ability to use the funds for tutoring for kids and for technology for kids in order to support our working parents. We also expanded the Workstyles Program to some of our nonattorney staff.

Have there been any obstacles you’ve had to overcome in fostering an attitude of wellbeing at Honigman?

I think the primary stumbling block is the nature of the work itself. And the fact that client expectations are real, they're crucial, so there are times when self-care is going to have to take a temporary back seat. The primary stumbling block is that this is a demanding profession. And that's not going to change or go away.  Working from home has made it easier in some ways because it reduces time spent commuting, for example, but in some ways, it has increased the pace of work and lengthened the hours. Clients know that you’re home, you're not traveling, you're not anywhere else.

How do you encourage work-life balance when you don’t have the physical separation between the two?

It’s so easy for everything to seep together when you're working from home. In response to this, we have created some intranet sites on our HR website and on our professional development website with COVID resources that have work from home tips, parenting resources, as well as art and literature, and other kinds of renewal opportunities.

Do you have any recommendations or suggestions on how lawyers and law firms can actively pursue health and wellness measures?

My advice is to decide it's a priority. We don't have time to do everything, but we have time to do the most important things. And if you decide that it's one of the most important things, then it gets done. I often ask, “What's the one habit that if you could change would make the biggest impact on your health?” Usually people can zero right in on that thing and take action.