Supporting Lawyer Well-being with Animal Assisted Interventions

Brooks, a white woman with long, light brown hair, wears a white shirt and light blue blazer.By Elizabeth “Brooks” Savage 

The legal profession is in the midst of an occupational health crisis — particularly with regard to mental health. In 2016, the American Bar Association founded the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, which subsequently published a report that utilized research from a study of mental health and substance use disorders among lawyers. This report summarized study findings that revealed “approximately 28 percent, 19 percent, and 23 percent [of lawyers] are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.” Additionally, “suicide, social alienation, work addiction, sleep deprivation, job dissatisfaction, a ‘diversity crisis,’ complaints of work-life conflict, incivility, a narrowing of values so that profit predominates, and negative public perception” were reported. Psychosocial hazards associated with practicing law are negatively impacting lawyer well-being, and Animal Assisted Interventions (“AAIs”) can help.

Animal Assisted Interventions within the justice system have been on the rise in recent years, particularly to provide psychological and emotional support for clients and other third parties. For example, it is becoming more common to pair therapy animals with witnesses who have experienced trauma and are testifying in court settings. AAIs can also be used to support individual lawyer wellbeing and address mental health disparities in the legal profession.

AAIs promote physical, cognitive, social, and emotional well-being. Examples of AAI benefits include companionship and reduced feelings of loneliness, improved communication skills and social relationships, lowered cortisol levels (the “stress hormone”), reduction in aggressive behavior, increased physical activity, lowered blood pressure and reduced heart rate, and increased confidence and self-esteem.

There are many different types of assistance animals associated with AAIs, but all tend to have a common thread — to provide human health benefits and support well-being. Listed below are the various AAI roles that animals can have:

  • Activity Animals – Activity animals provide engagement, recreation, and comfort for a group of persons, and are commonly utilized in hospitals, hospice, nursing homes, schools, and workplace settings.
  • Therapy Animals – Therapy animals provide goal-oriented support for a group of persons and/or individuals and tend to assist in settings such as legal proceedings, rehabilitation, physical therapy, speech therapy, education, and counseling.
  • Household Pet – Household pet animals can provide health benefits in the form of companionship, routine maintenance, and therapeutic support. In fact, simply engaging with and petting an animal can trigger the release of hormones that promote relaxation and reduce stress.
  • Emotional Support Animals (“ESAs”) – As the name implies, ESAs provide comfort and emotional support for an individual; they are commonly associated with alleviating symptoms of health conditions that affect mood, behavior, and emotional regulation.
  • Service Animals – Service Animals are individually trained to perform tasks for a person with a disability; types of service animals vary depending on the disability and tasks involved.

In a profession riddled with stress and negative health triggers, how exactly can we engage in AAIs to support lawyer well-being?

On an individual level, lawyers can consider their individual health needs and evaluate whether having a household pet or emotional support animal would benefit them. Lawyers who are experiencing difficulties with stress, motivation, and loneliness may find that an animal can help overcome negative feelings, improve daily routines, and promote overall wellness. If a lawyer has a disability, a service animal may be a beneficial option to provide disability-related tasks that will support daily living needs.

For law firms and legal employers, lawyer health and well-being should be an utmost priority. In considering the population health needs of employees, legal employers can evaluate whether engaging with an activity or therapy animal would help improve lawyer well-being in the workplace. AAIs in the workplace can aid in overcoming social isolation and disengagement, and enhance overall workplace satisfaction — essentially “boosting” the collective mood in a workplace environment. AAIs can also be helpful for navigating difficult interactions and conversations, particularly in moments of crisis. The method of AAI engagement can range from having a full-time, “in-house” assistance animal, to partnering with a local AAI-organization for periodic animal visitations. Employers can also consider modifying workplace policies and procedures to support lawyers who have, or would like to have, an assistance animal accompany them at work (this is targeted namely for ESAs and pets; various service animal laws protect a person with a disability’s right to be accompanied by their service animal in public and/or at their place of work).

As we continue to explore opportunities and solutions for improving lawyer health and well-being, the profession should not overlook the value of AAIs. It is this young lawyer’s hope that as our profession progresses, we reach beyond the traditional notions of lawyer support and expand well-being opportunities to commonly include our furry companions.

This article has been published for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. The perspectives and opinions contained within this article are those personally held by the author and should not in any way be considered as a reflection of or shared by the author’s employer.

Elizabeth “Brooks” Savage, Esq., MSPH is an Assistant General Counsel with the State of North Carolina where she practices disaster law with an additional focus on public health. She co-chairs the NCBA YLD Diversity & Inclusion Committee, is a member of the disability and LGBTQ+ communities, and is a service animal team with her service animal, Bailey.