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Integrating Wellbeing into Leadership Development Curricula

By R. Lisle Baker 1 and Candace Reed 2


A summary of some of the key points at a presentation at a Conference on Leadership Development for Lawyers:  Increasing our Impact, Roundtable on Leadership Development at the University of Tennessee College of Law, April 4-5, 2019


Psychology has long involved the study of how to help people in emotional difficulty get better, but more recently research out of the field of positive psychology has turned to how to help people flourish, focusing not only on getting well, but being well.

Indeed, a recent ABA report argued that well-being should be considered part of the lawyer’s duty of professional competence, which is even more important when lawyers act in leadership roles where they need to be at their best. 3

Unfortunately, that is not always the case. A 2016 study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs found that a third of practicing U.S. attorneys are problem drinkers; 28% of lawyers struggle with depression; and 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety.4 The 2016 Survey of Law Student Well-Being suggests that these problems may originate in law school, where nearly half of those law students surveyed admitted to regular binge drinking, 17% of respondents screened positive for depression, and more than one-third were diagnosed with anxiety.5

How can those of us in leadership development respond to these statistics?

 While it is important to acknowledge the problem and seek ways for those that need counseling help to get it, we can also look for ways to enhance lawyer and law student well-being.

Dr. Martin Seligman, former President of the American Psychological Association, has articulated five dimensions of well-being in his book Flourish, which he called PERMA, shorthand for Positive Emotions; Engagement; Positive Relationships; Meaning; and Achievement.6

We each teach courses at our law schools which draw on this framework, and if you are interested in ways to get started in your own courses, here are three topics and related exercises which can help enhance the PERMA elements of wellbeing for law students.

1. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.

Ask students to keep a journal each day for three weeks recording three things/events/people for which they are grateful and consider how they contributed to each item listed. Research indicates this exercise may help provide a balanced perspective and prompt students to begin looking for good things that they encounter every day (thereby increasing their positive-to-negative ratio of emotions).7

2. Celebrate with good news shared.  

Suppose a law student excitedly tells a friend, “I just got a clerkship!” There are four possible responses the student might receive: (a) “Oh, that’s nice.” (b) “You know those jobs do not pay well. How will you afford to take it with your student loans?” (c) “Did I tell you about the time I was a clerk?” and (d) “Congratulations! You must feel great!”

If a client told us good news, many of us might instinctively go to the second response to point out the pitfalls, but that is likely to be suboptimal in other relationships – like with a friend or a spouse – where research indicates that an “active constructive” response, like (d), works much better.8

3. Remember your strengths and your purpose.

A recent Gallup survey showed that American workers gained a boost in positive emotions and energy the more they used their strengths.9 Law students and lawyers can do the same so long as they are aware of their strengths. One way to begin is to ask them to write a short story (or positive introduction) about when they were at their best. Then ask them to share their stories with their classmates and ask the classmates to listen for the strengths that they display. They can complement these insights with a free character strengths questionnaire available at www.viacharacter.org, and then explicitly consider ways that they could use their top strengths to excel in law school or law practice.10 You can also ask students to prepare a “strengths resume” where they recall specific examples of how they have used their strengths well in the past.11

Finally, it is helpful to remind students about the sense of purpose that brought them into the law and a leadership role. Knowing the why, to paraphrase psychologist Viktor Frankl quoting Frederick Nietzche, can help make the how worthwhile.12

For more information, please see the endnotes below or contact the authors about their courses.


  1. Professor of Law, Suffolk University Law School, Master of Applied Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 2016, lbaker@suffolk.edu. Professor Baker teaches Positive Psychology for Lawyers and co-teaches Leadership and Character Strengths at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
  2. Professor of Law, Suffolk University Law School, Master of Applied Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, 2016, lbaker@suffolk.edu. Professor Baker teaches Positive Psychology for Lawyers and co-teaches Leadership and Character Strengths at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
  3. [1] Bree Buchanan et al., Nat’l Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being:   Practical Recommendations for Positive Change 39 (2017), available at https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportFINAL.pdf  [https://perma.cc/492J-CTXV]. See also https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/lawyer_assistance/ls_colap_well-being_toolkit_for_lawyers_legal_employers.authcheckdam.pdf.
  4. [1] See Patrick R. Krill et al., The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 J. Addiction Med.46, 46 (2016) (finding high rates of alcohol abuse, depression and anxiety among 12,825 employed attorneys surveyed).
  5. [1] See David Jaffe et al., Suffering in Silence:  The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns, 66 J. Legal Educ. 116, 144-45 (2016) (reporting results of Survey of Law Student Well-Being at fifteen law schools).
  6. [1] Martin E. P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being (2011).
  7. [1] Martin E.P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park, Christopher Peterson, Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions, 60 American Psychology 410 (2005); R. Lisle Baker, Designing a Positive Psychology Course for Lawyers, 51 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 207, 274 (2018): https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3271713.
  8. [1] Shelly L. Gable, Gian C. Gonzaga, Amy Strachman, Will You Be There for Me When Things Go Right? Supportive Responses to Positive Event Disclosures, 91 J. of Personality and Soc. Psychol. 904 (2006); R. Lisle Baker, Character and Fitness for Leadership: Learning Interpersonal Skills, 58 Santa Clara L. Rev. 525, 532-34 (2018): https://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/lawreview/vol58/iss3/5/.
  9. Asplund, J. (Sept. 27, 2012). When Americans Use Their Strengths, They Stress Less.
  10. [1] See generally Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004); Baker, Character and Fitness for Leadership: Learning Interpersonal Skills, supra n. 9, at 534-35.
  11. [1] See Baker, Designing a Positive Psychology Course for Lawyers, supra n. 8, at 227-33, 272-73, 277-78.
  12. [1] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (2006); See also Daniel S. Bowling III, Lawyers and Their Elusive Pursuit of Happiness: Does It Matter?, 7 Duke Forum for Law and Social Change 37 (2015); and Baker, Designing a Positive Psychology Course for Lawyers, supra n. 8, at 235-38, 277.