So that lawsuit we knew was coming has landed.

According to a report last week by Above the Law, Dentons is facing a $25 million lawsuit filed in Calgary by a client that had paid over $34 million to the firm over the last 10 years, primarily in connection with the sale of a division to a private equity firm.

The Venning Group alleges that both Dentons and its partner Shane Stevenson told them that soon after the sale, the partner would come in-house at the Venning Group, and in anticipation of the move, Stevenson became involved as a shareholder or director in a number of Venning’s companies, issuing shares to himself in some instances “without the knowledge or consent of the plaintiffs” and on terms that “were not fair and reasonable to the Venning Group.”

“Dentons and Stevenson represented to [Venning] that it was standard industry practice to grant legal counsel equity participation in the companies for whom they acted,” the lawsuit states.

Citing the failure of Dentons to recommend that the client get independent legal advice in relation to these transactions, the lawsuit claims self-dealing, conflict of interest, and gross over-billing.

Problematic enough. But here’s the part that particularly interests us. Additionally, the complaint alleges that Stevenson has an ongoing substance abuse problem–alcohol and cocaine–that Dentons was aware of. But the firm nevertheless failed to properly supervise his legal work and did not warn Venning that the work done for them by Stevenson might be tainted by his use of drugs.

To add some color to those allegations, evidently the firm had sent Stevenson to multiple stays in a rehabilitation facility and was aware that his substance abuse was re-emerging. Stevenson was charged in 2009 with two separate incidents of impaired driving that were later dropped. And in 2018, he was arrested on charges of impaired driving (with a very high blood alcohol level) in a hit-and-run incident that left a 16-year-old girl dead. His trial is scheduled for October.

“Stevenson was providing advice to the Venning Group while under the influence of intoxicants and narcotics including alcohol and cocaine,” the lawsuit states. Venning Group claims that Dentons owed a duty to Venning to monitor the work Stevenson was doing “given Stevenson’s known substance abuse history and to warn [Venning] they should not rely upon Stevenson’s advice.”

So this is a lawsuit brought in Canada, in the province of Alberta, whose laws we will not opine on. And the level of both addiction and firm awareness of the partner’s issues seems particularly high.

But the 2016 ABA/Hazelden study made it very clear that in the United States the number of seriously impaired lawyers practicing law is heart-stopping: over a third are suffering from substance abuse alone, with depression, anxiety and other emotional conditions magnifying the numbers. Not to mention the effects generated by the increasing use of marijuana and other “light” drugs. All of which geometrically expands the number of claims of professional malfeasance and mismanagement that clients may well be able to make against individual lawyers and their deep-pocket firms.

Of course, Dentons intends “to mount a vigorous defen[s]e to these allegations.”

But the most aggressive and impactful response would be to acknowledge the massive amount of impairment among practitioners today and proactively put in place programs to systemically recognize and support the recovery of those individuals before they tank their own fortunes and those of their firms.

Firms cannot put their heads in the sand when it comes to impaired lawyering. There is too much data out there and the stakes are too high. And unfortunately, so is the level of impairment.

 

An interesting confluence is happening in the area of mental health. Technology is offering ways to recognize mental health issues that could benefit from remediation and also paths along which help can be delivered. And lawyers are in need of just such assistance.

Our last post was about CIMON, the first autonomous free-floating astronaut-assistant robot aboard the U.S. space station, which is programmed to “detect and help alleviate . . . the social issues” that can arise in such close quarters.

Many law firms have the same objectives, particularly in light of devastating data about the emotional state of legal practitioners and the health and liability risks posed. Among the most pro-active firms is Reed Smith, which has launched a global Mental Health Task Force to help address those issues.

“The mission of this task force is to ensure that our lawyers and professional staff have access to help whenever they or their family members experience or are at risk of experiencing mental health or substance use issues,” according to Partner Kimberly Gold, who will serve as the inaugural chair.

The problem that arises profession-wide, however, is the difficulty in identifying who is having those issues and which issues they are having. Lawyers tend to be closed-mouth, particularly when regarding their own vulnerabilities, and supervisors are no more likely to “rat” on their supervisees. “Full steam ahead until death (or disability) do we part” tends to be the unspoken slogan.

Reed Smith recognizes that problem, noting their intention to “cultivate a workplace culture that promotes psychological wellness and positive help-seeking behaviors” and “to develop a comprehensive strategy for assessing and addressing these outcomes.”

That culture and those strategies are in fact the keys to a healthier, more productive legal workforce. And technology may be able to play a part, particularly given that other attempts at reculturations and new strategies have not be able to crack the nut.

A recent article in Time, “Artificial Intelligence Could Help Solve America’s Impending Mental Health Crisis,” is aimed at expanding tools for psychiatrists, who in the near future are likely to be too few in number to care for all those who need them. Artificial intelligence (AI) offers the tantalizing prospect of being able to analyze data and pick up on warning signs so subtle that humans might not notice them, and then alert others to the need for help. In some instances, that can be literal lifesaving, “since research has shown that checking in with patients who are suicidal or in mental distress can keep them safe.”

This is, of course, not a new concept. Apple watch and other wearables are being ballyhooed as a medical assistant on your wrist, able to track your sleep and physical activity and potentially recognize all sorts of physical warning signs from heart arrhythmias to blood pressure spikes. Researchers suggest that AI could also analyze answers given periodically to questions about one’s emotional state, as well as the mood, pace and word choice in a person’s soundbites and written work, in order to identify signs of mental distress. Not that long ago, a Harvard researcher was looking into building a computer mouse that could detect through touch during the work day high levels of stress and that would trigger alarms and suggested remediations.

Some medical apps and programs already claim to incorporate AI, such as Woebot, an app-based mood tracker and chatbot that combines AI and principles from cognitive behavioral therapy. But the medical world recognizes that providing the best mental health assistance requires a level of emotional intelligence that technology can’t yet simulate.

There are a couple of obvious caveats. We are still talking years–perhaps as much as a decade or more–to fine tune these technological helpers. Research has to be completed, analyzed and loaded into algorithms and the end product has to be tested and marketed.

The other caveat is the current one about privacy. Are you really willing to use the firm’s highly sensitive mouse? To have your pulse and blood pressure and skin temperature recorded for Big Managing Partner to look over? Despite its potential good? Hard to answer that question now.

But there is a tremendous need. Let’s not quibble about that. If cultures can be changed–without simply waiting for 30% of the firm to leave or succumb–then now is the time to figure that out. I’m betting that the strategy of marinating every lawyer in principles of emotional intelligence aimed at benefiting their own and their colleagues’ health is the best way forward.

 

Mark your calendars! Panelists Ronda Muir from Law People Management and Natalie Loeb and David Sarnoff from Loeb Leadership will be discussing emotional intelligence in the legal workplace at the New York City Bar Association at 42 W 44th St, New York, NY on Thursday, April 16, from 6:30 till 8:30 pm. The program can also be attended by live webcast.

The focus will be on understanding what emotional intelligence means for lawyers and how to use it to improve your communication, client service and leadership skills and to help create a high performance, high functioning workplace. Tri-state CLE credit is offered. You can register here to attend either in person or by webcast. Both is free for NYC Bar members.

 

As we head into a new year and a new decade, let’s take a look at the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion (CIMON), brought to us by IBM, the German Aerospace Center and Airbus, that took up residence on the International Space Station in November. CIMON was the first autonomous free-floating robot aboard the station and the first astronaut assistant. Two weeks ago an updated CIMON-2 was launched for a three-year stay.

What was the update?  Better hardware and better software, of course, that provides more extensive data storage and retrieval functions. But this time CIMON-2 is also loaded with emotional intelligence skills “to help alleviate . . . the social issues that might arise from settings in which a small team works in close quarters over a long period.” For example, the robot has the benefit of the IBM Watson Tone Analyzer, which analyzes emotions during a conversation to sense how people are feeling. Is someone happy? Angry? Depressed?

One of the objectives of the robot design team was to develop countermeasures to “groupthink,” where people who work closely together tend to coalesce in their opinions.  Think of the similarities in opinions found in common news feeds and family/friends confirmations. The emotionally intelligent CIMON-2 is geared to provide objective and even contrarian perspectives when it detects groupthink.

So what’s the take-away? Emotional intelligence is not just some “nice-guy” skill. It provides us and our teams and families with the practical abilities to perform at our best, regardless of the setting–whether in space, in the office or at the dinner table. It brings heart and head together. Now that’s something to celebrate in the New Year!

The College of Law Practice Management inducted its new Fellows at its annual conference held last weekend–October 24-25–in Nashville, TN. Ronda Muir, founder of Law Practice Management LLC and author of Beyond Smart: Lawyering with Emotional Intelligence, was one of those honored. The highlight of the conference was hearing from a couple dozen highly expert Fellows, Fellows-to-be and others talk about the state of law practice and their visions for the future. The welcoming address was made by former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is Dean and professor at Belmont University College of Law. On Muir’s panel addressing Resilience and the High-Performance Culture were Fellow Stewart Levine and consultant Renee Branson. Other panels addressed innovations in the legal industry in firm and lawyer compensation, leadership roles, business development, client services, analytics, AI and other technological applications and ways to provide more accessibility. What a world of interesting changes these highly qualified experts see for the legal industry!

For a limited time, Beyond Smart: Lawyering with Emotional Intelligence is on sale! From September 23-27, you can order the book online or by calling the ABA service center at 800-285-2221 using the discount code FALL2019.

Beyond Smart is the first comprehensive guide to understanding, using and raising emotional intelligence in the unique context of law practice. This user-friendly practical resource is designed for legal professionals who desires to improve their communication, client service and leadership skills and create a high performance, high functioning workplace.

Get the book and get your emotional intelligence on!

There’s a reason that SAP, Google, Aetna and IBM all have Chief Mindfulness Officers–they are explicitly trying to address the emotional fallout among their ranks in tech-revolutionized workplaces. But those working in legal workplaces are also feeling emotional fallout, from technological pressures, isolation and other major stressors, as the Law.com Minds Over Matters project conducted over a full year makes crystal clear. So it is encouraging to see that there are those at the top in law starting to step up to support those at risk.

Dentons recognizes that in looking at the legal workplace of the future, “people are going to continue to be the differentiator,” in that “the critical part of the legal workflow will be the human interactions and the humanity that we bring.” To that end it has developed a comprehensive program called NextTalent that has resulted in some substantial programs, promisingly innovative but still rare in the legal world, which emphasize the development of emotional intelligence: “Dentons sees its NextTalent initiative filling the need … for the next generation of lawyers [to] be globalists and adaptable to working with different people from different backgrounds and different cultures from across the world … by focusing on emotional intelligence.”

So the firm is piloting several programs in different countries to see what works best, including introducing various assessments to see which helps their people best understand and improve their EI skills, offering eight-week mindfulness programs, and experimenting with teamwork and leadership trainings borrowed from other industries.

One Dentons pilot program called Ginger Emotional Support, an on-demand component of their “Wellness for Life” initiative, has been instituted in 6 California offices, Phoenix and Honolulu, offering coaching services by text, video or in-person. If needed, an onsite wellness coach can help address professional or personal issues through direct counseling or by making referrals. That is in addition to the firm’s “headspace in the workplace” pilot program which promotes meditation and mindfulness for enhanced mental health.

More recently has come Dentons’ appointment of a Warsaw tax partner as “Chief Mindfulness Officer” for Europe, specifically charged with, of course, developing lawyers’ emotional intelligence.

“It is odd that we’re all spending tens of millions of dollars on new tools and new technology for the legal talent we have, but we’re not spending even more on finding ways for these lawyers and professional staff to find more fulfillment in their jobs,” Joe Andrew, Dentons’ Global Chair, notes. As Jay Connolly, Dentons’ Global Chief Talent Officer, puts it: “I want our talent to wake up in the morning and think, ‘I love coming to work. This is where I want to be.”

Even if your firm or department hasn’t caught up to to providing these types of programs, there are always other avenues, like the myriad podcasts, for example, that lawyers everywhere can access to help assess, explore and build their personal and interpersonal skills. Among many are those provided by the ABA (including specifically for law students)Stanford Law School, the Florida Bar, the Happy Lawyer Project, and Lawsome.

Let us hope that this is the beginning of a race to the top–to develop the emotional intelligence of lawyers worldwide, a goal benefiting all the stakeholders in the legal firmament.

 

We are proud to announce that Ronda Muir has been chosen as a Fellow-Elect of the College of Law Practice Management, with her induction to take place at the College’s 2019 Futures Conference on October 24-25 in Nashville, Tenn. Muir will be serving on a panel discussing “Resilience and the High-Performance Culture.”

The College of Law Practice Management was formed in 1994 to honor and recognize distinguished law practice management professionals, to set standards of achievement for others in the profession, and to fund and assist projects that enhance the highest quality of law practice management.”

Join us there for a two-day conference discussing some of the most pressing issues and innovative solutions in law practice today.