A Lawyer’s Guide to Wellness: A Conversation with Janine Pollack, Esq.
“Take care of yourself,” is a phrase we hear now more than ever, in this strange time of COVID-19. The global pandemic has escalated the notion, both physically and mentally. The word “pandemic” generally alludes to physical illness, but mental health repercussions can in some cases be felt just as strongly as the potential physical effects of illness, as people learn to live with this new sense of isolation from each other.
Organizations across the globe—from the World Health Organization to the CDC—have advised as to the importance of mental health during COVID-19, as people continue to be inundated day and night by an endless 24-hour news cycle and by constantly accessible social media surrounding the spread of the virus. The CDC has advised Americans to “be kind to your mind” during this unprecedented time and offers tips for coping with the resulting stress. The CDC’s stance towards stress management reflects a general shift in the mindset of American society in recent years towards the importance of wellness, self-care and ultimately mental health as a whole. The concept of “wellness” is certainly not a new idea to attorney, Janine Pollack, who has been a crusader for wellness since childhood.
“I’ve always been very interested in fitness and nutrition. It’s been the central theme to my life, and I try to bring that enthusiasm for wellness— both mental and physical—to the office. I want to encourage the people I work with to eat well and get outside and move.” When Janine and her co-founding partner, Regina Calcaterra, started their 100% female-owned law firm, Calcaterra Pollack LLP, both women knew that they wanted to ensure wellness was one of the central tenets of the firm. “I believe that it is our duty, Regina’s and my own, to make sure that our team is well and that is why our firm has a chief wellness officer.”
A firm with a chief wellness officer may sound like a novel concept, and Janine acknowledges that when she first began practicing law, such a position in a law firm would have been unheard of. “When I was a young lawyer, wellness just wasn’t a thing you heard people talk about.” But attitudes are finally changing in the legal profession, notorious for resisting change. In a move that Janine applauds, the American Bar Association (“ABA”) formed The Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession in 2017. The Group was created to examine and make recommendations regarding the current state of attorney mental health and substance use issues, with an aim toward improving the mental health landscape of the legal profession.
“I have been advocating the issue of wellness for lawyers for decades. This profession, like many others, is incredibly stressful. The law has a tendency to take people, eat them up and spit them right back out and leave them to fend for themselves. So, when the ABA began to acknowledge that mental health is a real issue for attorneys, I was so happy. There is no shame in asking for help, in fact I believe it should be encouraged.” The Lawyer Well-Being Resolution, known as Resolution 105, was approved in late 2018. Janine hails the first two lines of the Resolution as huge steps forward for the legal profession as a whole. “To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being.”
So, with Resolution 105 in mind, Janine and Regina set forth to create a law firm where wellness is fully incorporated. Janine acknowledges that the stressors that make the legal profession so prone to mental health issues have not gone away simply because they are acknowledged. However, it has become more widely accepted to recognize the need for help and to act on it. “Being a lawyer is to be in a service profession that is heavily restricted by rules and regulations. Just breaking one small rule can have a huge consequence on the lives of our clients, and knowing that is a stressful burden for lawyers to carry.”
Janine is no stranger to this stress. During her 30-year legal career, she has prosecuted cases that have secured hundreds of millions of dollars for defrauded investors and consumers. But it is through her experiences at her prior law firms, that has enabled her to so effectively integrate wellness into Calcaterra Pollack. “Regina and I have drawn upon our experiences in other law firms and the public sector in order to know exactly what we don’t want this firm to be and that is important to us. The well-being and happiness of our team is just as important to us as the work, because a happy worker is an effective worker. We want our team to have a good sense of balance in their lives, which I think is something that the legal profession lost for a while.”
Calcaterra Pollack opened its doors at the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic which presented a host of challenges for Janine and Regina to overcome in addition to the usual challenges of starting a new law firm. Due to social distancing guidelines and the shutdowns sweeping the country, the firm was a remote operation from the beginning, with team members working from home.
Working from home can be an isolating experience for many and it can create obstacles for managers who want to create a sense of unity among their teams. Janine credits daily all-staff Zoom calls for bringing a sense of togetherness and providing the “face time” necessary for Regina and her to instill in their staff a sense of belonging. “We start off our morning Zoom calls asking everyone what they did that weekend or the night before—we don’t start things off demanding to know how much work they did. I believe that it is important to connect with people in a pleasant and personal way. We like to encourage our team to get outside and exercise and I always remind them that you can work outside. Lawyers often have this notion that they need to be chained to their desks in order to be productive. That’s simply not true in my opinion.”
Working remotely has been an experience most lawyers have had to deal with in the last few months and in many cases it has uncovered the advantages of a less traditional office experience. Janine credits the challenges posed by the pandemic for forcing her to evaluate how she was working and to encourage her to take on a more progressive work attitude.
“Certainly, opening a law firm in the middle of a pandemic has been challenging, but I think its healthy to be challenged. The pandemic and shutdown has forced a lot of people to reexamine what we believe are the necessary components to become a successful and efficient worker.” Janine, unsurprisingly, has sought to find the silver lining in the pandemic and has discovered that it has provided many Americans with the gift of time. It’s easy to get caught in rigid routines. For many, the morning commute has morphed into simply walking down the stairs to arrive “at work”. Janine gives the example that a 60-minute commute avoided during quarantine can be reallocated to something more beneficial to one’s well-being, be it a little extra sleep or an early morning run.
“I think it’s time that we stop being so strict with our thinking and start to be more progressive about things. It doesn’t have to be so starkly black and white when it comes to the ‘normal’ work week. I think offices running so efficiently remotely has shown a lot of employers that when things ‘go back to normal,’ it will be ok if some employees work from home a few days a week. It shouldn’t be a revolutionary concept that you can run an errand in the middle of a weekday afternoon because you didn’t have 30-minute commute to work.” It is small changes to the concept of the traditional work week that Janine believes can make significant changes to the general wellness of Americans. She believes firmly that making adjustments to the way things have always been done does not translate into a decline in productivity. “I think the silver lining of this shutdown is that we have all slowed down and [have] been gifted time.”
Forward-thinking is one of the driving forces behind Calcaterra Pollack. In addition to her decades-long advocacy for wellness in the legal profession, Janine has dedicated herself to the advocacy of women in the law. “I was the first chair in two trials and I think the judges were pleased to see a woman standing up there; I think the jury was pleased to see a woman standing up there. From my work on many task forces [surrounding] this issue, I know that judges are pleased to see women taking a more prominent role in trials. It’s time to relegate the image of the female associate whispering into the male partner’s ear at trial because he doesn’t know what’s going on, to the past. So while I do believe we have made progress, it isn’t enough progress.”
Janine’s resume as an advocate for women is impressive. In addition to co-founding one of the very few women-owned law firms in the plaintiffs’ bar, she is also on the Women in the Legal Profession Committee for the New York City Bar. “Women deserve credit for their work and they deserve to be front and center. I believe that the plaintiffs’ bar needs to do better.”
“I am trying to impart to my children that it does matter that people are equal. I want them to understand and embrace other people’s viewpoints. I believe that the more diverse viewpoints you have, the richer the outcome, so it’s key that women’s [perspectives] are included and that other minority [beliefs] are included into business models.”
Janine and Regina have taken their progressive views and their desire for inclusivity and incorporated them into their new firm. “Our firm is the perfect little microcosm of what we think law firms should look like now. We have diversity, we have wellness, we have women in positions of power and we are committed to bringing our associates with us as we rise. We are trying to build a better law firm than we have seen before—we are building the law firm of tomorrow.”
To read more on the formation of Calcaterra Pollack LLP, click here.
To hear from Janine’s partner, Regina Calcaterra, click here to read her feature in Women in the Law.
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