Massachusetts State House.
Boston Bar Journal

Well-Being Series: Judicial Wellness

February 09, 2023
| Winter 2023 Vol. 67 #1

By Hon. Jennifer L. Ginsburg & Hon. Kathryn E. Hand

The importance of lawyer and judicial well-being has been the subject of considerable attention and study in recent years – witness National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, entitled the 2017 Report “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change”,  the 2019 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being Report, and the American Bar Association’s 2020 National Judicial Stress and Resiliency Survey. These studies and reports, and others in the same vein, demonstrate the direct link between the mental and physical health of those providing legal services and the quality of the services provided. The ABA report, in particular, addressed the challenges specific, if not unique, to judges, including the pressures of making impactful decisions and “the systemic isolation” inherent in the transition from lawyer to judge.

Based on input from more than one thousand judges nationwide, the authors of the ABA report identified a variety of sources of stress for judges. Among the most frequently-acknowledged stressors were those related to making important decisions and managing heavy caseloads; other concerns included frustration with unrepresented litigants, particularly in the family courts, and “a lack of public awareness of the courts,” generally. Not surprisingly, the effects of these and other day-to-day strains on judges were not limited to the judges’ own sense of well-being; the authors noted that the manifestations of judicial stress had the potential to impact judicial performance in a negative way, risking a loss of public confidence in the courts and the judiciary. Viewed together with the National Task Force report and the SJC report, the ABA report demonstrates a need for awareness of, and a commitment to, fostering wellness across the entire legal community.

The authors of the ABA report made a series of specific recommendations to court leaders and judges urging attention and education around issues of well-being and ongoing assessment of caseloads. The report also highlighted the importance of judicial education on the use of constructive stress-management techniques, and reminded judges that some significant stressors – for example, social isolation and time management – were within their own control. Underscoring the currency of these recommendations, in a task force publication issued in July 2022, the National Center for State Courts developed a compendium of well-being strategies for judges and court personnel to better promote their individual resilience in the face of ongoing, unprecedented changes in our court system. Unsurprisingly, these suggested strategies contain advice with value well beyond the courts.

The SJC report provided specific recommendations to support judges in the Commonwealth, including expanding awareness of challenges and the importance of judicial well-being, engaging in training and education, and highlighting resources to manage judicial stress. In addition, the SJC report recommended assessments and surveys to address the challenges and stressors among judges and to help develop future steps to aid judicial well-being. To implement these recommendations, the SJC Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being (Standing Committee) formed a Judicial Well-Being Subcommittee (Judicial Subcommittee) composed of judges from the Appeals Court, Boston Municipal Court, District Court, Housing Court, Juvenile Court, Land Court, Probate and Family Court, Superior Court, and a retired member of the Supreme Judicial Court, as well as the Director of the Standing Committee.

Against this backdrop, we, as members of the Judicial Subcommittee conducted a very informal survey of judges from each of Massachusetts’ courts and court departments, asking for insights into local challenges to judicial wellness and suggestions for addressing them. Also, members of the Judicial Subcommittee participated in a number of listening sessions during the winter of 2022 with participation from judges throughout the state and across Trial Court departments on the topic of judicial well-being. Every one of the judges who participated in the survey expressed overarching personal and professional satisfaction with the job. All the judges expressed appreciation for their opportunity to serve on the bench, and all described judging as a fulfilling vocation. Many of the most rewarding aspects of judging –- for example, the camaraderie and mentoring relationship with other judges and the sense that the work of our judges and courts is meaningful – track points underscored in the ABA report as supporting judicial well-being. Given the direct link between respondents’ sense of professional satisfaction and their ability to do a job that they view as adding value to the legal profession and our communities, it is not surprising that respondents flagged as “challenges” those issues or conditions that interfere with their ability to do their best work. Massachusetts’ judges’ concerns regarding well-being largely echo those identified by the ABA report. Although certain details of the responses were necessarily court- or department-specific, several general themes emerged from our responses.

Judges noted the following causes of stress in their work:

  • Making weighty decisions that greatly impact peoples’ lives.
  • Isolation of the job.
  • Managing cases involving unrepresented litigants and litigants with mental health challenges.
  • Lack of resources for judges, including limited law clerk support and insufficient technology.
  • Lack of resources for litigants, such as court-appointed lawyers, and substance use disorder or mental health services.
  • Judges’ work is often misunderstood by the public, and judges’ limited ability to address directly comments and criticisms (as constrained by ethical rules) too often gives the impression that the judiciary is uncaring, inept, or some combination of the two.
  • Difficulty ensuring standards of civility and professional courtesy when litigants and lawyers participate online. Judges acknowledged the value of Zoom hearings in certain proceedings but expressed uniform preference for conducting essential court business in person.
  • Finally, judges reported struggling with maintaining a work-life balance. Many respondents acknowledged the need to step away from their work from time to time to avoid burnout; none reported perfect success in doing so effectively.

The results of all the surveys and reports we have briefly touched on here – the National Task Force report concerning lawyer well-being, the SJC report on the Massachusetts legal profession, the extensive ABA report of judges across the country, and our own unscientific survey of Massachusetts judges – suggest that the goals and next steps here in the Commonwealth are similar for lawyers and judges alike. Some practical steps towards realizing these goals include encouraging communication and peer support, helping to assure critical resources go to those who need them, focusing on civility in a digital age, and encouraging judges and lawyers to take a long view of the interrelationship between their professional and personal lives. Judges appreciate the opportunity to serve on the bench, and undoubtedly do so most effectively when they feel well-supported. To that end, we urge judges across our court system to consider strategies like those suggested in 2022 NCSC Judicial Wellness Booklet and to make use of available resources like the National Helpline for Judges Helping Judges — 1-800-219-6474 and Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL), which serves lawyers, judges, law students, and their families. We are hopeful that with increased attention toward professional well-being, we can continue to expand both access to justice and the quality of the justice our courts provide.

Judge Jennifer Ginsburg, a District Court judge, is the chair of the Judicial Well-Being Subcommittee of the SJC Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being; Judge Hand, an Associate Justice of the Appeals Court, is a member of the subcommittee. This article is the result of the combined efforts of all members of the Judicial Subcommittee, including Attorney Heidi Alexander, Hon. Margo Botsford (ret.), Hon. David J. Breen, Hon. Robert G. Fields, Hon. Mary Beth Heffernan, Hon. Susan Jacobs, Hon. Peter B. Krupp, Hon. Janine D. Rivers, Hon. Daniel C. Roache, and Hon. Michael D. Vhay.