The Legal Burnout Solution: The Calming Influence of Pets and Animals in the Legal Environment
Happiness is a warm puppy. — Charles M. Schulz
By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp
In our last column, “The Legal Burnout Solution: How Engaging with Animals Can Bolster Attorney Well-Being,” we discussed the scientifically backed benefits of human-animal interactions and highlighted how animals can improve well-being in the high-pressure world of law. Now, we turn our attention to integrating pet pals into the workplace setting.
Many of us who continue to work remotely are privileged to enjoy the company of our pets throughout most days. Indeed, that is one of the many benefits of maintaining a home office. When Becky feels even a little stressed, she seeks out her Siamese kitties, Phineas and Casper, for an instant mood lift. Even just watching them play together contributes to her calm demeanor. Likewise, Cindy frequently takes breaks to play ball with Rocky the Dog or to give pats and treats to Jackson the Cat.
Likewise, many employers both permit and promote the presence of pets even in traditional workplace settings because it can lead to a more calming environment for employees and clients alike. We have heard of animal visitors to private law firms, government offices, and even judicial chambers.
Certainly, there could be drawbacks to allowing pets in a legal setting. Some of your clients or visitors may dislike animals or have allergies. Others may simply consider them to be a distraction in the professional context. In light of the relaxed atmosphere that animals can bring to the workplace, however, some are willing to overlook or accept these potential issues.
In reality, bringing pets to the office often happens informally without any set policy. If pets are allowed in your workplace, you may want to create a short policy regarding animal behavior and whether they are restricted to designated areas. Many years ago, when Cindy allowed the staff to adopt an office cat, the receptionist always informed clients and anyone else coming to the office what to expect.
Even if it is not feasible for you to bring your dog, cat, or rabbit to work, there are a number of ways to still enjoy the positive effects that interacting with animals can offer. Here, we explore several creative strategies to harness the healing power of animals in legal work environments.
Therapeutic Animals in the Office Setting
As we examined in the first article of this series, many organizations, such as state lawyers assistance programs, provide therapeutic animals for on-site visits. Indeed, many of these organizations have experience working with law students, lawyers, and judges and can offer additional support and resources, including for mental health concerns and addiction.
By bringing one of these therapeutic animals in-house, legal professionals can receive immediate stress relief and emotional comfort, enhancing their well-being and potentially improving their performance. This is also a fun, creative way to support well-being in the workplace and actively demonstrate an organization’s commitment to promoting employee wellness. Puppy snuggles are indelible.
Nurturing Well-Being by Watching Birds, Fish, and Other Living Beings
We suggest broadening your horizons beyond the traditional cat-dog binary and exploring other ways to engage with unique animals, including those in nature! For example, Hoosier attorney Heather George Myers has found a way to enjoy the natural world on a maintenance-free basis. Heather reports that throughout her workday, she loves looking out her office window to enjoy the northern cardinals who reside year-round in the trees near her office.
As the flash of a red cardinal flying among the greenery of the trees catches her eye, she is prompted to take a break, look away from the screen, and relax for a moment or two. Also, cardinals hold a special meaning for her as her dad loved them. Their presence is a reminder that he is watching over her from above and is always with her.
Even watching fish swimming in an aquarium can have a calming effect. Dennis M. Sandoval, a brilliant and well-respected tax attorney, experienced firsthand the positive impact after he installed a 90-gallon aquarium in his law office. Ultimately, he collected 16 aquariums ranging in size from 45 to 300 gallons spread throughout the first floor of his law firm.
Dennis’s passion for aquariums and their beneficial effects even evolved into a business opportunity! In 2020, Dennis and Richard Bausa co-founded Law Office Aquariums with the goal of making it easier for others to enjoy aquariums in their own office settings. And we love their tagline: “We may be sharks, but we don’t bite.”
Observing marine life can offer an effective, low-maintenance way to harness the positive benefits of animal engagement. Indeed, a 2019 study found that human interaction with fish “could be a more flexible and viable alternative to other forms of Human-Animal Interaction (HAI).” For example, in an aquarium environment, concerns about aggressive behavior or allergic reactions are generally minimal. Also, fish tend to be less expensive to maintain and require little care.
Speaking of our aquatic friends, we would be remiss if we didn’t also mention Howie the Crab, who has attracted 600,000 followers on TikTok and Instagram. Cindy can personally attest that watching even one minute of Howie’s antics will bring your stress levels down a notch or two.
Office Field Trips
Instead of indulging in a traditional happy hour, why not plan a group outing that involves animals? Suggestions for such an outing include:
Check out the local zoo.
Visit a public aquarium.
Volunteer at an animal shelter or rescue.
Go on a bird-watching excursion.
Explore a park, trail, or butterfly garden.
The options are endless, and the world is your oyster! As a starting point, conduct a survey to see what particular activities resonate with folks. You could even look to start an annual office tradition of your animal-oriented office field trip. Having something “pawsitive” to look forward to on the office calendar can also boost morale and help set the tone for a workplace culture that actively prioritizes employee wellness.
Overall, scientific research and anecdotal evidence show the positive benefits of directly interacting with or simply observing animals. We’ve provided a number of low-impact ways to integrate animal companions into the workplace setting. Let us know which of our suggestions resonate with you.
And if you aren’t an animal lover, that’s perfectly okay, too! Our mission is to generate open and honest conversations about attorney wellness and how you can sustainably integrate healthy self-care strategies into your everyday law practice and life. If nothing else, we hope this article got you thinking about what works for you to manage stress.
Join us in our next column, where we focus on coping with holiday stress.
 Heather Clements et al., The Effects of Interacting with Fish in Aquariums on Human Health and Well-Being: A Systematic Review, 14 PLOS ONE (July 29, 2019).
Rebecca Howlett, Esq. and Cynthia Sharp, Esq. are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution (legalburnout.com) a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers. Check out The Legal Mindset Corner, a podcast dedicated to tackling the unique challenges of the legal profession.
Originally published in ABA GPSolo eReport, Oct. 2023 Issue (Vol. 12, No. 15) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.