Woman sitting at desk experiencing back pain.

Can Lawyers Help Fix Back Pain (No, Not By Suing)?

By Jack Becker

A Pain in the Back

Back pain is a real pain in the back. Comprehensive data is tough to collect, but an estimated 60-80% of people will have to deal with back pain at some point in their life. Lower back pain, in particular, is the leading cause of global disability.

This issue has serious impacts beyond individual pain and suffering. According to a 2018 report by the Bone and Joint Initiative, Americans lost 264 million work days in a single year due to back pain. The report also claims that in 2014, the direct and indirect costs of musculoskeletal disorders were a staggering 5.76% of U.S. GDP, totaling hundreds of billions of dollars. While more conservative estimates put the costs closer to $125 billion, the impact is significant.

There are clear incentives for business or government actors to intervene, but where can they start? One option is to let lawyers lead the way.

Are Lawsuits the Solution?

Lawyers are already synonymous with acute back pain (short-term back pain often caused by an accident or a fall). If you search “lawyers back pain,” you’ll find no shortage of law firms ready to litigate on your behalf. However, lawyers could also help improve America’s chronic back pain problem through a range of potential avenues.

Lawyers could take the stereotypical route and look for someone to sue. Workplaces are an obvious start, especially those with risk factors for back pain like exposure to hostile work and stressful monotonous work.

Alternatively, Dr. James Levine, author of Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, stated that “Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.” If chairs are more dangerous than cigarettes, imagine the type of settlement that chair consumers could get from “big chair.”

This could be one solution, but lawyers are more than just individuals capable of filing lawsuits.

How About the Legal Services Industry?

The legal services industry is full of sophisticated firms and an estimated revenue of nearly $350 billion. Many lawyers sit all day, so they’re prime candidates for chronic back pain. Maybe law firms can figure out how to solve chronic back pain through workplace adjustments.

The National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provide tips for preventing back pain including: maintaining good posture, keeping a healthy weight, doing back-strengthening and stretching exercises, switching sitting positions often, taking periodic walks while working, using ergonomically-designed equipment, and general exercise and healthy eating. These suggestions are not particularly complicated for firms to help implement.

Many firms already have wellness programs and ergonomics consultants to help with employee health, including preventing back pain. They could continue to develop these efforts and eventually make a cross-industry standard.

However, the effectiveness of wellness programs in their current form may actually be limited. And even if these programs were effective, providing someone with a well-designed chair and a gym discount may not be enough to reverse years of poor posture and inactivity.

The key might be to start before lawyers enter the workforce.

Law Schools Are Postured to Prevent Chronic Back Pain

Law schools are in the perfect position to steer their students away from a career filled with back pain. They can, and should, teach students about preventing back pain. They should also provide an environment in which future lawyers practice preventing back pain.

But first, is this really relevant enough to be part of the legal curriculum? Compared to other mandatory classes, yes. After all, while a transactional attorney may rarely use lessons from their criminal law or constitutional law classes, they will certainly sit frequently during their career.

And second, why delegate this task to law schools instead of undergraduate institutions? After all, lawyers are not the only ones sitting all day. Rolling out these programs in colleges would likely have a wider impact and could even help revitalize dwindling physical education programs. The challenge would be finding a simple way to mandate these programs across schools. For law schools, the solution already exists in the American Bar Association’s (ABA) governance of law schools.

The ABA sets standards and rules for law schools, including those guiding education requirements. The Program of Legal Education chapter specifically requires learning outcomes in “professional skills needed for competent and ethical participation as a member of the legal profession.” While chronic back pain does not preclude being a competent lawyer, according to the ABA National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, “To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer.”

Preventing back pain in law schools lines up well with the Task Force’s 2017 report. The Task Force recommended sweeping initiatives including making well-being a part of a lawyer’s duty of competence, mandating well-being education programs in law schools through accreditation requirements, and providing faculty education on encouraging well-being in the classroom.

These recommendations could be implemented intensely. Character and fitness investigations could judge a bar applicant’s posture or the ABA could institute physical fitness graduation requirements akin to college swim tests. But that might be excessive and face too much opposition. (As a side note, it would be improper to talk about posture and higher education without mentioning “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal” of the mid-1900s.)

Law schools should look for simple, but significant, opportunities to help students proactively prevent back pain. For example, teaching students about nutrition, physical fitness, and posture during a one-credit hour mandatory class could help kick things off. Requiring stretch breaks during lectures could also help students develop good preventative habits. The possibilities are numerous and flexible.

In the best case scenario, lawyers and law schools could be a shining case study for back pain prevention initiatives. And in the worst case scenario, law students would at least learn a little more about improving their health.

Jack Becker

Jack is a 3L at Harvard Law School and a student fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center. He thanks you for reading this and hopes you have a great day!

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