Virginia State Bar President Leonard Heath Jr. Focuses on Lawyer Wellness
By Ryan Miller
Leonard “Len” C. Heath Jr. is a partner at Heath, Overbey, Verser & Old, PLC in Newport News, where he focuses on civil litigation. A graduate of William & Mary’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law, Heath has a wealth of experience in state and federal courts and was invited to become a fellow in the Litigation Counsel of America, a peer-selected and honorary society of trial lawyers from across the country. In June 2018, Heath was elected and sworn in as president of the Virginia State Bar, the agency that licenses and governs 32,000 lawyers across the Commonwealth, and the first attorney from the Peninsula in over half a century to serve in this capacity.
Failure, and not success, was the unconventional factor and necessary preamble to initiate Heath’s career in law. During his senior year at William & Mary in a business law class, Heath failed a test, the first time he had done so in college. Surmounting the setback, Heath hit the books and earned an A. In the end, the professor teaching this business law class wrote Heath’s recommendation for law school. “That’s probably a different story than you hear from most lawyers,” Heath shares. “It was something interesting, intriguing and a challenge.”
CoVa BIZ: Tell us about Heath, Overbey, Verser & Old, PLC and your role as a partner with the firm.
Leonard C. Heath Jr.: We are a litigation boutique firm. All we do right now is trial work on the civil side, and one of my partners does criminal trial work, so we’re very specialized. We handle very large cases statewide all the way down to very small cases locally.
CoVa BIZ: What are your primary responsibilities now as president of the Virginia State Bar?
LH: As president of the Virginia State Bar you’re really the face of the bar and the spokesman for the bar. You do have a leadership role in directing what the topic in discussion will be for the year. Pretty much it is getting out and meeting lawyers across the state, and Virginia people sometimes forget it is a very large state, but getting out there and talking with lawyers to see what’s on their mind, and to let them know what’s going on in Richmond so we all stay connected.
CoVa BIZ: One of your focuses as president of the Virginia State Bar will be specifically on lawyer wellness and mental health. Why is this so important to you, and how do you plan on handling this issue?
LH: I started practicing in Norfolk in 1986, and if you took a snapshot of that firm one year later in 1987 there were 25 attorneys at that firm, and I left the firm I think in 1991. The firm no longer exists, but if you fast forward to today, of the 25 attorneys—who I really liked, they were really good people, they’re really good lawyers—of the 25, two have committed suicide. That’s just unacceptable. Everybody had the same response when those two friends committed suicide: nobody saw it coming. Sadly we see that happening on a far too regular basis in the legal profession. In the legal profession, the suicide rate and the mental health problems, mainly anxiety and depression and substance abuse, are way outside of the norm of the public at-large.
CoVa BIZ: What do you hope to accomplish as president of the Virginia State Bar?
LH: My main goal this year is to make sure that this discussion about wellness continues because discussion and education on wellness are the keys for lawyers. We’ve made a lot of changes within the state bar, the supreme court has a committee that just issued a report that’s now been adopted by the full court that will bring to Virginia a fully functioning JLAP program. It’s a judge-lawyer assistance program that’s properly, reliably and permanently funded within our state. We currently have Lawyers Helping Lawyers, which is a 501(c)(3) organization, and it’ll continue to be a 501(c)(3), but it doesn’t have enough funding. They have 1.5 full-time employees to basically serve 32,000 lawyers across the state. This new program that the Supreme Court is moving forward on—and again that’s more than talk, that’s action—will help get that JLAP program up to speed through Lawyers Helping Lawyers.
CoVa BIZ: What has been the key to your success?
LH: No one will ever out-work me on a case. It is being prepared, even on what may appear to be a small case. Every client, their case is the most important case, and you need to treat it that way.
CoVa BIZ: What would you say has been the key to your success as far as reaching your milestone as the Virginia State Bar president?
LH: Sometimes you just happen to be at the right place at the right time. I’d like to tell you that there’s a great method to it. In August of 2017 the National Task Force report came out on lawyer wellness, and our chief justice is a co-author of that report, and with my history with my friends at my first law firm, and this is something I’ve been saying a long time, that lawyers are too hard on themselves. The stars and the planets and the moon all aligned at the right time for me to take this particular topic and run with it. If you cannot tell, it’s something I’m very passionate about.