This article was written for and originally published in ALAS Managing Partners' Corner Newsletter.
As you probably know, the legal profession is facing a health crisis. The statistics are jarring: lawyers experience nearly double the rate of problematic alcohol use when compared with other highly educated professionals (20.6 percent versus 11.8 percent) and exceptionally high rates of mild or greater depression (28 percent), anxiety (19 percent), and stress (23 percent). Additionally, lawyers are more than three times as likely to suffer from depression and twice as likely to commit suicide.
Professional organizations and media outlets have done a good job drawing attention to the issue. Most lawyers recognize the problem in the abstract. What’s less obvious, though, is how substance abuse and mental illness affect the day-to-day practice of law. These issues have the potential to affect law firms of every size and in every discipline. If a lawyer is suffering from substance abuse or mental health problems, the firm suffers, too. We must first help ourselves before we can provide the best service possible to our clients and the communities we serve. The sooner we recognize that and do something about it, the better off the entire profession will be.
We lawyers are a proud bunch. We are reluctant to reveal anything that others, including our coworkers, could perceive as a weakness. Our profession is adversarial by nature, and we are trained in our nascent careers to project strength, confidence, and competence. The overriding desire to meet these expectations all too often causes lawyers to cover up serious health problems. And it can be difficult to tell whether someone is struggling because some of the warning signs—including disorganization and odd working hours—are not all that unusual among lawyers more generally. As a result, many lawyers we work and interact with every day are quietly dealing with mental health issues right in front of us, and we don’t even recognize it.
Setting aside the moral obligation to help our fellow professionals, providing whatever assistance we can to support those who are struggling helps to avoid potential malpractice concerns and increase productivity. It is important to keep in mind that an unhealthy lawyer might appear, on the surface, to be performing his or her job duties adequately. But just because a lawyer’s job performance isn’t objectively bad doesn’t mean there’s no problem for the lawyer or the firm. A substance abusing or unwell lawyer almost certainly is not performing at his or her peak.
Addressing the profession’s crisis in mental health and wellness requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. National organizations, state bar associations, local professional organizations, and individual firms and offices all need to contribute to the solution.
As lawyers at the management level of our firms, we have the power and the duty to change firm culture for the better and help our colleagues through difficult times. Even small changes can make a tremendous difference to the quality of life of our colleagues. One simple but meaningful change is to make promotion of lawyer health and wellness a core value of the firm. With that value in mind as we make decisions for our firms, we can break the cycle of elevating short-term gains at the cost of long-term wellbeing.
Other more concrete changes also can be effective and are easy to implement. Fostering a positive working environment is key. Our profession is competitive and adversarial, but that does not mean we should run our firms that way. Colleagues should be supportive and cooperative, not combative and antagonistic. Firm management can institute policies—particularly relating to compensation—to promote cooperation instead of conflict. Management can also implement health and wellness programs designed to encourage lawyers to live healthier lives. Our firm has taken many of these steps and has seen great returns on them. Like many firms, we offer an employee assistance program to help employees manage life challenges, such as stress, grief, financial pressures, and addiction. We also recently sponsored a “Wellness Week,” providing a new health-related benefit each day, including free influenza shots and biometric health screenings. Additionally, the firm offers weekly healthy meal options and reimbursements for fitness memberships.
Here in Florida, the Bar has recognized—and taken steps to address—the dire state of the profession when it comes to mental health and wellness. For example, the Bar has established a Mental Health & Wellness Committee to research and recommend ways to reduce the problem. The Bar also offers a variety of resources and benefits to its members, all available at a one-stop online hub. There, Florida lawyers can find articles, tools, and CLE credits; access to confidential support groups with volunteer monitoring; and discounts on video counseling services and wellbeing coaches.
Critically, the statistics listed at the beginning of this article reflect only a snapshot of mental health. Other statistics show that, over the course of a career, lawyers are likely to face a much higher risk of experiencing mental health issues: 61 percent of the lawyers surveyed reported having experienced concerns with anxiety at some point during their careers, and 46 percent reported having experienced concerns with depression.
With a unified effort, we can help improve the lives of countless lawyers. We also can make our profession a happier and healthier one.