Barbara Ezyk, executive director of the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program, is the coordinating editor of this series of wellness articles during 2017. Readers are encouraged to send authors and Ezyk their feedback. If you would like to suggest a topic or contribute a wellness article, contact Ezyk at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The legal profession has reached a tipping point, and the jury is in: Judges, lawyers and law students are suffering and need help. In the legal profession, practitioners often see themselves as invincible “supermen” and “superwomen.” But we aren’t invincible, and the culture in which we practice is becoming toxic to the point where we are more depressed and more prone to anxiety and stress than the clients whom we profess to help.
The Disconnect in the Practice of Law: A Noble Calling and a Toxic Professional Culture
The practice of law is about helping others. Attorneys are known as counselors because they advise others how to “fix” the situation in which they find themselves. Often, this focus on others’ problems causes us to neglect self-care. And, in the midst of external demands on our energy and time, we encounter difficult personalities that add to our stress, particularly when the adversarial process is a prized component of the profession. That adversarial process frequently becomes an excuse to allow belligerent and unprofessional behavior among many attorneys (and even judges) that leads to a type of institutional bullying. Research suggests that “lawyers … [are] more likely than other professionals to be exposed to toxic behavior in the workplace including verbal abuse, mistreatment, bullying, competition, and destabilization from colleagues as well as sexual harassment.”1
Yet another contributing factor to what makes the practice of law so stressful is a personality trait that most lawyers share: perfectionism. Law is a highly detail-oriented profession, and that lends itself to the need for perfectionism. This trait is a double-edged sword: It contributes to lawyer success, but research also shows that perfectionism interferes with successful relationships and personal well-being — in addition to increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.2
The conversation about diminished lawyer well-being is not new. Recent headlines in the press include articles such as “The Lawyer, the Addict,” published in The New York Times last July, describing a Silicon Valley lawyer’s struggle with a demanding practice, drug use and his eventual suicide. In an earlier example from 2014, CNN’s Marie Arce asked, “Why Are Lawyers Killing Themselves?”3 In 2016, the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation (ABA/Hazelden) published their research showing that lawyers suffer from extraordinarily high rates of chronic stress, anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorders.4 Other research points to high rates of suicide, compassion fatigue, secondary trauma and burnout among legal professionals.
Law students are not immune to these problems either. The “Survey of Law Student Well-Being,” released in 2016, revealed similar problems among students.5 A particularly disturbing finding was that many law students believe that seeking assistance would threaten their bar admission. They consequently rank this perception as high among the factors that discourage them from getting help.6 Rather than feeling encouraged and supported by the legal community and its culture, many law school students enter the profession with untreated problems. While these problems may, at a minimum, negatively impact their ability to practice law competently, they often go untreated because students fear not being able to enter the profession at all.
Sadly, these trends transcend the boundary between law school and law practice.7 The ABA/Hazelden study that investigated lawyer mental health and substance abuse disorders found that more than a quarter of lawyers surveyed struggle with depression, and 36 percent of those surveyed showed signs of possible alcohol abuse, dependence or hazardous drinking.8 The most common reasons why attorneys do not seek assistance for their mental health and substance abuse issues relate to confidentiality concerns.9
Pursuing Positive Change in the Practice of Law
How are we, as a community, going to change these disturbing statistics? Fortunately, there are immediate actions that we can take. In today’s world, we often race around with too much on our to-do list to speak meaningfully with our colleagues. Slow down and communicate with those around you. And, rather than ignore the warning signs that someone you know or see in court or at your firm isn’t doing well, ask how they are doing. Cultivate an environment of mutual respect and professionalism in your practice. Contact the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program (COLAP) and inquire about the confidential resources that are available to you and your peers. Invite presenters to come into your law firm, your local or specialty bar association, or courtroom to speak about how to mitigate stress in the workplace. Create an environment that encourages rather than stigmatizes self-care and thoughtfulness.
Too many of us have stories of a lawyer, friend or colleague who has suffered due to an untreated mental health or substance abuse disorder, and many of those stories feature devastating consequences. We cannot treat these issues as simply part-and-parcel of a grueling profession and move on to the next issue. Client service and public trust in the legal profession require us to act and set the right example.
The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change
To address the need for broad-scale change in the legal culture, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being convened in August 2016. Co-chaired by James Coyle, Attorney Regulation Counsel for the Colorado Supreme Court, along with Bree Buchanan, director of the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, the task force assembled recommendations for all stakeholders in the legal community and issued a report with those recommendations on August 14, 2017.
The report, titled “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” discusses the crisis of lawyer mental health and substance abuse disorders and proposes ways to act, with the recognition that even small, incremental steps can collectively catalyze large-scale change. (The full report can be downloaded here.) At a time when the legal profession risks a dwindling market due to the need for more accessible, affordable alternatives to legal assistance, this new report says that the time to act is now. Lawyers may not be known to readily embrace change, but in this case, a concerted effort on all of our parts is needed to create a cultural shift. For example, a judge might be the first to notice if a lawyer in her courtroom is showing signs that they are stressed or overwhelmed. Alternatively, a colleague might notice that a lawyer friend is drinking heavily at meetings, happy hours or even conferences. The report notes that the right intervention can “save a law practice or a life,” and that concept applies across all sectors of the profession. If a judge or colleague is not comfortable asking the lawyer how he or she is doing, they can call COLAP for confidential help regarding how to approach the lawyer or have COLAP reach out to the lawyer directly and confidentially.
The report similarly directs its 44 different recommendations to all of the various stakeholders in the legal community, including law firms and other employers, judges, law schools, bar associations, regulators, professional liability carriers, and, of course, all lawyers. Reoccurring themes include:
1. All of us have a role to play in changing the toxicity that currently exists in the legal profession.
2. We must eliminate the stigma associated with seeking help or assistance for issues that cause lawyers to suffer. Our colleagues and peers should have support in getting the help they might need and not fear adverse professional consequences. More immediately, if you need help, you should not be anxious about seeking help out of fear of repercussions.
3. Because well-being directly impacts a lawyer’s duty of competence, we must increase education and understanding of well-being issues, such as stress management. One cannot possess the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation while being run down by a substance abuse disorder or untreated mental health condition.
4. We must all support the expansion of well-being related educational outreach and programming. Educational outreach and programming can help lawyers identify appropriate interventions and understand why taking care of themselves is not a fad but a vital part of their ability to survive and thrive in a demanding profession.
5. It’s all about changing the tone of the profession, one small step at a time. As mentioned, the report contains a multitude of recommendations, any of which, if implemented in a courtroom, law firm, a law school or regulatory office, can lead to sustainable positive change.
The adversarial, perfectionistic, competitive, detail-oriented, fast-paced and high-stress nature of the law does not foster a healthy environment. Research shows that this toxic environment drives many of us to consume psychoactive substances (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, heroin, etc.) in order to cope. This environment disrupts our personal lives and relationships, and it contributes to making us feel anxious, overwhelmed, stressed and depressed. It is time to change this.
We encourage all lawyers to read the report and advocate that leaders in the profession review the recommendations and determine which ones they can realistically implement. Whether that involves forming a well-being committee in a law firm, inviting COLAP to provide a CLE on well-being and stress mitigation at the organization, or simply choosing to prioritize collegiality, small steps will make a difference. D
Jonathan White is a staff attorney at the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel. He assists the office with a number of policy-related projects, including the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, co-chaired by Attorney Regulation Counsel James Coyle. He is also the day-to-day project manager for the office’s proactive law practice self-assessment initiative. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Sarah Myers, J.D., L.M.F.T., L.A.C., is the clinical director for the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program (COLAP) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. COLAP provides free and confidential services for judges, lawyers and law students. If you need resources for any issue that is compromising your ability to be a productive member of the legal community (including your well-being), or if there is someone you are concerned about, contact COLAP at 303- 986-3345. For more information, visit coloradolap.org.
1. Papadakis, “Lawyers Have Lowest Health and Wellbeing of All Professionals, Study Finds,” Financial Review (Nov. 20, 2015), afr.com/leadership/lawyers-have-lowest-health-and-wellbeing-of-all-professionals-study-finds-20151117-gl1h72.
2. Dahl, “The Alarming New Research on Perfectionism,” New York Magazine (Sept. 20, 2014), nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/09/alarming-new-research-on-perfectionism.html.
3. Zimmerman, “The Lawyer, the Addict,” The New York Times (July 15, 2017), nytimes.com/2017/07/15/business/lawyers-addiction-mental-health.html; Flores and Arce, “Why Are Lawyers Killing Themselves?” cnn.com, Jan. 20, 2014, cnn.com/2014/01/19/us/lawyer-suicides/.
4. Krill et al., “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” 10 Journal of Addiction Medicine, 46–52 (2016).
5. Organ et al., “Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns,” 66 Journal of Legal Education, 116 (2016).
6. Organ et al., “Helping Law Students Get the Help They Need: An Analysis of Data Regarding Law Students’ Reluctance to Seek Help and Policy Recommendations for a Variety of Stakeholders,” 84 The Bar Examiner, 9 (2015).
7. Krill et al., supra note 4.
8. Id. at 48, 51.
9. Id. at 50.