As lawyers, we get to help find solutions and assist our clients navigate our systems of law. Lawyers work hard to serve their clients and shoulder much responsibility in doing so. The practice of law can be stressful, given the nature of what we are tasked to do on a regular basis. But stress in our profession has been on the rise for some time. Why? There is the obvious answer, the pandemic that landed on our doorstep and that we have all struggled to navigate since 2020. But there is more to it. Well-being issues in the practice did not recently develop. They have been present in our profession for a long time, but there had long been a sense that it was all part and parcel of being an attorney, sometimes even a badge of honor, and you just kind of quietly dealt with it.
But over the last decade there has been a focus on lawyer well-being, and the impact of stress on our profession. In 2016, there was a groundbreaking Hazelden study of more than 13,000 lawyers that gathered data addressing substance use and behavioral health concerns. The study revealed that lawyers were 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people in other jobs. It also found that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualified as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggled with some level of depression, and 19 percent demonstrated symptoms of anxiety. Younger lawyers experienced a higher level of these issues.
Last year, the ABA conducted a study to find out about practicing attorney’s needs, concerns and goals going forward. The study showed that we had been feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of work, and that this feeling had become more pronounced during the pandemic. The survey found these pressures were affecting female attorneys with children, and minority attorneys at higher levels.
Another study, the National Judicial Stress and Resiliency Survey, whose results were released late last year, and was conducted pre-covid, found that of the more than 1,000 judges surveyed, one-third or more reported fatigue and low energy, sleep disturbance or disturbed attention and concentration. Additionally, the study found that one in five judges who responded to a survey on job stress met at least one criterion for depressive disorder.
These results are clearly concerning for several reasons. These numbers tell us that as a profession, we face depression at much higher rates than ER doctors, police officers, CEO’s, all high stress careers. They also tell us that lawyer well-being is a widespread issue that requires attention and action.
Let’s talk about some of the reasons for being here.
Attorneys are struggling. Some of the reasons include financial obligations/crushing debt, a tendency to be perfectionists (internal pressure), demands of clients and bosses (external pressures), and a lack of certainty on legal outcomes. As a profession we strive for excellence in addressing the problems at hand. We are driven and problem solve for a living. Taking care of everyone’s needs, before our own, can be detrimental to our well-being. We know that unaddressed, our well-being suffers, and can lead to alcohol abuse, drug dependency, or stress related issues like anxiety, burnout, and depression, which all affect our ability to practice law, remain engaged, or even to remain in the practice. We simply cannot thrive when we struggle alone. Left unattended, our well-being and our legal practice can suffer leading to negative and in extreme cases, devastating effects.
What can be done as a profession, to combat stress, and make attorney well-being a priority?
For one, stakeholders and employers need to be informed about the widespread issue. As a culture, we need to acknowledge that stress is abundant in the workplace. We need to understand the difference between normal stress and stress that can become unhealthy. We need to make it okay to talk about our well-being without fear and remove the stigma that far too often accompanies mental health. One of the reasons we sometimes fail to get help until its necessary or fail to put our well-being first is fear. We are scared about what our colleagues will think, what our clients may think, or how it will affect our reputation. We need to normalize the conversation about well-being.
It follows that mental health and well-being resources need to be made readily available in our firms and in our field. The Illinois Lawyers Assistance Program (ILAP) is an example of a great resource. It is a not-for-profit organization that helps Illinois lawyers, judges, law students, and their families concerned about alcohol abuse, drug dependency, or stress related issues like anxiety, burnout, and depression. Services include individual and group therapy, assessments, education, peer support, and intervention. It is 100% confidential. LAP’s exist in some form in all 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico. We need more of this. LAP’s alone cannot support the needs of the profession. Many employers and firms have developed well-being programs at work, but there can always be more. Having these types of programs and resources in abundance is crucial for helping develop healthy coping skills.
As individuals, we need to recognize when the stresses we face begin to overwhelm us, and make our well-being a priority. This might mean incorporating mental health days into our work schedule, participating in therapy, or setting boundaries. It could mean integrating regular well-being strategies into our lives. It could begin by simply taking stock of how stress affects us. Working through our stresses to find a place of optimal health benefits our practice, our clients, and our well-being. Healthy balanced people are healthy balanced lawyers.