November 01, 2018 Feature

Stressed? You’re Not Alone

By Stephanie A. Scharf

As I travel across the country speaking with lawyers in many different settings and a broad range of practices, I’ve noticed heightened concern about a problem that is more pressing than ever before: the stress of working in the legal profession. Research by the American Bar Association shows that lawyers experience significant levels of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, depression, anxiety, and stress. Based on data from the World Health Organization, women are more likely than men to experience extreme stress, depression, anxiety, and related disorders. Some of the contributing factors are lower earnings, extra caregiving responsibilities, as well as the impact of bias, gender-based harassment, or even violence.

All too frequently, women lawyers face the burden of bias. Some have described a phenomenon they call “death by a thousand cuts,” the everyday micro-aggressions rooted in gender bias that inexorably wear down women and contribute to increased stress and its consequences.

Gender bias has many forms. Some bias is explicit, such as the expectation that women are the caretakers in their household and employers deciding work assignments based on that assumption. How often have you witnessed employers not offering high-profile work involving travel to women because they assume that women have to be home each night? Even today, there are expectations that women lawyers must wear skirts, not slacks; that women lawyers must not be too assertive; and that women lawyers are not assertive enough. (I know that sounds like a contradiction, but both biases not only exist, they also can focus on the same person!)

The ABA Commission on Women in the Profession has recently focused on the broad role played by implicit bias and the extent to which implicit bias affects how women lawyers are evaluated and promoted—or not. Our latest publication, in partnership with the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), is the innovative report You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Racial & Gender Bias in the Legal Profession.

The Commission and MCCA present an approach that melds new research on the scope of implicit bias in law firms and corporate law departments with the need for metrics to assess when and whether implicit bias exists in a given workplace and strategies for implementing changes through the use of “bias interrupters.” We have identified four common types of implicit bias imposed on women and lawyers of color: the “Prove-It-Again,” “Tightrope,” “Maternal Wall,” and “Tug of War” biases.

As the report suggests, “We all have biases. Now it’s time to interrupt them.” Included are Bias Interrupters Toolkits that lay out a metrics-driven plan for legal employers to remove bias and its effects from their business systems. From recruitment to assignments to compensation, employers now have concrete actions for leveling the playing field for women and minority lawyers. To review the report, visit

Of course, many employers understand the value of retaining a diverse range of talent in law firms and legal departments. Diversity and inclusion are not only the right thing to do, but they allow a business to thrive with a wide array of talented professionals.

I am optimistic that with the new research and tools offered by the Commission—such as our publications about interrupting bias, eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace, and best practices for retaining and advancing women lawyers—we are on the cusp of changes in the legal profession that will greatly minimize the impact of bias and open up avenues for women to thrive in the legal profession in much greater numbers than has been true in the past.

If you would like more information about eliminating the role of implicit bias in your workplace, please do not hesitate to contact me.

As we approach the end of 2018, let me offer my very best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season.


By Stephanie A. Scharf

Stephanie A. Scharf is a founding partner of Scharf Banks Marmor LLC in Chicago. She is chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and co-chairs the ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law.