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Law Practice Magazine

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Just Power Through: Equal Access to Mental Wellness in Law

John D Bowers


  • Law firm leaders sometimes rely on personal experiences when making management decisions, potentially leading to outdated perspectives and ineffective solutions.
  • A significant portion of legal professionals feel that their firms don't prioritize mental health, with only 59 percent believing that lawyers and staff have equal access to mental health programs.
Just Power Through: Equal Access to Mental Wellness in Law

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Law firm leaders, particularly of senior generations––but also the newer Generation X superiors––sustain a less-than-endearing habit of deciding more uncomfortable management matters by comparison to their personal experience. Of course, there’s bound to be some shred of truth in the “walking three miles in snow uphill both ways” stories. Plus, the status quo routinely reassures both comfort and easy decisions. Effective leaders, on the other hand, are wary of the “When I” phrases, which typically lead to predictable trains of thought like “When I was an associate . . .” and “When I was at [former intergalactic firm] . . .” We rightly place great importance on personal experience, but such a mindset is valid only when tempered with outside, updated perspective. A gaping lack of perspective inevitably breeds irrelevant conclusions, if not contempt among colleagues.

The concerns are not merely anecdotal: ALM’s 2023 Mental Health Survey of the Legal Profession found that 52 percent of respondents believe that their firms do not care about their mental health. Considering the vague yet very real “just tough it out” mindset, who could possibly be surprised at the inequity of access to mental health and wellness resources among law firms?

All U.S. states and many Canadian provinces have lawyer assistance programs that work tirelessly to improve the mental well-being of lawyers and judges, in addition to addressing substance abuse, among other impairments to practicing law. They often accomplish yeoman’s work with tight budgets and lean staffs; but what about services for everyone else who make up the legal industry? The ALM survey revealed that only 59 percent of respondents think that lawyers and staff are treated equally when it comes to access to mental health programs. With the rising tide of mental illness and awareness of the same since a global pandemic, leaders in the legal industry simply cannot let this stand. We can no longer rely upon the notion that we can shake ourselves out of the familiar funk or bank on being shocked out of it, after great procrastination and perhaps avoidable disaster: 15 percent of respondents in the ALM survey know someone in the legal profession who committed suicide in the last two years.

Public Service Announcement

If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, text 988 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.

Proud Nonlawyers

I’m part of that 15 percent statistic: a friend of mine who served as senior HR director at an Am Law 200 firm took her own life on August 30, 2023, leaving behind a husband and three daughters under the age of 20. As we, the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators (MTALA), mourn her loss and support her family, we are compelled to take inventory and action. Thus, the MTALA Mental Health Task Force was birthed to educate our members and firms as well as promote self-care. After all, as an incredibly wise member of the Task Force put it, when the oxygen masks drop on a plane, the airline always tells you to put on your own mask before helping others.

We happen to be proud nonlawyers. For years, well-intentioned lawyers have told me that “nonlawyer” is a derogatory term. I’ve modified the apparent insult with “proud” to make it sound better; the bonus is that it still upsets politically correct lawyers. In truth, I haven’t met too many professionals who purposefully work at law firms in excess of a few years and are ashamed that they aren’t lawyers. With the right law firm or group of people, those who earned a J.D. are no more important to the team than those who did not.

The MTALA enjoys a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) through education and confidential referrals. The Task Force is aware that TLAP services are directed—and funded—toward lawyers and judges. However, unwell lawyers and judges are never an island: the damage is always collateral, whether to the team, the law firm, the court or the family.

According to the Task Force’s 2023 Mental Health and Well-Being Survey of nonlawyer firm employees in middle Tennessee, 78 percent of the respondents said they would be more comfortable discussing mental health concerns with an external resource rather than an internal one—yet another reflection of the “just tough it out” mindset. Consequently, the Task Force requested that TLAP’s services be extended to all legal professionals as well as families of lawyers, judges and nonlawyers. TLAP is considering broadening the eligible demographic and has committed to raise it for vote in April with the Tennessee Supreme Court, which oversees TLAP. This adjustment will necessarily carry a funding increase as well. Though it is a big ask, humans yearn to be heroic. The Task Force dearly hopes the Supreme Court’s decision is indeed heroic—for our own good, yes, and most importantly for the future of all legal professionals.

Opportunistic Challenges Await

Treatment of mental unwellness in law firms presents an abundant opportunity for leaders who place any worth in their well-loved human capital. It’s true that we trade on value of our people’s intellectual solutions, including time invested by lawyers—and other timekeepers. It’s impossible, however, to intend the very best for our colleagues while overlooking any component of their whole person.

Taking it a step further, leaders in law must create a culture where it is safe to push back on clients’ unreasonable demands. The ALM survey finds that, though law firm push-back on such client demands has grown by 5 percent since 2019, 65 percent of respondents in 2023 report that their firms continue to bury their collective head in the sand. Improving client relationships, including firing bad clients, which is a whole article of its own, may well ease measurable amounts of stress weighing down the legal professionals working tirelessly to resolve their clients’ legal woes.