October 03, 2018

Report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being

Visit the new dedicated website at lawyerwellbeing.net

The Task Force was conceptualized and initiated by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL). It is a collection of entities within and outside the ABA that was created in August 2016. Its participating entities currently include the following: ABA CoLAP; ABA Standing Committee on Professionalism; ABA Center for Professional Responsibility; ABA Young Lawyers Division; ABA Law Practice Division Attorney Wellbeing Committee; The National Organization of Bar Counsel; Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers; National Conference of Chief Justices; and National Conference of Bar Examiners. Additionally, CoLAP was a co-sponsor of the 2016 ABA CoLAP and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s study of mental health and substance use disorders among lawyers and of the 2016 Survey of Law Student Well-Being.

To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being. The two studies referenced above reveal that too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance use. These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence. This research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.

The legal profession is already struggling. Our profession confronts a dwindling market share as the public turns to more accessible, affordable alternative legal service providers. We are at a crossroads. To maintain public confidence in the profession, to meet the need for innovation in how we deliver legal services, to increase access to justice, and to reduce the level of toxicity that has allowed mental health and substance use disorders to fester among our colleagues, we have to act now. Change will require a wide-eyed and candid assessment of our members’ state of being, accompanied by courageous commitment to re-envisioning what it means to live the life of a lawyer.

This report’s recommendations focus on five central themes: (1) identifying stakeholders and the role each of us can play in reducing the level of toxicity in our profession, (2) eliminating the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors, (3) emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence, (4) educating lawyers, judges, and law students on lawyer well-being issues, and (5) taking small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession. 

The members of this Task Force make the following recommendations after extended deliberation. We recognize this number of recommendations may seem overwhelming at first. Thus we also provide proposed state action plans with simple checklists. These help each stakeholder inventory their current system and explore the recommendations relevant to their group. We invite you to read this report, which sets forth the basis for why the legal profession is at a tipping point, and we present these recommendations and action plans for building a more positive future. We call on you to take action and hear our clarion call. The time is now to use your experience, status, and leadership to construct a profession built on greater well-being, increased competence, and greater public trust.

Bree Buchanan, Esq.
Task Force Co-Chair
Director, Texas Lawyers
Assistance Program
State Bar of Texas

James C. Coyle, Esq.
Task Force Co-Chair
Attorney Regulation Counsel
Colorado Supreme Court


Important Developments

"NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Conference of Chief Justices supports the goals of reducing impairment and addictive behavior, and improving the well-being of lawyers, and recommends that each jurisdiction considers the recommendations of the Report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being."

In September 2017, at President Hilarie Bass’s request, the ABA Board of Governors created an ABA Presidential Working Group consisting of representatives from lawyer assistance programs, law firms, bar associations and malpractice insurance carriers to examine and make recommendations regarding the current state of attorney mental health and substance use issues with an emphasis on helping legal employers support healthy work environments. Read more in ABA Journal article, "ABA works to address attorney substance use and mental health disorders." Access the Working Group website here.

In September 2017, at President Hilarie Bass’s request, the ABA Board of Governors created an ABA Presidential Working Group to examine and make recommendations regarding the current state of attorney mental health and substance use issues with an emphasis on helping legal employers support healthy work environments.
In September 2017, at President Hilarie Bass’s request, the ABA Board of Governors created an ABA Presidential Working Group to examine and make recommendations regarding the current state of attorney mental health and substance use issues with an emphasis on helping legal employers support healthy work environments.
In September 2017, at President Hilarie Bass’s request, the ABA Board of Governors created an ABA Presidential Working Group to examine and make recommendations regarding the current state of attorney mental health and substance use issues with an emphasis on helping legal employers support healthy work environments.
In September 2017, at President Hilarie Bass’s request, the ABA Board of Governors created an ABA Presidential Working Group to examine and make recommendations regarding the current state of attorney mental health and substance use issues with an emphasis on helping legal employers support healthy work environments.

Coverage of the Report