Statistics reveal that going to law school should carry a Surgeon General’s warning about the risk of developing mental health issues, including addiction. Thus, we are welcoming into our profession individuals with a greatly heightened risk of mental-health challenges, ranging from mild anxiety to addiction. Our workplaces, however, seldom account for these heightened propensities, and often exacerbate them. Yet, tending to the mental-health needs of lawyers is an important professional responsibility. Not only is it an obligation to our colleagues as human beings, but it is also an obligation to our clients. Offering legal counsel requires a high level of mental and physical wellness. When that slips, so does work performance.
To guard against these tendencies and the associated risk of legal error, it is important to recognize the characteristics of the individuals who enter a profession that fosters stress and anxiety. For example, the competitive job market for lawyers means that even students who rose to the top of their classes at every prior level of education are fighting for jobs. Those who can’t find employment are weighed down by the stress of making ends meet. Those who do find jobs are lucky, but acquire the real-life pressures of representing clients and meeting workplace expectations. And they are often dropped into an environment that makes it difficult to prioritize time to health and wellness.
Several factors contribute to this unhealthy work environment. First, the practice of law has become possible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The technology that provides flexibility to work from anywhere also provides an expectation of around-the-clock availability. For those in a billable-hour environment, that also means that there is never an hour of the week where billing is not a viable use of time. Because of that, lawyers develop a mindset that every six-minute increment spent on something other than work is a lost billing opportunity. With billable hours being a marker of progression in the law-firm environment, it is no wonder that many lawyers prioritize billing hours at the expense of wellness.
Second, we work in an increasingly isolated fashion. While in the past, communication required face-to-face interaction, today, it is entirely common for two lawyers working only a few offices away from each other to email each other rather than communicate in person. Additionally, the nature of practice makes remote work very common. This offers much-needed flexibility in practice. But, it also has an impact on lawyer training and oversight. Twenty years ago, if I wanted a partner’s attention, I would go to the partner’s office and wait until the partner had time to talk to me face-to-face. This would happen daily, providing not only regular opportunities to receive feedback, but also to have discussions about non-work-related topics. These routine interactions enabled me and my colleagues to develop a baseline view about our colleagues’ daily habits and state of mind. If there were a change in behavior, it was something that one of us was likely to notice. Today, with work interactions being largely virtual, there are not as many opportunities to assess what is “normal” and what is “unusual.” Therefore, we are likely missing clues that could signal a change in a colleague’s mental or physical well-being. Simultaneously, we are reducing positive social interactions and increasing isolation that can lead to depression.
Fostering an environment where lawyers remain healthy and best able to serve their clients’ needs requires support from several areas, including lawyers, human resources, and training. The first line of defense in creating a healthy culture is the lawyers and staff in your workplace. I always tell our new associates to build networks among themselves and with the other individuals with whom they interact regularly. A certainty in practice is that we will work hard and spend a lot of time with our colleagues. It is equally certain that during the course of one’s career, life emergencies will arise. It is not uncommon for the first person with whom you share news of a significant life event to be someone at work. Having a network at work to support you through those life events is critical. Not only does that network enable you to uphold your obligations to clients by passing work to others as you handle a life crisis, but it also makes managing the life crisis less stressful.
Second, making lawyers aware of resources in times of crisis is beneficial. Many places of employment have access to employee-assistance programs that provide confidential, free counseling to employees and their families in a variety of circumstances. Stigma-free access to such services is important to creating a safe space for individuals to seek help. In addition to workplace resources, the American Bar Association, as well as state bars across the country, host a wealth of information. They are committed to making lawyers aware of the many confidential resources available regarding mental health, substance abuse, and other life stresses that can adversely affect an attorney’s ability to practice law. These programs serve multiple purposes including: assisting lawyers, judges, and law students with issues that are or may be impairing; supporting the ongoing recovery process of lawyers and judges; educating the legal community about issues of substance abuse and mental health; and helping to maintain the integrity of the profession. The Professional Liability Litigation Committee’s webpage has links to these state bar resources.
Third, increasing training within the workplace regarding stress, anxiety, substance abuse, and means of countering those tendencies in lawyers is also important. Management-sponsored training is a step toward de-stigmatizing discussion of these important issues. Additionally, the training can provide basic advice on the signs of stress and anxiety and offer ways of countering the same such as meditation and exercise.
None of these efforts will succeed, however, without leaders in organizations modeling healthy behaviors. Young lawyers perceive who is considered “successful” in an organization. And if those lawyers are the ones who constantly reinforce the concept of “work hard, play hard,” those are the behaviors that will be emulated. What may be missed in the process is that playing too hard inevitably lowers the quality of work product and service to clients. As all legal organizations strive to serve their clients zealously and with competence, it is a natural corollary that we strive to make our work environments healthy ones.
Anne Marie Seibel is a partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP in Birmingham, Alabama.
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