Working professionals continue to struggle with mental health issues caused or exacerbated by COVID-19. Certainly, no sector has been spared the emotional impact of the pandemic, although legal professionals and staff have been particularly struck by the extensive feelings of loneliness, loss, and strain brought on by pandemic-related struggles. Addressing these issues is paramount. Law firms are increasingly offering mental health initiatives, and attorneys are becoming more forthright in tackling their concerns. But there is still some way to go.
By the Numbers
Attorneys and staff have long battled depression and substance abuse. Self-destructive tendencies like overworking have been the norm to the detriment of attorney wellness. During the past few years, awareness toward finding ways to address these issues has increased. Unfortunately, reports show some lost ground in these areas.
According to ALM’s 2021 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey, law firm attorneys and staff reported an increase in mental health troubles across the board from prior years. The ALM report surveyed more than 3,200 law firm attorneys and staff. Of respondents, 37 percent said they felt depressed in the prior year, an increase of nearly 6 percent compared with the information from the 2020 report; 71 percent of respondents indicated experiencing anxiety, up 7 percent over the prior year; and 14 percent noted they have a different mental illness, up over 2 percent from the previous year.
When questioned about the impact of the pandemic on their mental health, 70 percent of respondents said the pandemic made it worse. Isolation was the largest harmful influence on mental health. Almost 51 percent of those who took the survey said they felt isolated. When asked what is causing their mental health to suffer, 35 percent said isolation, 14 percent said working remotely, and 12 percent indicated disruption of routine.
“My firm is generally a good place to work. COVID really threw things off, and I’ve felt pretty isolated working from home,” stated one respondent in an article published recently in the American Lawyer. “If anything, I’d describe the experience of the past year as total isolation with no boundaries between work and personal life. No amount of Zoom ‘happy hours’ or ‘coffee chats’ can overcome that,” the respondent told the American Lawyer.
According to ALM’s survey, 61 percent of respondent lawyers feel as if they “can’t disconnect,” up from 58 percent the previous year. “I am expected to be on 24/7,” another respondent in the American Lawyer article lamented. “I get calls and emails all night and over the weekend, and late night and weekend deadlines have become the norm. It is starting to ruin my personal relationships. Pre-COVID, similar concerns applied, but it wasn’t as bad.”
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report from last year also showed an increase in anxiety and depression in adults during the last half of the year. During those months, the percentage of adults with symptoms of anxiety or depression increased to 41.5 percent from 36.4 percent, the report said, and the percentage of those reporting they needed—but weren’t able to get—mental-health counseling or therapy also rose to 11.7 percent from 9.2 percent.
The report, based on a national survey administered by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, found that young adults (those up to 29 years old) saw the biggest increase in the percentage experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. The survey also found that between late January and early February 2021, more than two in five adults experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression, while one in four reported they didn’t receive the counseling or therapy they needed.
Addressing the Issues
Law firms have been paying increasing attention to the issue of lawyer well-being. In response to the August 2017 report issued by the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, more than 170 law firms, legal departments, and governmental agencies signed the ABA’s well-being pledge. Reed Smith, one of the first firms to sign the pledge, launched its Wellness Works initiative in 2018 to help the workforce “manage stress, achieve work-life balance, develop healthy habits, and attain positive mindfulness.”
Large law firms continue to roll out firmwide initiatives while providing flexibility for their local offices to adapt their programs as they see fit. Almost 55 percent of legal professionals recognized their firm’s efforts to mitigate mental health concerns, and nearly 63 percent of the ALM survey respondents reported feeling that these efforts were sincere.
Mindfulness teaches us to increase the time between a stimulus and reaction, and reminds us that while we have no control over activity in the world around us, we have control over our reactions to it.
Why is wellness such an issue in the legal profession? Case-critical deadlines, unpredictability of client demands, and the conflict-based nature of the legal system all create stress and compound the amygdala response (fight, flight, or freeze) signals being sent to the brain.
According to Jeffrey H. Bunn, Chicago, IL, mindfulness is crucial for today’s lawyers. Mindfulness is a way of thinking. It teaches us to increase the time between a stimulus and reaction. It further reminds us that while we have no control over external activity in the world around us, we have control over our reactions to it. Mindfulness practice can help lawyers recognize that agitated state of mind and shift to a healthier one. For lawyers, mindfulness is a powerful tool.
Bunn believes law firms can have both successful practices and healthy lawyers by running their businesses mindfully. Bunn also makes a business case for mindfulness, saying in a LinkedIn article that it will “improve employee health awareness, resulting in lower insurance expenses. It will allow lawyers to better serve their clients by increasing their self-confidence and providing them with greater clarity of purpose.” Mindfulness will also help firms retain employees increase employee satisfaction, resulting in lower turnover expenses. Moreover, Bunn added, “mindfulness programs can qualify for CLE credit.”
Michelle Wimes, Kansas City, MO, posited in an ABA Journal article that mindfulness practices “not only help us to focus and increase our capacity to think more clearly but also help us to act more intentionally by raising our awareness of our emotions in any given moment.” Wimes, who considers mindfulness programs one facet of a firm’s overall wellness and diversity strategy, further wrote that “[b]y regulating our emotional responses, we can decrease the occurrence of bias and our natural tendency to employ stereotypes and unconscious expectations in our interactions with others.”
Finding a New Normal
Despite losing ground in the battle against mental health issues following the COVID-19 outbreak, firms and legal professionals should not be discouraged. Returning to a new normal will inevitably represent another period of adjustment for attorneys and staff. How firms continue efforts to alleviate mental health concerns could have substantial consequences for the well-being of their employees in the long run.
“It’s great that firms are prioritizing wellness,” agreed Anne Brafford, Orange County, CA, in a San Francisco Attorney Magazine article, “but to truly make a difference for the legal profession, larger issues need to be addressed.” Brafford stated, “If we really want well-being over the long term, it will need to be an institutional change industry-wide. We have to keep the innovation and interest going so it doesn’t peter out.”
- ALM, 2021 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey (May 2021).
- Anjel Vahratian, “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder and Use of Mental Health Care Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic—United States, August 2020–February 2021,” CDC (Apr. 2, 2021).
- Dylan Jackson, “Legal Professionals Were Already Struggling With Stress and Isolation, and the Pandemic Has Made Things Much Worse,” Am. Law. (May 3, 2021).
- Jeena Cho, “4 strategies for effectively implementing a mindfulness program,” ABA J. (May 1, 2018).
- Laura Ernde, “Law Firms Get Creative To Combat Mental Health Challenges,” San Francisco Att’y Mag. (Apr. 3, 2020).
- Michelle Silverthorn, “Mindfulness Practice in Law Firms,” LinkedIn (Jan. 5, 2016).
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