Ethical Obligations Most Affected by Lawyer Wellness
Lawyers have an ethical obligation to represent their clients with competence, as codified in ABA Model Rule 1.1, which requires lawyers to utilize the “. . . legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” An unwell lawyer may struggle to perform legal tasks that are essential to competent representation. The ability to perform tasks such as conducting thorough legal research and accurately analyzing complex issues may be seriously compromised. The judgment and decision-making abilities of unwell lawyers also may be impaired.
Neglect goes hand in hand with incompetence, and lawyers who are suffering from stressors of all kinds are likely to be less diligent than they should be. Procrastination and avoidance are natural consequences of many mental health issues. For lawyers suffering from mental health challenges, these tendencies make it nearly impossible for them to adequately represent their clients under the disciplinary rules. Rule 1.3 requires that lawyers act with “reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.” Lawyers experiencing mental health issues or burnout may struggle to meet this obligation, which can result in serious errors such as missed deadlines and court appearances.
When a lawyer is suffering, client communication and confidentiality are likely to suffer as well.
Rule 1.4 requires lawyers to promptly inform clients of significant developments pertaining to their cases and respond in a timely manner to client requests for information. However, depression, anxiety, or even a lack of confidence can cause a lawyer to withdraw from interacting with others, including clients, who can be, at times, demanding and unhappy about what the lawyer has to tell them. A lack of communication by the lawyer can hinder the client’s ability to make informed decisions about his or her legal matters and negatively affect the client’s position. From the client’s perspective, a lawyer’s failure to communicate promptly and clearly can lead to misunderstandings and mistrust, which, in turn, can be the beginning of the end of what might otherwise have been a good lawyer-client relationship.
Confidentiality is another part of communicating effectively and is vital to the healthy functioning of an attorney-client relationship. Rule 1.6 codifies the duty of lawyers to maintain the confidentiality of client information. Lawyers suffering from mental health challenges may unintentionally compromise client confidentiality by failing to maintain secure records, follow secure communication practices, or otherwise protect sensitive client information.
Lawyer Burnout and Wellness
Burnout is pervasive in the legal profession, and symptoms typically include mental and emotional exhaustion, reduced productivity or professional efficacy, difficulty concentrating, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, among others. Burnout is characterized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an occupational phenomenon (as opposed to a medical condition) that is caused, in part, by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” To make sure their clients’ needs—both real and imagined—are met, lawyers frequently work excessively long hours at a demanding pace. These long hours spent working at mentally rigorous tasks exact an incredible toll and can result in severe burnout.
Lawyers experiencing burnout will struggle to keep up with their workload and all too often may attempt to “self-medicate” with alcohol or other drugs. According to the American Bar Association, “[a]s many as one in five lawyers is a problem drinker—twice the national rate.”
Those suffering from burnout may also struggle to identify and appropriately address conflicts of interest. Because burnout often leads to poor judgment, there is a higher risk of failing to deal with conflicts appropriately, putting those lawyers who suffer from burnout at risk of violating their ethical obligations under Rule 1.7 regarding conflicts.
Those suffering from extreme burnout may reach a point where they are unable to provide competent representation to their clients, making withdrawal from representation necessary under Rule 1.16. However, because lawyers who suffer from burnout or mental health issues frequently do not recognize that they are unable to adequately represent their clients, they do not withdraw when they should. This simply increases the risk that the lawyer will violate the disciplinary rules by continuing to represent their clients when they should not. These lawyers may be loath to withdraw from representation of a client for fear of failing the client, fear of what their colleagues will think, fear of losing money, or any other of a multitude of reasons; however, if a lawyer has a duty to withdraw from a representation and fails to do so, the result will almost certainly be multiple disciplinary rule violations.
Solutions to Address Lawyer Mental Health Issues
Lawyer wellness affects the entire legal profession. With the proliferation of burnout and the staggering numbers of lawyers suffering from mental health challenges, the profession has taken notice—and taken action.
Most states have a “Lawyer Assistance Program” in place to support attorneys who are struggling. State and local bars also have various wellness committees, workshops, resources, and support, as well as continuing legal education courses and mentorship programs to ensure that attorneys are aware of the hazards of chronic mental health issues.
National organizations such as the American Bar Association (ABA) and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) have programs and resources for attorneys who are members of the bar in any state. The ABA also has a national assistance program, the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), and a list of Lawyer Assistance Programs around the country.
Finally, all lawyers should build a strong network of supportive friends, family, and colleagues. If necessary, they should never hesitate to seek professional counseling or therapy.
Lawyer Wellness Equals Wellness of the Profession as a Whole
Ultimately, addressing lawyer wellness is not only a matter of professional responsibility but also a fundamental duty grounded in the legal profession’s core values of compassion, professionalism, service, and civility, all of which are essential components contributing to the ethical practice of law. All lawyers, law firms, and bar associations must continue to prioritize lawyer mental health and well-being to ensure that ethical standards are upheld throughout the profession and that clients are adequately represented. By focusing on improving and maintaining wellness for themselves and others, lawyers can continue to better the legal profession as a whole.