March 30, 2020

Mental Health for Paralegals

Anne Murphy Brown, J.D., Associate Professor and Director of Legal Studies at Ursuline College

Mental health is always a relevant topic, but the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of self-care, support and awareness needed to maintain good mental health. The ABA’s Commission on Lawyer’s Assistance Programs has provided a number of mental health resources for legal professionals that may be helpful during these challenging and unpredictable times.

Even during relatively normal times, the law is a profession that requires extensive “brain power” for critical thinking, analytical reasoning, logic, focus, attention and recall.   As professionals, the “output” or “product” that we create is the documentation of our ideas and advice.  None of this work can be done at its best without taking care of our mental health.

What is mental health?  Simply stated, it is our emotional, psychological and social well-being.  It comprises how we feel and how we react to the world.  To be sure, we all have “good” days and “bad” days, but compromised mental health, in the form of depression, anxiety or other mental disorders, can take an enormous toll on our lives and careers. 

Lawyers, paralegals and support staff may face greater mental health challenges because of the nature of our work. Clients bring legal professionals the most difficult problems of their lives and demand they be resolved favorably. Expectations are high and deadlines are ever-looming. In 2018, the American Bar Association, in conjunction with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, completed a study titled, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, which concluded,

“Attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations. Mental health distress is also significant. These data underscore the need for greater resources for lawyer assistance programs, and also the expansion of available attorney-specific prevention and treatment interventions.”

Lawyers, paralegals and support staff may face greater mental health challenges because of the nature of our work. Clients bring legal professionals the most difficult problems of their lives and demand they be resolved favorably. Expectations are high and deadlines are ever-looming. In 2018, the American Bar Association, in conjunction with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, completed a study titled, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, which concluded,

“Attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations. Mental health distress is also significant. These data underscore the need for greater resources for lawyer assistance programs, and also the expansion of available attorney-specific prevention and treatment interventions.”

Lawyers, paralegals and support staff may face greater mental health challenges because of the nature of our work. Clients bring legal professionals the most difficult problems of their lives and demand they be resolved favorably. Expectations are high and deadlines are ever-looming. In 2018, the American Bar Association, in conjunction with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, completed a study titled, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, which concluded,

“Attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations. Mental health distress is also significant. These data underscore the need for greater resources for lawyer assistance programs, and also the expansion of available attorney-specific prevention and treatment interventions.”

How do paralegals fit in to the legal profession's mental health movement?

How do paralegals fit in to the legal profession's mental health movement?

Although there is no specific data on paralegals, if the attorneys with whom we work are experiencing mental health issues at a greater rate, it would stand to reason that paralegals and legal support staff are subject to the same concerns.   According to an August 12, 2019 article from ALM Media (formerly, American Lawyer Media), law firm staffers feel left behind in the legal profession’s mental health movement.

“[D]espite a plethora of resources available at several large firms today, including on-site mental health professionals and wellness applications, many have not extended their mental health resources firmwide.  A survey of 30 AM Law firms found that 36% of firms that say they offer mental health programming do not extend those to programs to their professional staff.
This bifurcated mental health treatment is actually symptomatic of one of the most acute stress factors afflicting law firm professionals: a power hierarchy that devalues professional staff.”

In addition to law firm resources, attorneys may be able to turn to their local Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), but what resources are available for paralegals and support staff?   There are places all people who are struggling can turn, both locally through addiction and mental health organizations and crisis hotlines, and nationally from the following organizations:

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Phone: 1-800-950-6264
 
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Phone:
1-877-726-4727

RehabCenter.Net
An organization that connects people who are seeking treatment to the resources they need. They offer an extensive list of rehab programs and treatment facilities to choose from. They also have a library of educational articles on addiction and recovery, which can benefit residents both in the US and internationally.
Phone: (866) 650-2452

Steps are being taken to address the widespread substance abuse and mental health issues experienced by legal professionals, such as the ABA’s Well-Being Pledge which encourages firms and companies to adopt specific steps in promoting employee well-being. But, while these efforts mention covering legal staff, as do some COLAP mission statements, more needs to be done to ensure that paralegals and other legal support staff are included and supported by these efforts.

Moreover, research shows some simple things we can all do to improve our mental health; exercising, spending time outside, eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and even talking to a friend.  Winter can be a particularly challenging time as days are shorter and colder.  Taking care of our mental health is an important part of maintaining our careers and having happy, healthy, productive lives.  Emotional and psychological well-being must be a priority for all legal professionals, including paralegals. 

Please, be well.