April 25, 2017

National Task Force Looks to Help Struggling Lawyers

The Hon. Robert L. Childers

In 1988 the ABA Commission on Impaired Attorneys (now known as the Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs, or CoLAP) was created in response to the alarming prevalence of the overuse and abuse of alcohol and drugs by legal professionals. Because of the work of CoLAP there are now formal lawyer assistance programs in all 50 states. The earliest study in 1990 on the issue revealed that 18 percent of attorneys were problem drinkers or twice that of American adults at that time. That study also showed 19 percent of lawyers surveyed suffered from significantly elevated levels of depression compared with the then-current estimates of 3 percent to 9 percent of individuals in Western civilized countries.i

The most recent study on these issues was completed in 2016 in a joint effort by CoLAP and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. The report on the study was published in the February, 2016 issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine. The study included a sample of almost 13,000 licensed, employed attorneys, assessing their alcohol use, drug use, and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. The study shows that the prevalence of overuse and abuse of alcohol and drugs has increased significantly since the 1990 study, as well as the levels of depression, anxiety and stress.

More than 22 percent of participants reported that they have felt their use of alcohol or other substances was “problematic” at some point in their lives. Also, 20.6 percent screened positive for hazardous, harmful and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking. The report found that between 21-36 percent of attorneys qualify as problem drinkers. The study also revealed alarming levels of depression, anxiety and stress among attorneys: 28 percent had experienced symptoms of depression, 19 percent had experienced symptoms of anxiety and 23 percent had experienced symptoms of stress. Of those who responded, 11.5 percent indicated that they had suicidal thoughts at some point in their career, with 2.9 percent reporting self-injurious behaviors and 0.7 percent reporting at least one prior suicide attempt.

CoLAP strongly believes that the report should serve as a wakeup call and a call to action for the legal profession. As a result of the report the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being has been created by a consortium of organizations. i The National Task Force is now in the process of drafting a report with recommendations as a guideline for making fundamental improvements in our profession. Although the legal profession has known for at least 25 years that many of its students and practitioners are languishing, far too little has been done to address it. The legal profession has been plagued with a multitude of troubles including depression, anxiety, suicide, alcohol abuse, social alienation, stress, work addiction, sleep deprivation, job dissatisfaction, complaints of work-life conflict, incivility, a narrowing of values so that profit predominates, a diversity problem, and negative public perception.

Too many in our profession find themselves drained of civility and compassion, and plagued by chronic stress, poor self-care, and high rates of depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse. The result is that the legal profession is not living up to its full potential as an institution in which attorneys can thrive, best serve their clients, and contribute to a better society. The National Task Force report will provide specific recommendations tailored for the all of the stakeholders in the legal community: judges, regulators, legal employers, law schools, bar associations, and lawyer assistance programs. The report will also provide general recommendations for all of the stakeholders. The National Task Force will use the report and recommendations as a call to action with the hope that it will spur the profession to make much needed changes from the top down that will fundamentally improve our profession by providing a road map for making legal professionals healthier, happier, more competent practitioners.

i Occupations and the prevalence of major depressive disorders, Eaton, W.W., Journal of Occupational Medicine, 32(11), 1079-1087

ii National Organization of Bar Counsel, ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, National Conference of Chief Justices, ABA Center for Professional Responsibility, ABA Standing Committee on Professionalism, ABA Young Lawyers Division, ABA Law Practice Division, Authors of the CoLAP/Hazelden Study of 2016, and Authors of the 2014 Survey on Law Student Well-being

The Hon. Robert L. Childers

The Hon. Robert Childers of Memphis has served as a Tennessee Circuit Court judge since 1984. He is a past chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) and a past chair of the Domestic Violence State Coordinating Council. He has also served as president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference and president of the Tennessee Trial Judges Association.