November 27, 2017

New study on lawyer well-being reveals serious concerns for legal profession

The findings of two 2016 studies that revealed high rates of substance use and mental health disorders among law students and lawyers have put the issue of lawyer well-being front and center for the profession.

“The results were profound, and we determined that something needed to be done,” said Tracy Kepler, director of the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility and moderator of the ABA webinar, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.”  

Joining Kepler were the two co-chairs of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being – Bree Buchanan, director of the State Bar of Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, and James C. Coyle, attorney regulation counsel of the Colorado Supreme Court.

The task force was formed in response to both studies, and the group’s report, "The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change," was published in August 2017. This groundbreaking initiative of the Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs, National Organization of Bar Counsel and Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers puts into action the group’s mission of “creating a movement to improve the health and well-being of the legal profession.”  The task force, comprised of nonprofit groups that include law professors and deans, law students, lawyers, judges and bar leaders, was developed in response to two studies published in 2016:

Buchanan outlined the findings of “Suffering in Silence,” which surveyed 3,300 law students from 15 law schools. The survey found that:

  • 25 percent of law students are at risk for alcoholism
  • 17 percent of law students suffer from depression
  • 37 percent of law students report mild to severe anxiety
  • 6 percent of law students report having suicidal thoughts in the last year

Another devastating finding is the culture of secrecy that surrounds substance use among law students. “Law students will not ask for help,” Buchanan said.  “They are terrified of somebody finding out that they have a problem, which will result in their not being admitted to the bar or not being able to get a job. It’s really about the stigma that attaches to this issue.”

The outlook didn’t improve for practicing lawyers. More than 13,000 working lawyers responded to the survey, and reported that:

  • 28 percent lawyers suffered from depression
  • 19 percent of lawyers had severe anxiety
  • 11.4 percent of lawyers had suicidal thoughts in the previous year

“At some point in their career, 11.4 percent felt that suicide might be a solution to their issues,” Buchanan said. Task force members were surprised to learn how much substance use and abuse, depression and anxiety were affecting younger lawyers. “The younger the lawyer, the greater the rate of impairment,” Buchanan said. “The good news is the older the lawyer, the rates of depression and substance use declined.”

These numbers paint a dark picture of the health of those in the legal profession, which begs the question, what can be done about it? “We must try to change the culture of the legal profession,” Coyle said. The task force generated 44 practical recommendations directed to various legal stakeholders such as judges, regulators, law firms, law schools, bar associations, professional liability carriers and lawyer assistance programs, all in an effort to change the culture and discussion surrounding attorney well-being. 

The report’s recommendations focus on five central themes:

  1. Identify stakeholders and the role each of them can play in reducing the level of toxicity in the legal profession;

  2. Eliminate the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors;

  3. Emphasize that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence;

  4. Educate lawyers, judges and law students on lawyer well-being issues;

  5. Take small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession.

The recommendations provide action plans with simple checklists to help each stakeholder inventory their current system and explore the recommendations relevant to their group. 

To effectively address the problem, the task force knew that targeting law schools was critical, as graduating law students about to enter the profession are at great risk of developing substance use and mental health problems.

“How do we change law firm culture so that it’s more rewarding and more productive for everybody involved?” Coyle asked, adding that despite the great challenges faced by the task force, there is also great opportunity to improve the lives of lawyers and law students.

The task force came up with three reasons why changes are necessary now:

  1. Organizational effectiveness. “It makes good business sense for a firm’s lawyers to be healthy,” Buchanan said.

  2. Ethical integrity. “It’s good for clients. You need to be well to be a competent attorney.” Between 40 percent and 70 percent of disciplinary proceedings and malpractice claims against attorneys involve substance abuse or depression or both.

  3. Humanitarian reasons. Promoting well-being is good for lawyers and their families, and good for the profession. “It’s the right thing to do,” Buchanan said. “Too many of us are living unfulfilled lives,” and untreated problems are ruining lives and careers.

Among the task force recommendations is acknowledging the problem and taking responsibility. “Every sector must support lawyer well-being,” Kepler said. She encourages law leaders to move from being passive deniers to assuming a role of proactive support for change.

Another is to minimize the stigma by talking about the problem openly and reaching out to someone you know who needs help. Support lawyer-assistance programs, which do “amazing” work, Coyle said, even as a volunteer.

Also recommended is de-emphasizing alcohol at legal functions and events. Anyone in recovery will not attend such events, so this recommendation encourages finding alternative activities that promote well-being. “This isn’t the era of ‘Mad Men’ anymore,” Buchanan said.