December 2018 | Around the ABA

Stress, anxiety, substance abuse? Self-help tips to adopt now

A 2017 research study from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being says that “the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.”

The shocking statement “should be a wake-up call to everyone in the legal profession,” says Kelli M. Hinson, a partner and general counsel at Carrington Coleman in Dallas.

Lisa F. Smith, author of “Girl Walks Out of a Bar” and a former attorney, agrees. She says the morning before she became sober in 2004, “I had consumed for breakfast almost an entire bottle of red wine and cocaine, got dressed and then headed out to go to work to my law firm.” Smith felt very alone but later learned she was far from being the only one in this condition.

The two women were panelists on the webinar, “Overcoming Chronic Stress by Improving Attorney Mental Health & Wellness,” sponsored by the ABA Section of Litigation, Center for Professional Responsibility and the Center for Professional Development.

A 2016 lawyer study conducted jointly by the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs (CoLAP) and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that 13,000 practicing lawyers and judges, or approximately 21 percent, had a substance abuse problem that included alcohol. And 32 percent of those lawyers were under the age of 30. These attorneys were across all sectors, including corporate and government.

Smith knows the statistics well. She began drinking in high school and spiraled out of control when she became a first-year associate at a prestigious law firm in New York. It was there that she added cocaine use to her drinking. It wasn’t until she suffered an anxiety attack that she sought help, checking herself into what she calls “one of the worst psychiatric hospitals in New York City.”

“I was also diagnosed as having major depressive disorder, which is all too prevalent of mental health disorders among attorneys,” says Smith, who rejected advice from her physician to enter an in-patient treatment facility. “I refused because I had to go back to work because I was not going to explain to my firm that I had to go away to rehab,” she says.

“I was fortunate that I had not lost everything – I had my job and the support of my friends and family,” Smith explains. “However, I went straight back and tried to jump into work as if nothing had ever happened because I was afraid of the stigma that surrounds substance abuse.”

The 2016 study found 28 percent of attorneys suffer from depression, 19 percent from severe anxiety and 11.5 percent reported having suicidal thoughts during their early career.

The study indicates the two biggest barriers to seeking help are not wanting others to find out they need help and concerns about privacy and confidentiality.

“I never got so much as a negative performance review. I received a raise and a bonus the month before I checked into the facility,” Smith says. Red flags would have gone up except that she worked remotely. “I did everything within my power to hide it because I was really terrified of the stigma.”

Anthony Pacione, deputy director of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program in Chicago, says some people manage stress better than others.  “Stressful situations are also categorized by cognitive completion, which indicates when we are stressed or mentally fatigued, we become more impulsive and demonstrate less control,” he says.

He recommends several strategies to manage chronic stress:

Social connectivity. A series of studies conducted in 2014 by the American Psychological Association showed that individuals who have little or negative social connections tend to suffer increased health risks such as high blood pressure, cardiac disease and depression. “The goal is to create positive, multiple social networks that demonstrate the positive effects of being socially connected,” says Pacione. This can include family members, friends, colleagues and institutions such as places of worship.

Prioritizing positivity. Schedule activities that promote positive emotions, including engaging with those who are positive and make you laugh, visiting places that produce good memories like the outdoors or the ballpark and activities that promote learning and curiosity.  

Persistent patience. Focus on accountability, your goals or objectives, having the support of those who will help you be successful and waiting for the outcome.

To this list of strategies, Jeena Cho, a bankruptcy attorney with JC Law Group PC in San Francisco and the author of “The Anxious Lawyer,” recommends spending several times throughout the day intentionally focusing on moments of letting go of stress and anxiety. “I used to be a highly anxious, chronic-anxiety practicing lawyer. I did not want to reach out because I thought it would mean I was ineffective as a lawyer,” says Cho, adding, “I began practicing mindfulness after being diagnosed with social anxiety disorder.”

Cho realized she did not have the tools to deal with all the sad stories her clients would share with her.

“Mindfulness has taught me that I can be with the suffering of others and recognize the impact it has on me,” Cho says.

Practicing mindfulness is a way to training our attention in three specific ways:

·        Stability in reduced mind wandering

·        Control in appropriately directing attention

·        Efficiency in the economical use of cognitive resources.

LaKeisha R. Randall, a former civil trial attorney with State Farm and a member of the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs in Atlanta, suggests implementing healthy healing and wellness practices at law schools to help minimize the rates of problem drinking, anxiety and depression.

“Instead of happy hour and taking interns out to lunch with alcohol, form more team-building activities and networking opportunities that create a more collaborative experience,” Randall says. She also recommends lawyers who need assistance visit the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs website.

Hinson quotes the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being: “‘To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer.”