A Healthy Legal Profession Starts with Law Student Well-Being

law student well-beingLaw student well-being is just another way for millennials to get out of work. Is it just me or is that statement a bit harsh? Yet, I’ve recently heard it a handful of times from lawyers.

Go ahead, label me as “soft” or a “tree hugger”; but I’m an attorney and I believe the notion that younger generations of lawyers need to “grin and bear it” like the rest of us isn’t working. As we’ve discussed on this blog before, the legal profession has a wellness problem.

Law Student Well-Being Data

The pivotal 2016 American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study found that 1 in 5 lawyers self-described themselves as problem drinkers and 28% of those lawyers suffered from depression.

Even more eye-opening is that of the 1 and 5 lawyers who self-described as problem drinkers, 27% said this behavior started in law school and 44% said it began in their first 15 year of practice.

In the other major legal well-being study released in 2016, Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns (Suffering in Silence), Jerome M. Organ, David B. Jaffe and Katherine M. Bender found that law students drink more now than they did 20 years ago. Nearly 25% of the over 3,300 law students surveyed reported binge drinking two or more times in the prior two weeks. In addition, 25% screened positive for needing further alcoholism screening and 42% felt they needed mental health assistance.

Let’s Try a New Approach

Instead of perpetuating an environment of stigma and potential punitive actions, how about the legal profession embraces and promotes law student well-being? It’s clear from the data previously articulated that the current way of doing things isn’t working. So it can’t hurt to try something different, right? As Albert Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

I was fortunate to moderate an excellent panel on this very issue last month at the American Bar Association (ABA) National Conference for Lawyers Assistance Programs in Austin, Texas. The panel focused on ways to reform the character and fitness process for admission to the bar. One of the potential punitive impacts of the current processes is whether an attorney’s admission will be compromised because they sought treatment for substance use or mental health issues. In fact, the Suffering in Silence study found that a significant majority of law students who need help are reluctant to seek it, with the number one factor being a potential threat to bar admission.

The panel focused on efforts to reform the character and fitness process in addition to ideas on how to do more. Some states and organizations are already taking the lead.

  • In 2014, the Department of Justice entered into a Consent Decree with the Louisiana Supreme Court that prohibited the Court from asking bar applicants about diagnosis and treatment if the questions didn’t effectively predict their future misconduct as an attorney.
  • In 2015, the ABA adopted Resolution 102, which was submitted by the ABA Commission on Disability Rights. The resolution urged states to eliminate questions on mental health history, diagnoses or treatment from applications to the bar. Instead, the resolution recommended questions that focus on conduct or behavior that impairs an applicant’s ability to practice law in a competent, ethical and professional manner.
  • A 2017 report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being also suggested that regulators adjust the bar admissions process to support law student well-being.
  • In August 2017, the Conference of Chief Justices urged its members and state and territorial bar admission authorities to adopt the aforementioned ABA resolution.
  • This past spring, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law conducted a review of and published Bar Exam Character and Fitness Questions for all 50 states.

In addition, I’m happy to report that the great state of Illinois doesn’t ask bar applicants problematic mental health or substance use questions.

While it’s clear the profession is making progress, there’s still work to be done. Remember, the character and fitness process is only one small part of law student well-being.

Promote and Encourage Law Student Well-Being

The legal profession cannot continue to stand by, knowing that there’s an overall decline in law student well-being after the first year of law school. Thankfully, a forthcoming article by Jordana Alter Confino titled Where are We on the Path to Law Student Well-Being?: Report on the ABA CoLAP Law Student Assistance Committee Law School Wellness Survey indicates that law schools are making strides on student well-being. Some law schools include health-focused programming in their new student orientation, offer classes on physical well-being and maintain strong engagement with the Lawyer’s Assistance Program. However, Confino suggests that most law schools can still improve in terms of resources devoted to onsite counseling, the development of well-being curricula and engaging students, faculty and staff in well-being efforts.

So, I challenge my fellow legal professionals to encourage and promote law student well-being endeavors. We have nothing to lose, and the potential gain is clear. A healthy and happy legal profession is worth the effort. In the comments below, let us know how you’re working to improve law student well-being.

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Stephanie Villinski
Stephanie has dedicated her career to social justice and worked in public interest law for the past 15+ years. As Deputy Director, Stephanie is responsible for streamlining the day-to-day operations of the Commission in addition to supporting its education, law school, and mentoring programs. With a particular interest in wellness, Stephanie seeks to promote a healthier, more rewarding professional life for lawyers and by extension, better service to their clients. In her free time, Stephanie enjoys yoga, meditation, watching sports, and time outdoors.
Stephanie Villinski
Stephanie Villinski

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Stephanie Villinski
Stephanie has dedicated her career to social justice and worked in public interest law for the past 15+ years. As Deputy Director, Stephanie is responsible for streamlining the day-to-day operations of the Commission in addition to supporting its education, law school, and mentoring programs. With a particular interest in wellness, Stephanie seeks to promote a healthier, more rewarding professional life for lawyers and by extension, better service to their clients. In her free time, Stephanie enjoys yoga, meditation, watching sports, and time outdoors.
Stephanie Villinski
Stephanie Villinski

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