Can Improving Attorney Well-Being Solve Law’s Diversity Problem?

well-beingAttorney (lack) of well-being has become a national dialogue.  The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being and its groundbreaking Report “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” (“the Report”) is less than a year old.  The momentum it created continues to grow.

I’ve written about this report before, but want to revisit the recommendations through the prism of diversity and inclusion.

What does building a legal culture premised on attorneys living a life of well-being have to do with diversity and inclusion?  A profession that actively promotes the well-being of its members will also foster an environment that supports a diverse and fully inclusive workplace.  In other words, perhaps the legal profession’s persistent diversity and inclusion problem is rooted in a wider culture promoting drinking and aggressive behavior.

Well-Being and D&I Initiatives are Symbiotic

Historically, society’s stereotypical image of the successful lawyer, like a hero in Western movies, is a hard-charging, heavy-drinking, macho man.  A culture of aggression or dog-eat-dog litigation, another hallmark of the stereotypical successful lawyer, can also be exclusionary.  Studies show that men tend to thrive in a competitive environment, whereas women tend to prefer to collaborate with their workplace colleagues. We know from personal experience that the more a female litigator is perceived as aggressive and hard-hitting, the more likely she is to be perceived as competent and successful. At the same time, there is evidence showing that women lawyers are more frequent targets of incivility and harassment. For many women, a lack of collegiality and respect leads to a toxic culture – which is corrosive and adds additional stress.

The Report calls upon all stakeholders in the profession to “Foster Collegiality and Respectful Behavior.”  The Report connects collegiality and respect with well-being and advocates for initiatives related to diversity and inclusion initiatives, including mentoring, to achieve this goal.

The authors note that a collegial and respectful workplace contributes to a person’s sense of connection and belonging and has a direct bearing on several of the different factors of attorney well-being. Having previously noted research that shows worker well-being in the form of engagement is linked to organizational success and a startling 68% of the workforce is not engaged, the Report recommends that all stakeholders urgently prioritize diversity and inclusion by stressing:

regulators and bar associations can play an especially influential role in advocating for initiatives in the profession as a whole and educating on why those initiatives are important to individual and institutional well-being. Examples of relevant initiatives include: scholarships, bar exam grants for qualified applicants, law school orientation programs that highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion, CLE programs focused on diversity in the legal profession, business development symposia for women and minority-owned law firms, pipeline programming for low-income high school and college students, diversity clerkship programs for law students, studies and reports on the state of diversity within the state’s bench and bar, and diversity initiatives in law firms.

Similarly, another relevant initiative that fosters inclusiveness and respectful engagement is mentoring. Research has shown that mentorship and sponsorship can aid well-being and career progression for women and diverse professionals. They also reduce lawyer isolation.  As we have written about before, those who have participated in legal mentoring report a stronger sense of personal connection with others in the legal community, restored enthusiasm for the legal profession, and more resilience—all of which benefit both mentors and mentees.

In addition, recommendations directed to legal employers and bar associations also promote diversity and inclusion.  For example, the recommendation to enhance lawyers’ sense of control cites studies that demonstrate that high job demands paired with a lack of a sense of control breeds depression and other psychological disorders.  Research suggests that men in jobs with such characteristics have an elevated risk of alcohol abuse. The lack of autonomy and control over schedules is anecdotally reported as one of the reasons that women of child-bearing and rearing years choose to leave the profession.

Forced Cultural Norms Lead to Feelings of Exclusion

Legal workplace cultural norms that support high levels of alcohol consumption can reinforce tendencies toward problem drinking and stigmatize – or even ostracize – those seeking help. In the legal profession, social events often center around alcohol consumption (e.g., “Happy Hours,” “Bar Reviews,” networking receptions, etc.) and draw upon outdated traditions established at a different time, a time when there were few women or minorities in the workplace.  Men—white men—created activities that allowed them to connect with each other, socialize, and exchange ideas.  Typical activities include networking events serving alcohol and golf and other sports outings—usually also involving the consumption of alcohol. The Report encourages legal employers, law schools, bar associations, and other stakeholders that plan social events to provide a variety of alternative non-alcoholic beverages and consider other types of activities to promote socializing and networking. They should strive to develop social norms in which lawyers discourage heavy drinking, encourage healthy means of dealing with stress and incentivize others to seek help for problem use.

The same workplace norms that can reinforce tendencies toward problem drinking also can exclude women, people of color, people whose religious beliefs prohibit alcohol, people in recovery from a substance use disorder, and people who have obligations to care for children or parents.  Women who are pregnant or nursing, or under time constraints related to child or elder care, are unlikely to attend or feel welcome to attend such events.  Those whose religious beliefs forbid alcohol or those in recovery are also likely to feel uncomfortable attending such events. Then, when the excluded realize that such events lead to plum assignments and gate-tightening around “the in group,” some may feel demoralized and depressed.

By persisting with a drinking culture as normative for networking and socializing, the insiders and power brokers of the legal profession run the risk of excluding those faced with behavioral health challenges from events critical to professional advancement. Lawyers in recovery from substance use disorders are faced with either missing out on “book building” opportunities or with imperiling their hard-won sobriety. Knowledge that this culture predominates within the law, in and of itself, acts as a deterrent to pursuing sobriety. Those of us working within the lawyers’ assistance program community can attest that law students and young lawyers often will cite their concerns about damage to their advancement if they must forgo these social events as another reason to defer treatment for their disorder. Additionally, those in treatment for mental health disorders such as depression are often unable to drink alcohol because of adverse interactions with medication.

Double Stigma Related to Help-Seeking by Minority Lawyers

Although drug, alcohol and mental health problems are recognized by the medical community as behavioral health disorders, fear of stigma is still a significant barrier to attorneys seeking help for these conditions. Stigma is defined as a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the public to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate.

Stigma results in exclusion, poor social support and increased isolation – a worsening of the problem. There is the social stigma, or a prejudice towards people with mental health and substance abuse issues. The law firm culture perpetuates the notion that showing vulnerability is weakness, and seeking help is weakness.  As a result, law firms have a culture of keeping things underground, a conspiracy of silence surrounds the issue of mental health or substance abuse problems.

There is also a perceived stigma. Fear of discrimination is the key barrier that prevents many people from revealing symptoms and seeking help.  People who have mental health or substance abuse problems may suffer from a perceived stigma, worrying about what other people might think.  For example, “If my firm knew, my ability to succeed here would be impeded or ended.”

There is also the double stigma that is faced by people in minority groups who often already feel pressure to “over perform” to overcome negative bias and prove that they “belong” at the firm.  A significant contributor to well-being is a sense of “organizational belongingness” (feeling personally accepted, respected, included and supported). A weak sense of belonging is associated strongly with depressive symptoms.

Another type of stigma is at play: there can be a strong cultural stigma associated with seeking counseling or help.  Research shows that racial and ethnic minorities — as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — face greater barriers to getting help. Even after controlling for factors such as health insurance and socioeconomic status, ethnic minority groups still have a higher unmet mental health need than non-Hispanic Whites.

For example, one study found that Asian Americans had stronger negative implicit attitudes toward mental illness than Caucasian Americans.  Another study found that the cultural stereotype of the “strong black woman” promotes unflagging toughness, strength, self-reliance, and denial of self-needs, and has a distinct cultural history that is in tension with seeking help. Faith and spirituality can often complicate matters and a person’s faith community may not support seeking help (outside of prayer, etc.). Some minority groups and immigrant communities deal with a deep-seated distrust of the healthcare system.

These stereotypes and stigma impact how communities of color interact with, provide opportunities for, and help support a person with mental illness. It also impacts how a person in these communities experience and express his/her own mental health issue and whether he/she discloses these symptoms and seek help. And the cultural competency of professionals becomes an issue for our minority colleagues who do end up seeking help. It is often a challenge to find a counselor or resource that understands cultural issues that may play into addiction or mental health.

Lawyer Well-Being is Key to Diversity

The corrosive culture that promulgates incivility, overwork and alcohol as a badge of honor also is at the root of the profession’s diversity problem.  It’s a Gordian knot. But lawyers are problem-solvers.  By implementing the recommendations in The Path to Lawyer Well-Being, we are likely to not only have attorneys who are healthier and more productive, but also a profession that is more diverse and sustainable.



*Bree Buchanan, Director of the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program; Chair, ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs; Co-chair, National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being co-authored a version of this article that was published in February 2018 in the American Bar Association Diversity & Inclusion newsletter of the Section on Litigation.

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