We often hear that mental health and substance use challenges continue to plague the legal profession. Recent survey data from Law.com and ALM Intelligence supports this reality.
In the survey, more than 3,400 respondents from law firms (including lawyers and law firm personnel) around the globe detailed the state of their mental health, work environments, perceptions of colleagues, client expectations, the effects of remote work, and other areas.
While there were slight declines from 2021 in those reporting anxiety (67%), depression (35%), and isolation (44%), the survey found that almost 1 in 5 respondents said they had contemplated suicide during their legal careers.
We spoke with Dr. Diana Uchiyama, Executive Director of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program (LAP), about the ongoing challenges legal professionals face, how it’s leading to retention challenges, why stigma around mental health remains, and how LAP can help.
Why don’t more lawyers talk about their mental health challenges?
[Mental health] is a very sensitive subject that we don’t talk about very much, but something that most of us, if not all of us, struggle with, Uchiyama said.
“When I first came to the Lawyer’s Assistance Program and started doing assessments on lawyers, law students, and judges, I was really stunned and surprised by how often people in this profession had suicidal thinking,” Uchiyama said.
“People in our profession suffer in silence for long periods of time, and we want to help those people before there’s a situational factor that makes them feel like that’s the only option available,” she said.
So much of a lawyer’s identity is associated with achievement. When lawyers feel like they can’t meet demands, it can be an accelerant that impacts their self-worth.
Part of the problem is a lack of tools to navigate inevitable failure, Uchiyama said, and this lack is often correlated with high rates of untreated depression.
How can law firms better support and retain attorneys?
Employees are looking for more flexibility; however, hybrid work models don’t always mean increased flexibility and improved work-life balance, Uchiyama said.
More often we’re seeing workplace expectations increasing alongside hybrid models, with longer workdays, 24/7 availability, and employees forgoing vacation days because they’re working from home.
This has forced many lawyers to adopt a mindset of, “What am I capable of managing at the moment?” rather than planning for the long-term. This has been especially true for women, who have turned down promotions or left the profession due to overwhelming demands in their personal and professional lives, she said.
“Maybe equality in the profession isn’t what we think it is,” Uchiyama said. “I can tell you from my own experience as a woman in the workforce that the more effective you are, the more demands are placed on you. And at some point, there is a breaking point for all of us.”
If employers want to retain or keep good employees, demands have to be reasonable, she said. For example, if firms aren’t prioritizing and monitoring vacation days, employees may feel like they can’t take a vacation. This leads to higher levels of burnout and more dissatisfied employees.
According to Uchiyama, “Warriors aren’t really in [a firm’s] best interest.” And expectations are different depending on generation.
Baby boomers, for example, sometimes ascribe to established work demands, while members of the Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z generations may not. “They’re looking more for more work-life balance, which can lead to a clash of cultures,” Uchiyama said.
“It’s an interesting juxtaposition of adhering to workplace norms and templates that have been passed down while meeting the expectations of our changing culture,” she said.
What changes should law firms make?
The culture of fear from the top down has to be eliminated, Uchiyama said.
Security clearances in certain firms and government agencies are based on clean records, and clean records mean that you haven’t gotten treatment for a mental health and or substance use problem. However, it should be the opposite, Uchiyama said, because seeking treatment reduces the risk of problematic behavior.
It’s really about teaching firms that the way they’re going about it isn’t working, Uchiyama said. Do people take vacations? Is there a sense of safety within an organization and people whom employees can turn to?
Most people won’t get help because they’re afraid that they’ll be terminated, or that it will be a stain on their profession, Uchiyama said.
However, a bigger stain would be a negative news story or an instance in which the ARDC is contacted for a disciplinary matter, she said.
Uchiyama compares the legal profession to others with significant burnout factors including compassion, fatigue, and vicarious trauma.
In the military, she mentioned, people who have been redeployed back-to-back in high-trauma situations often come back as fractured. In the judiciary, judges are in high vicarious trauma situations, but may not be provided with adequate respite.
“Because the work we do has an impact on who we become, we [have to] educate people on this,” Uchiyama said. “And LAP has the ability to help workforce management with these issues when there’s high rates of mental health, substance use, and suicidal behaviors.”
More than 25% of survey respondents said that they don’t believe mental illness is a disease. Why is this number so high in the legal profession?
“I think it goes to identity,” Uchiyama said. “We equate success with robust mental health [and] it’s not true.”
The pressure of being a high-functioning individual can sometimes become too much. One of the best things to have happened was the Illinois Supreme Court instituting Rule 21 last year, which permits chief judges to refer struggling or problematic judges to LAP directly, she said.
The Rule gives judges a resource, creating a lane or an opportunity. According to Uchiyama, a person who is at the top of their game in their profession and community and recognizes that they have a drinking problem or are struggling with depression isn’t likely to reach out to a local clinician.
Creating that confidential lane creates immunity and gives people a place to turn to when they’re suffering because stigma and fear exist, she said.
“LAP tries to keep people’s dignity intact before catastrophic events happen,” Uchiyama said. “And if bad things do happen, LAP becomes a sanctuary where you can turn and say, ‘I need help.’”
Is it easier to spot mental health and substance use issues in someone else than it is in yourself?
Alcohol is infused into the culture [of the legal profession] and so many times we don’t recognize that it’s problematic because everyone around us is doing the same thing.
We’re all human and we’re all imperfect, Uchiyama said. It can be easier to look at external sources and say, “Oh, they have an issue,” rather than looking in the mirror and saying, “What are the issues that I need to attend to myself?”
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