New Data Reveals the Startling Mental Health Struggles of Attorneys of Color

Staggering new data reveals just how differently workplace stressors and the pandemic have impacted the mental health of attorneys.

Notably, roughly 31% of Black lawyers said they have contemplated suicide during their legal career. This is a significant increase from the approximately 23% of Hispanic and Latino attorneys, 20% of Asian attorneys, and almost 19.4% of white attorneys who reported the same tendencies.

The data is part of ALM’s 2021 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey, which asked 3,200 law firm attorneys and staff about COVID-19’s impact on their well-being and how their firms have responded.

While it’s clear isolation and an increased workload have significantly impacted legal professionals across the board, the data suggests a gap between the experiences of attorneys of color and white attorneys.

Breaking down the data by race

Minority attorneys have experienced suicidal thoughts, depression, and a perceived lack of support from their firms at a rate greater than their white colleagues, according to the survey.

Nearly 61% of Black attorneys said they’ve felt isolated at their firms, compared to 53% of white attorneys and 49% of Hispanic attorneys. Fifty-one percent of Black attorneys, 49% of Asian attorneys, 49% of Hispanic attorneys, and 45% of white attorneys said their firms don’t offer support for personal well-being.

Moreover, Black and Hispanic attorneys reported higher levels of depression and anxiety. Attorneys of color were also more likely to say that taking time off for mental health issues could hurt their careers.

The results are similar to an interim report from a 2020 International Bar Association survey that showed the well-being scores of lawyers who belong to an ethnic minority are consistently below the global average.

Black women attorneys are leaving legal careers due to this lack of support and sense of belonging, said Kenyatta Beverly, President of the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago.

“We aren’t being promoted; we aren’t being given meaningful work. We need sponsors – people in power at the organization who will literally look out for you and speak up for you in meetings where a decision might be being made to let some people go,” Beverly said. “It boils down to just not feeling like you’re truly wanted there; you’re just pretty much fulfilling a quota.”

While professional demands continue to significantly impact the well-being of attorneys, external factors like COVID-19 and a stream of racial injustices have also played a role, said Paula Edgar, CEO of PGE Consulting Group, in a Law.com article.

“If you think about the fact that COVID has had a disparate impact on attorneys of color then you [as a firm] likely have attorneys of color who have had the death of a family member,” Edgar said. “Then you think about the experience of racial injustice in this country and the trauma of seeing people killed at the hands of the police. You think about the Asian and Pacific Islander community and about commuting to work and the fear of being assaulted in public.”

To address the gap in attorney well-being, firms must think holistically, prioritizing programs that destigmatize mental health and substance abuse while working toward greater inclusivity, Edgar said.

Industry loses ground on well-being overall

The pandemic took a toll on the well-being of legal professionals in 2020 across the board compared to 2019, according to ALM.

Seventy-one percent said they experienced anxiety in 2020, up 7% from 2019; 37% percent said they felt depressed in 2020, up almost 6% from 2019; and more than 70% said the COVID-19 pandemic has made their mental health worse.

Respondents said isolation, the lockdown, and work-related stressors challenged their mental health more than fear of catching the virus.

Unrealistic client expectations and erosion of work-life boundaries may have played a role in increased work demands last year, according to Law.com.

“I am expected to be on 24/7. I get calls and emails all night and over the weekend, and late night and weekend deadlines have become the norm. It is starting to ruin my personal relationships,” Law.com reported one respondent saying. “Pre-COVID, similar concerns applied, but it wasn’t as bad. The root of it is client expectations.”

While many respondents targeted the billable hour as impacting their well-being, nearly 70% said alternative billing arrangements don’t reduce stress.

Where do firms come in?

While 54% of those surveyed said their firms increased their commitment to attorney mental health during COVID-19, 46% said their firms didn’t. And about 63% said they believe their firm’s concern for mental health is sincere, up roughly 2% from 2019.

To address employee well-being during the pandemic, respondents reported that firms instituted programs like free yoga and meditation classes, held conferences with mental health professionals, and even restricted internal meetings in the afternoon so employees could enjoy the sunlight.

Leadership modeling and actualizing the behavior we want to see is key for firms, said Tracy Kepler, Risk Control Consulting Director at CNA’s Lawyers Insurance Program, during a town hall at the Commission’s The Future Is Now: Legal Services conference.

She shared a story of an associate who had just joined a firm and was working odd hours and weekends. The supervisory attorney approached the associate and let them know that while the firm valued their work ethic, weekends are for rest, relaxation, and spending time with friends and family.

The supervisor said the firm didn’t expect the associate to work on weekends. Moreover, the associate shouldn’t expect a response from anyone in-house to emails sent on weekends.

“Setting that tone of not only value, but that this is what the culture is here, set that associate up for succeeding in the firm and recognizing that boundaries can be in place, that leadership values [employee well-being] and isn’t expecting something to come back at 2 o’clock on a Sunday morning,” Kepler said.

Learn more about the ALM survey here: https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2021/05/03/the-legal-industrys-mental-health-problem-grew-in-2020-our-survey-shows/.

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