Last week, during the Commission’s annual The Future Is Now: Legal Services conference, speaker Kara Hardin (an attorney and psychotherapist), asked the hundreds of attorneys in attendance, “How are you, really?”
Their responses were recorded via an anonymous poll and displayed in a word cloud. Here is what they said:
The mental health challenges faced by attorneys are nothing new. In the ABA’s 2022 Profile of the Legal Profession, 67% of female and 49% of male attorneys reported moderate or severe stress. Moreover, one-third (34%) of women and 25% of men reported hazardous drinking.
Women who experienced conflicts between work and family were four times more likely to leave the legal profession or consider leaving, due to mental health issues, burnout, and stress, according to a study published in 2021.
During the first week in May, the legal profession observes Well-Being Week in Law, which aims to raise awareness about mental health and encourage action and innovation across the profession to improve well-being.
Throughout the week, lawyers, bar associations, legal workplaces, law schools, and other legal organizations are encouraged to plan and participate in activities that help encourage well-being and cultivate new professional norms.
In honor of Well-Being Week in Law and Mental Health Awareness Month, which is held in May, we spoke to three legal professionals who are working to establish health and well-being as core centerpieces of success for lawyers and judges.
Dr. Diana Uchiyama is the Executive Director of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program (LAP), Tish Vincent is the Chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), and Bree Buchanan is the immediate past president of the Institute for Well-Being in Law.
What are some of the biggest mental health challenges impacting attorneys?
Tish: I think the normal human tendency to want to deal with one’s challenges in private is exacerbated in attorneys. On top of that they are practicing in a competitive field where perceived weakness can be used against them.
Many attorneys believe they should be able to help themselves and are skeptical about the expertise of those mental health professionals who could be helpful to them.
These conditions, which have existed for a long time, have made it more challenging for attorneys to cope with the conditions the pandemic has created, working from home and sometimes while caring for children or elderly parents.
Diana: There is kind of a clash in the workforce and a little bit of dissonance between management and what the workforce wants. So, we’re seeing a lot of people frustrated with mandates that make them go back into the office when they feel that they are efficient [at home]. So, we’re getting a lot of career fatigue and burnout.
Bree: The well-being in law movement (launched with the 2017 publication of The Path to Well-Being Report) has resulted in progress in segments of the profession, e.g., BigLaw well-being professionals, bar association programming, and law school curricula.
The vast majority of its members, however, still shy away from seeking support when needed out of fear of harming their reputation.
Why do lawyers struggle to ask for help?
Diana: Every human being experiences suffering in their lifetime and lawyers are not immune to it. It doesn’t matter how intelligent you are, what school you went to, or who you work for, life can just be challenging. And, on top of that, the law is a high-stress profession.
[Attorneys] are so wrapped up in the concept “I am the problem solver.” This makes it difficult to recognize, acknowledge, and get help for a problem. But it is completely normal not to be in control of certain portions of your life.
Once we cut through that façade, it opens up opportunities for people to get healthy. And LAP is a stopgap. Our doors are open and our services are confidential. Let us help you get better.
How are mental health challenges impacting lawyers?
Diana: Coming out of COVID, with the world a bit chaotic and a lot of uncertainty, we’re seeing probably the highest rates of anxiety disorders that we’ve ever seen in the profession, as well as high levels of substance use and mood disorders.
[Many people feel] that they’re not able to manage as they were before. And that’s kind of spiraled alongside an increase in maladaptive coping mechanisms adopted during COVID.
These problematic mental health and substance use issues can compound into career issues.
What are maladaptive coping mechanisms?
Diana: I think COVID has taught us where we go when we’re under high periods of stress or uncertainty. It could be drinking, drug use, marijuana, prescription pills, illegal drugs, gambling, eating impulsively, shopping, or Netflix binges.
We all have stuff that we use to numb. It’s a way to decompress or stop feeling high levels of anxiety and uncertainty.
A lot of people never really recovered 100% from all the things that they experienced during COVID. And so, [at LAP] we’re just starting to get people moving along in a healthy way so that they can have long-term careers while managing their mental health and substance use issues.
What do you think needs to change so that lawyers can prioritize their mental health?
Bree: Law school students and young lawyer cohorts coming up through the profession today carry with them a strong belief that these topics can and should be addressed such that – with the passage of time – attitudes and practices around mental health will inevitably change as they move up through the ranks into leadership roles.
Until that day comes, today’s leaders must undergo an attitude shift (along with needed changes in policies and practices) toward more openness and support around mental health challenges, along with a wholehearted acceptance that greater well-being and better mental health for all its members will advance the desired outcomes of increased profitability and public trust.
Tish: I think each lawyer, law student, and judge needs to be aware that they are a human being with human needs and accept that at times they will need other professionals to help them through a challenge.
When they can cultivate this awareness, accept that there are trustworthy practitioners who can help, and take the action they need for themselves and their peers in need, then real change will be possible.
Diana: Being available all the time is an unrealistic standard. I think that billable hours can be excessive, and people need time off.
We must recognize that if the workforce isn’t encouraging the use of vacation and personal days or [acknowledging] boundaries related to when you’re expected to be available, it becomes harder to manage your mental health needs and well-being priorities.
When you have no time to take care of yourself, over time, there will be problems.
How does Well-Being Week in Law raise awareness of the well-being challenges impacting attorneys?
Bree: Well-Being Week in Law is a free, open-source five-day celebration of the aspects of well-being, which comprise a holistic vision of health (emotional, physical, occupational, social, and spiritual).
By giving time and space to this topic, we help to normalize consideration and discussion of these topics in public spaces, which is a significant step on the path to eliminating stigma and encouraging help-seeking for those who may be in distress.
The free webinars and activities offered each day for both individuals and organizations help to educate and inspire the profession as a whole to move toward greater health.
If you are in Illinois and need support, Illinois LAP provides lawyers, judges, law students, and their families concerned about alcohol abuse, drug dependency, or stress-related issues (like anxiety, burnout, depression, and many others) with education, therapy, intervention, and support.
All of Illinois LAP’s services are confidential. To learn more, click here or call 800-LAP-1233. Any Illinois LAP call, email, or “Get Help” request will be responded to within 24 to 48 hours.
If you or someone you know outside of Illinois needs assistance, please reach out to your local LAP.
If you are experiencing a life-threatening mental health or health emergency, please contact 911 or go to your nearest emergency room department for help and assistance.
How Courts Should Respond to Court Users with Serious Mental Illness
A Successful Law Practice and Strong Mental Health Is Possible
Illinois LAP: Creating a lane for lawyers who are suffering in silence