Women Attorneys More Likely to Report Stress and a Desire to Change Careers

stressed women attorney

It’s no secret lawyers suffer from depression, anxiety, substance use, and other serious issues at higher rates than the general population. But a recent survey takes a closer look at how work-related factors affect each gender. The survey, published by Justin Anker from the University of Minnesota Medical School and Patrick Krill from Krill Strategies LLC, surveyed 2,863 attorneys last year.

Overall, the findings show a meaningful difference between men and women attorneys concerning the prevalence of stress, substance misuse and attrition, along with the significance of workplace risk factors, such as overcommitment and permissiveness of alcohol.

Women Attorneys at a Greater Risk

Women attorneys are much more likely to report high stress levels and risky drinking behavior. In line with their mental health distress, nearly one in four women are contemplating leaving the profession, compared to 17% of male attorneys.

Additionally, more than 20% of women say they had moderate to severe depression symptoms, compared to about 15% of men. And 23% of women have moderate to severe anxiety symptoms, versus 14.5% of men.

Patrick Krill, one of the study’s authors, was shocked by the findings, saying it’s “a crisis-level number.” His concern is no exaggeration. If a quarter of women exit the profession, diversity equity, and inclusion (DEI) progress would be set back decades, creating a ripple of negative consequences. Furthermore, clients expect the attorneys representing them to not suffer from cognitive impairment or diminished executive function due to burnout or substance abuse.

Work-Related Factors at Play

Women attorneys are more likely than men to report high levels of work-family conflict and list it as a top factor for leaving the profession. Nearly 30% of women experience high levels of work-family conflict compared to just 21% of men. As a result, men list stress as the top driver for exiting the profession rather than competing familial needs.

Moreover, the researchers found women generally see fewer opportunities for advancement and report major imbalances between effort and reward. Nearly 39% of women respondents report a low possibility of promotion, compared to 33% of men.

Action Required

The authors suggest several options firms can take to address some of the core problems experienced by women attorneys and the broader staff. These suggestions include:

  1. Curb burnout with professional training and interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, monthly meetings focused on work-life and personal challenges, stress reduction activities, limiting work hours, and more.
  2. Prioritize alleviating work-family conflict to reduce unwanted turnover and increase the likelihood that their attorneys will be able to thrive.
  3. Change the workplace attitudes towards alcohol through education to reduce problem drinking.

When most attorneys shifted to a work-from-home environment last year, stress, family obligations, and general burnout took center stage. If an attorney was already struggling to create boundaries and improve their work-life balance, the pandemic likely exacerbated that. The same could be said about attorneys suffering from depression or substance use.

“[The findings] provide vitally important trail markers for the path to improvement,” said Krill. “It is our hope that the profession will now follow that path.”

The success of an attorney’s well-being is largely dependent on their firm’s policies and procedures. Firms should heed Krill’s advice and use these new trail markers to improve the well-being of their staff, particularly their women attorneys.

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