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Mental Health in the Legal Profession

How practitioners, firms and family can help.

Depression, drug use, suicide, alcohol abuse and a host of struggles that we as lawyers help clients with plague us as well. Our profession faces a disturbing and sad level of problems. We owe it to ourselves, each other (our partners, associates and colleagues) and our clients to do better. Here are the signs and symptoms to look out for and advise on how practitioners, firms and family can help.

Signs and Symptoms

It can be harder to identify signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety and substance abuse when it seems as if these are merely accepted as the norms of the culture among lawyers and other legal professionals. Many in the profession endorse these symptoms, and it becomes a point of competition and camaraderie in the rat race to the top, which can make it harder to identify when it’s more problematic for one individual over another. That being said, if you notice the below behaviors in yourself or others, it’s good to check-in and ask.

Dramatic changes in:

  • Sleep;
  • Functioning and job performance;
  • Hygiene;
  • Relationships;
  • Eating;
  • Body weight;
  • Communication style;
  • Ability to work (for example, calling out of work or missing important deadlines); and/or
  • Mood.

Additionally, you may notice:

  • Increased hopelessness, irritability and complaints;
  • Increased substance use;
  • Increased consequences from substance use;
  • Clients complaining;
  • People commenting that someone has “changed”;
  • Guilt;
  • Physical complaints;
  • Difficulty concentrating;
  • Change in pace;
  • Thoughts or comments about death;
  • Additional and uncalculated risk-taking behaviors;
  • Increased impulsivity;
  • Irrational thinking; and/or
  • Forgetting conversations.

How to Help

Although it’s easy enough for someone to give the typical advice: get outdoors, maintain a work-life balance, exercise, engage in mindfulness and seek professional help, the truth is that true change can’t happen until we advocate for an overhaul of the system and change the unrealistic expectations put on lawyers to be successful. Lawyers are put in a position in which they’re forced to choose among their mental health, their families and their personal lives and progressing in their careers. Exhaustion, working over 80 hour weeks, sacrificing family, alcohol-infused networking with clients and other lawyers, constant stress and pressure to win shouldn’t be the necessary sacrifice for a promotion. We need to stop rewarding the things that are killing people, have the courage to intervene when we see other lawyers struggling and reconstruct what it takes to be successful in a legal career before it’s too late.

In the meantime, law firms and bar associations can provide Mental Health Employee Resource Groups and access to confidential resources for lawyers to seek help if they’re struggling and don’t feel their law firm is a safe place to confide in someone. Law firms can also invite experts to navigate more vulnerable conversations and provide education around substance abuse and mental health problems. Senior associates can also decrease the pressure to drink in social settings by leading by example and providing alternative options. Firms can increase awareness of already available resources. Most state and local bar associations have lawyer assistance programs. These programs provide free and confidential mental health resources and addiction recovery support to their members.

Firms should continue to offer alternative career paths to young associates. Not every lawyer entering private practice has the desire or ability to meet the common 2,000-hour-per-year billable hour requirement or the desire or ability to be on “partner track.” Firms are finding that they have room for and find value in lawyers who want to work in a “career associate” role or in a permanent part-time role. 

A firm will only benefit from promoting healthy habits to its employees. A few examples on how to accomplish that goal are:

  • Hire speakers and provide materials about wellness and balance.
  • Provide education for all employees covering stress, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, sedatives and burnout.
  • Host events that are nonalcoholic.
  • Host retreats where participants focus on learning stress reduction, relaxation, meditation and team building.
  • Set a maximum for billable and non-billable hours and lower the minimum.
  • Enact specific policies that will allow employees to seek treatment for addiction or mental health issues without fear of losing their positions.
  • Create and enforce a back-to-work policy that will keep the employee accountable throughout their recovery.

The New York State Bar created a “Model Policy for Law Firms” that addresses these issues. In part it requires that the firm pledge “to assist any lawyer who voluntarily seeks assistance or are directed to do so due to poor performance.” Firms will do well to work with their HR professionals to promote a culture of trust and confidentiality and to ensure that there’s a safe space for impaired lawyers to seek assistance and for anyone who suspects or becomes aware of a lawyer’s impairment to assist the lawyer by bringing it to the firm’s attention.    

More can and should be done. Take estate planning as an example. In a typical estate plan, the client may obtain an appraisal of a family business, which is then gifted to an irrevocable trust. The client’s CPA will prepare tax returns reporting the transactions. The client’s wealth advisor may handle investments of marketable securities in the trust. The client’s insurance consultant may sell life insurance to support this plan. The appraiser and CPA commonly limit their liability exposure to the fees paid. They also commonly limit the time period during which suit can be brought against them. The wealth advisor and insurance consultant will have significant caveats, disclosures and limitations on liability appended to documentation sent the client. It’s only the lawyer who’s prohibited from limiting their liability. If the profession were serious about addressing the stress that contributes to the depression and addiction issues, it might perhaps consider modifying ethical rules governing lawyers to permit them to protect themselves similar to other professions.

Another consideration is the manner in which law is practiced. Profits are generated in part by lawyers billing more hours. Technology offers opportunities to increase profits without adding to the stress of hourly demands, perhaps even with the reduction in hourly requirements. Yet many of us are uncomfortable adopting technological changes that alter how we’ve traditionally practiced. Perhaps a greater emphasis on technology and practice management (for example, value billing) in CLE requirements and at conferences might help more of us become comfortable with change that might help transform the profession in a positive way and indirectly help address the stress we all experience.

Start Early

Perhaps more important than asking how we help lawyers once they’re in a dark place, we should ask how we use and preserve the natural qualities of incoming law students to transform what’s historically been in some ways a toxic culture and prevent the suffering of future lawyers.


*This article is an abbreviated summary of “Addressing Lawyer Mental Health Issues in Your Practice,” which appears in the May 2022 issue of Trusts & Estates.

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