Recently, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan partner Joe Milowic broached the topic of mental health in the legal industry by speaking publicly about his long-standing struggle with depression. His is hardly the first to voice the anguish of such a condition. Www.lawyerswithdepression.com is a national award-winning website written by a lawyer on just that topic, with news, resources, blogs, and guest articles aimed at those who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges.
The ABA/Hazelden study issued in 2016 found that lawyers outperform other professions in the undesireable areas of loneliness, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, stress and suicide. And it’s the youngest lawyers who are most impaired–hardly what they anticipated when they were putting in years of hard work to prepare for a career.
To compound the insult if not the injury, another study, by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill published by the American Psychological Association in 2017, suggests that millennials suffer more from “multidimensional perfectionism”—a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations—than other generations.
Of the respondents to a survey conducted by the American Lawyer’s Young Lawyer Editorial Board, roughly 50% said their career in law had adversely affected their mental health, and 89% said their firm was not doing enough to support employees with mental health issues, or that they were not aware of any support in this area. While 62% said they would not perceive a colleague as weak if they suffered from a mental health concern, 79% said that they were not comfortable seeking support from their law firm for mental health problems for “fear of being perceived as weak,” “fear of it hampering career progression” or “fear of it reflecting negatively in performance reviews.”
The Board rightly reviews these and other indications of the seriousness of the mental health problems facing the legal industry and calls for action.
Let’s start with a simple acknowledgement of the problem. Half of lawyers say their job is making them sick and most firms are not even recognizing it, let alone doing anything about it.
The ABA seems to be sounding the alarm. Resolution 105, adopted by the House of Delegates at the Midyear Meeting in Vancouver, supports reducing mental health and substance use disorders and improving the well-being of lawyers, judges and law students, with recommendations set out in The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being.
To that end, Muir and others have helped produce a Well-Being Kit to assist legal workplaces and individual lawyers get started on the road to better mental health. There are certainly other things that legal organizations can do to reduce the mental health fallout of their work environments, as the Board notes. More autonomy and discretion, the acknowledgement of meaning and purpose in what they do, greater social connections and collaboration, and a stronger sense of mastery and competence can all help give lawyers a better emotional grounding in their work.
For individual lawyers suffering from symptoms of mental illness, the ABA website a provides a directory of lawyer assistance programs and confidential hotlines that have grown up across the United States. In the U.K., lawyers can call LawCare’s free, independent and confidential helpline on +44 800 279 6888. But these options offer to treat symptoms, not the core source of the impairments–the workplaces themselves.
A post by Jordan Furlong, a Canadian legal consultant, noting the closing scene from the Simpson’s Season 8 episode “Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment,” might guide us in our quest to change this disastrous dynamic. During a celebration of the end of Prohibition, Homer stands atop a pile of beer barrels and raises a toast: “To alcohol! The cause of — and solution to — all of life’s problems.” As Furlong suggests, lawyers are often similarly situated with respect to a number of their own problems. And certainly when it comes to the lethal threat posed by our life’s work, both the problem–and the solution–lies with lawyers.