New Lawyers Must Invest In Their Mental Health
Lawyers are typically perceived as successful members of society who are smart, strong, and resilient. This perception of success is often based on the notion that they (supposedly) earn a lot of money. Despite what many members of the public may think, many lawyers secretly struggle with various mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, stress, and addiction. Young lawyers must invest in their mental health and develop habits and routines that allow them to consistently deal with and release stress effectively.
More concerning is the fact that many lawyers face these various mental health issues regularly and often fail to find help because they are afraid to take action because it could damage their reputation and create a mental health stigma among their peers and clients. Thus, it is an understatement to say that lawyers suffer from a mental health and substance abuse epidemic.
A 2016 American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study found that 28 percent of licensed, employed lawyers suffer from depression. The study also showed that 19 percent have symptoms of anxiety and 21 percent are problem drinkers.
The most recent Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey by American Lawyers Media (ALM) found that 31.2% of more than 3200 law firm respondents felt they were depressed, 64% felt they had anxiety, 10.1% felt they had an alcohol problem, and 2.8% felt they had a drug problem. When asked whether their work environment contributed to those mental health issues, 73% replied affirmatively. And 74% said yes when asked if the profession has negatively affected their mental health over time. More than one in six respondents—17.9%—said they have contemplated suicide during their professional legal career.
James Gray Robinson, a retired family law practitioner and wellness consultant in Lake Oswego, Oregon said:
“Lawyers wear a bullseye on their back. Many lawyers start their legal careers with crushing debt, zero clients and uncertainty about their future. Law students face insurmountable odds and can be depressed even before they step foot out of law school. Also, lawyers have to have an elephant’s hide, the courage of a martyr, and the patience of a saint. We are not trained for this.”
On top of this, technology has made the legal profession more prone to anxiety and depression. Emails, texts, and telephone calls are nonstop. Lawyers tend to feel that there is no escape from work because their phones or PDAs are constantly beeping, dinging, and ringing, demanding their attention. The barrage does not stop once the workweek ends and continues on weekends with more constant calls, emails, and texts.
This stress is aggravated by the perception, thanks to modern technology, that people are immediately available, and an immediate answer is expected, if not required. Even a delay of mere minutes may be too long for some clients and attorneys. This creates an atmosphere where there is constant pressure without any breaks or respites. When taken to an extreme, things may seem hopeless, which may push lawyers over the edge.
Attorneys must use their time away from the office, whether it is purely vacation time, or just a weekend, to take time for themselves. This downtime must be expended on some activity that has nothing remotely to do with work or even the law. It is not difficult to see that many lawyers remain tethered to their phones when they are away from the office. Even when they do take a vacation, 72.5% said they cannot disconnect from work during that time.
A section of the ALM survey asked about mental health resources at law firms with more than half of respondents responding that their firms provide an employee assistance program that includes help for mental health or substance abuse, and over half saying their firms’ benefits packages support mental health and substance abuse treatment and recovery. However, more than 35% of respondents did not know whether their firms offered these benefits. When asked whether their firms have certain other procedures and programs in place to support good mental health, more participants responded: “don’t know” than “yes.”
Asked if they feel they could take extended leave to address mental health or substance abuse issues, 35% said yes. Of the 65% who said no, 78% said it would hurt their career trajectory, 77% said they fear what the firm would think, and 36% said they fear what clients would think. Respondents could give multiple reasons, and 56% said there is simply too much work to take an extended leave.
For attorneys to deal with mental health and substance abuse problems, they must have the courage to realize that their mental health and wellness are more important than any legal job. To ignore problems at any level of seriousness may only postpone the inevitable result and exacerbate these problems, making recovery even more difficult and increasing the potential to damage a legal career. Many firms have adopted wellness programs and there are some, although not many, lawyer-specific mental health resources, including COVID-19 mental health resources.
The California Desert Trial Academy (CDTA) is a 21st Century law school tailored to meet the needs of working people. Any lawyer must study and know the law. We believe that practical experience in tandem with legal knowledge is the best road to a successful, rewarding, and prosperous legal career. At CDTA, we train, educate, and develop students to be exceptional attorneys and trial advocates. Call us today at (760) 342-0900 or find out more online here.