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A Movement to Improve the Legal Profession

A groundbreaking report and recommendations for attorney well-being.

Challenge, change and uncertainty are the new norm in today’s legal profession.  Busy lawyers are maxed out as they deal with the stress and pressure of a demanding profession, and law firms and organizations are looking for new strategies to attract and retain top talent. Lawyers just out of law school must be “practice ready,” and the expectation is that they will be both capable technicians and ready to solve clients’ complex problems by collaborating with other professionals (including non-lawyers) in an innovative way. 

In addition to the business-related pressures, many lawyers are struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. A 2016 study sponsored by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation surveyed nearly 13,000 currently practicing attorneys and found the following: 

  • 21 to 36 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers
  • Approximately 28 percent of lawyers are struggling with some level of depression
  • Approximately 19 percent are struggling with anxiety
  • Younger lawyers in their first 10 years of practice and those working in private firms experience the highest rates of problem drinking and depression, which represents a shift from earlier research

For many lawyers, the path to languishing starts in law school. Fifteen law schools and more than 3,300 law students participated in a 2016 Survey of Law Student Well-Being. Here are the key findings, which echo those described above:  

  • 17 percent of law students experienced some level of depression
  • 14 percent experienced severe anxiety
  • 43 percent reported binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks

Given these data, a national task force on lawyer well-being was conceptualized and initiated, comprising a collection of entities within and outside of the American Bar Association. In its newly released report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, the task force proposes a slate of recommendations for law firms, law schools, regulators, the judiciary, bar associations, and professional liability carriers.

While the vast majority of lawyers and law students do not have a mental health or substance use problem, that does not mean they are thriving. According to the Report, many lawyers feel ambivalent about their work 

Well-being is defined in the report as “a continuous process toward thriving across all life dimensions.” The report identifies six key dimensions of behavior that have a part in this process:

1.  Emotional: recognizing the importance of emotions and developing flexibility in how and when emotions are expressed
2.  Occupational: cultivating personal satisfaction, growth, and enrichment in work
3.  Intellectual: engaging in continuous learning and challenging activities that promote ongoing development
4.  Spiritual: developing meaning and purpose in life
5.  Physical: striving for regular physical activity, good nutrition, sufficient sleep, and recovery
6.  Social: fostering a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support network

In order to build well-being through these dimensions, there are key strategies all stakeholders in the legal profession can follow and implement:

Acknowledge the problems and take responsibility. The profession can’t solve a problem it isn’t willing to acknowledge. Other industries cite this as an important starting point. In an effort to reduce levels of burnout at Mayo Clinic, researchers and providers said that acknowledging and assessing the problem was a critical first step. 

Leaders should demonstrate a personal commitment to well-being. Any type of wide-scale change requires buy-in and role modeling from leadership. Leaders should be encouraged to talk about ways they demonstrate well-being in their own lives. 

Facilitate, destigmatize, and encourage help-seeking behaviors. This is key, and it’s really tough. When I burned out, I refused to tell anybody for fear of being singled out and identified as the “weak one.” While I understand that mindset, it isn’t helpful. I could have received help much sooner, but instead waited until I was getting near daily panic attacks and my options were more limited. Talking about your own struggles is a good way to facilitate help-seeking behavior in others.

Foster collegiality and respectful engagement throughout the profession.  Chronic incivility depletes the legal profession’s most valuable resource—its people. Collegiality, on the other hand, fosters psychological safety—the feeling that the work environment is trusting, respectful and a safe place to take risks. When lawyers don’t feel psychologically safe, they are less likely to seek or accept feedback, experiment, discuss errors, and to speak up about potential or actual problems.

Provide high-quality programs on well-being. Stakeholders should start teaching lawyers and law students about well-being topics, including:

  • Work engagement and how to prevent burnout
  • Stress and how to recover and recharge in a healthy way
  • Resilience and cognitive reframing techniques
  • Mindfulness and other contemplative practices
  • Leader development training
  • Developing more work-related control and autonomy
  • Work-life integration (and what to do when work and life conflict)
  • Meaning and purpose

Support a lawyer's well-being with an index to measure progress. Creating such an index would be in line with other initiatives recognizing that success should not be measured only in economic terms. The data collected could help counter the profits-per-partner metric that has been published in the legal profession for several decades.

The report concludes, importantly: “As a profession, we have the capacity to face these challenges and create a better future for our lawyers that is sustainable. We can do—not in spite of—but in pursuit of the highest professional standards, business practices, and ethical ideals.”