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September 1, 2017

Report: Lawyers’ well-being falls short
By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

If you really want to be a good lawyer, you must be a healthy lawyer – and that includes mental health. An already struggling legal profession is at a tipping point, and steps need to be taken now to address lawyers’ well-being.

That’s the underlying theme of a new report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being titled “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.”

The 72-page report released August 14 — initiated by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, the National Organization of Bar Counsel, and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers — outlines recommendations for taking action. Those recommendations are customized for judges, regulators, legal employers, law schools, bar associations, professional liability carriers, and lawyer assistance programs.

One recommendation for bar associations is to launch a lawyer well-being committee, and The Florida Bar can check that off its to-do list.

Dori Foster-Morales Dori Foster-Morales is the chair of the Bar’s new Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness for Florida Lawyers.

Calling the report “a wonderful comprehensive study,” Foster-Morales said, “Having this report will help the special committee to create or enhance programs to strategically promote our agenda on mental health and well-being of Florida lawyers to create a more sustainable legal culture and greater well-being among lawyers.”

Asked if anything in the report surprised her or jumped out as a key finding to share with her committee, Foster-Morales said: “While nothing new, the report emphasizes the need to end the stigma associated with lawyers seeking help for mental health and well-being issues.”

Especially noteworthy, she said, is the “focus on a lawyer’s well-being as an indispensable part of their duty of competence to their clients, such that a lawyer’s well-being is part of their professional duty to their clients.”

Also resonating was “the need for education on all levels and to take ‘small steps’ towards real cultural changes in the legal community to affect significant change,” Foster-Morales said.

“Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being,” wrote national task force Co-Chairs Bree Buchanan, director of the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, and James Coyle, attorney regulation counsel for the Colorado Supreme Court.

Citing two 2016 studies (the ABA CoLAP and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s study of mental health and substance use disorders among lawyers, and the Survey of Law Student Well-Being), they conclude that “too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance use. These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence. This research suggests the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.

“The legal profession is already struggling. Our profession confronts a dwindling market share as the public turns to more accessible, affordable alternative legal service providers. We are at a crossroads. To maintain public confidence in the profession, to meet the need for innovation in how we deliver legal services, to increase access to justice, and to reduce the level of toxicity that has allowed mental health and substance abuse disorders to fester among our colleagues, we have to act now. Change will require a wide-eyed and candid assessment of our members’ state of being, accompanied by courageous commitment to re-envisioning what it means to live the life of a lawyer.”

Using data from the 2016 research, here’s a snapshot of the lives of too many lawyers:

• Between 21 and 36 percent of practicing lawyers qualify as problem drinkers.

• Approximately 28 percent, 19 percent, and 23 percent are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.

• Difficulties for lawyers include suicide, social alienation, work addiction, sleep deprivation, job dissatisfaction, complaints of work-life conflict, and incivility.

• There’s a documented “narrowing of values so that profit predominates,” accompanied by a negative public perception.

Younger lawyers in the first decade of practice and those working in private law firms experience the highest rates of problem drinking and depression.

“The budding impairment of many of the future generation of lawyers should be alarming to everyone,” the report said. “Too many face less productive, less satisfying, and more troubled career paths.”

The mental-health picture is not much better for law students:

• 17 percent of law students experienced some level of depression, 14 percent experienced severe anxiety, 23 percent had mild or moderate anxiety, and 6 percent reported serious suicidal thoughts in the past year.

• 43 percent of law students reported binge-drinking at least once in the prior two weeks, and 22 percent reported binge-drinking two or more times during that period.

• One-quarter fell into the category of being at risk for alcoholism for which further screening was recommended.

“The results from both surveys signal an elevated risk in the legal community for mental health and substance use disorders tightly intertwined with an alcohol-based social culture,” the report said.

“The analysis of the problem cannot end there, however. The studies reflect that the majority of lawyers and law students do not have a mental health or substance use disorder. But that does not mean that they’re thriving. Many lawyers experience a ‘profound ambivalence’ about their work, and different sectors of the profession vary in their levels of satisfaction and well-being.

“Given this data, lawyer well-being issues can no longer be ignored. Acting for the benefit of lawyers who are functioning below their ability and for those suffering due to substance use and mental-health disorders, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being urges our profession’s leaders to act.”

Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness for Florida Lawyers:

• Dori Foster-Morales, chair, board certified in marital and family law

• Joe Ankus, legal recruiter

• Benjamin Gibson, YLD

• Dr. Rahul Mehra, psychiatrist, CEO & chief medical officer of MehraVista Health

Judge Nushin Sayfie, 11th Circuit administrative judge, criminal division

• Carl Schwait, former Bar Board of Governors member

• Christine Bilbrey, Florida Bar Practice Resource Institute

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[Revised: 12-08-2017]