Others will study mental health in the courts and child and parent representation
By Gary Blankenship
Three new Bar special committees, including one focusing on the well-being of attorneys, have been created by the Board of Governors.
The board, at its July 21 meeting in Miami, accepted the recommendation of the Program Evaluation Committee to create the Special Committee on Mental Health, the Special Committee on Child and Parent Representation, and the Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness for Florida Lawyers. That latter committee, chaired by board member Dori Foster-Morales, will focus on quality-of-life issues for attorneys.
“We haven’t spent enough time talking about us, meaning mental health and wellness in our lives,” Foster-Morales said. “President [Michael] Higer has made this a priority.”
She added improving the mental health and wellness of lawyers is also a goal of the Bar’s Strategic Plan.
The committee will have five members, including a mental health professional, a member of the Young Lawyers Division, and a judge. Foster-Morales said the committee is needed.
“There’s ample literature about dysfunction and dissatisfaction within the legal profession. The level of suicides is extraordinarily high. And basically we’re 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers,” she said. “The intent of the special committee is to come up with real action items to address our mental health issues.
“We have already gathered myriad articles and studies, so you can actually look at that data.”
Possible remedies include enhancing helplines, peer counseling, peer group blogs, a toolbox for employers and members, and adding member benefits.
That last one could include discounts on exercise monitoring gear, yoga and massage, nutrition products, and other services and products to help lawyers deal with demands of their personal and professional lives.
Higer said he’s finding interest around the state on the subject, but also recognizes the difficulties ahead.
“Every group, from county court judges to voluntary bars, . . . this is the subject from all of the issues that we are talking about that was the most intriguing to our members, to our judges, to young lawyers who are starting their practice. This is the one issue that is really resonating with them,” he said. “We would be absolutely foolhardy to believe that we are somehow going to solve the issue. We’re not going to solve the issue, but we can certainly make a difference, and we certainly can provide tools and mechanisms and address stigma issues that make it so difficult for us. We are so independent, we are the last ones who want to seek help.”
He said judges are looking at the same challenges that stem from their service on the bench, and law students are paying more attention to the stresses and strains they will face once joining the legal profession.
PEC Chair Renée Thompson said the Special Committee on Mental Health will “study mental health laws to help educate lawyers and judges on best practices, including ABA standards when dealing with clients and parties regarding mental illness.
“The vision is to transform Florida’s legal system into a national leader for effective and efficient adjudication of cases involving people with mental illnesses,” she added.
The committee will have around 15 members.
The Special Committee on Child and Parent Representation will “bring to fruition the Bar’s work on dependent children representation. This began with the Legal Needs of Children Committee and [its predecessor] the Commission on the Legal Needs of Children,” Thompson said. “This committee will address high-quality representation in these proceedings for parents in dependency court and will make recommendations to our board with a report on how to handle these proceedings to promote . . . the best possible outcome for the children of the state of Florida.”
The committee will also have about 15 members.
The board unanimously approved setting up all three committees. The Special Committee on Mental Health is charged with reporting in two years, while the other two are tasked with reporting in one year.
The board also approved the Budget Committee’s recommended budget amendment of $10,700, which will fund all three committees in the coming year. Budget Committee Chair Steve Davis said the funds come from the budget’s $100,000 reserve for new Bar programs.