The Florida Bar

Florida Bar Journal

Recognizing We Have a Problem: The Mental Health and Wellness of Lawyers

President's Page

Photo of Michael J. Higer

In my last column, I talked about “having a heart” — meaning practicing with passion, purpose, and meaning. For some members of the Bar, it doesn’t always come easy. Part of having a heart means having a better understanding of ourselves and compassion for our colleagues. That is why the health and wellness of our members is paramount to The Florida Bar.

Flight attendants always remind us to first put on our own oxygen mask before assisting someone else. It is because before we can help others, we must first help ourselves. Simply put, our justice system depends on the health and wellness of the lawyers who are the advocates for justice.

Mental health issues touch all of us in every facet of our legal community — from solo small firm practitioners, who make up approximately 76 percent of the lawyers in Florida, to lawyers who practice in the public sector to lawyers who practice with large law firms, as well as law students. All of us face daily pressures and stresses that compromise our overall mental and physical health. If we are not healthy, it affects the health of our justice system. It is, thus, critical for each of us, but also the public we serve, that we focus on the health and wellness of our lawyers.

In a 2015 Florida Bar membership survey, 33 percent of Florida lawyers reported high stress as a major problem; 32 percent reported that balancing work and family was a significant challenge; and seven out of 10 said they would change careers if they could. National studies are similarly alarming: Lawyers are twice as likely as the general population to commit suicide; the alcoholism rate for lawyers is double that of the general population; 33 percent of us suffer from diagnosed mental disorders; and we are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from severe depression. These numbers do not paint a healthy picture of lawyers.

Although heartbreaking, these numbers should not be surprising. We toil in a highly competitive, adversarial, profession, which is very demanding of our time and energy and where our success or failure often has a profound impact on the lives of the people we represent. We shoulder our client’s burdens as if they are our own. We constantly work under severe time pressures. We search for definitive answers to questions in which there are only gray answers. We are accessible 24/7. All these stresses frequently lead us to sacrifice our own well-being. We not only take pride in our self-sacrifice, but we hide our struggles from our partners, our associates, our friends, and family.

That’s why I am so proud of The Florida Bar Board of Governors for creating a Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers. This five-member committee, established in July 2017, and chaired by Governor Dori Foster-Morales of Miami, is already working to identify ways the Bar can destigmatize mental illness within our legal community and recommend practices to improve both the Bar’s rules and programming.

We cannot solve or eliminate the stresses that we all face. But we can and must make a positive difference in identifying specific tools and ways to help attorneys lead healthier lifestyles and to be able to seek and receive help free of the stigma associated with mental illness. Having mental-health issues makes you no less of a person or a lawyer than suffering from physical illnesses — both affect many of us, and both can be treated.

The committee, which includes a mental-health professional, a judge, and a member of the Young Lawyers Division, is evaluating ways we can help — whether through the creation of peer-counseling resources or enhanced member benefits that focus on physical exercise, diet, personal health, and stress reduction training and exercises.

The committee has also been tasked with providing a comprehensive plan of action by May 2018. Potential initiatives include the creation of dedicated CLE courses on mental-health training; identification and distribution of handbooks and toolkits to help guide law firms and other employers on best practices; and an online support group or hotline.

To raise awareness, the Bar is partnering with local bar associations to host town halls across the state and will hold a statewide town hall this month during the Bar’s Winter Meeting in Orlando. The theme of the 2018 Florida Bar Annual Convention in June will be health and wellness. Please make your voice heard — we need your input.

Just a short time ago, our legal community lost one of our most vocal champions for mental health. Michael Cohen, executive director of Florida Lawyers Assistance, who spent 20 years of his life advocating for attorneys struggling with substance abuse and mental illness. He also fought his own battle with addiction.

Cohen was a life-support and safety-net to so many in need. Although he will be deeply missed, my hope is that we not only continue his legacy of support and compassion but that we will create an established means for doing so.

Together we can and will make our individual and collective health and wellness a priority, which will yield personal growth for each of us, for our profession, and make us better advocates for justice.