YLD study tracks the concerns of Florida’s young lawyers
41 percent of respondents say they have considered a different line of work
Citing crushing student debt, punishing hours, and “toxic” work environments, more than half — 58 percent — of beginning Florida lawyers believe their careers are becoming less desirable, according to the latest Young Lawyers Division study.
More than one-third of the respondents — 41 percent — said they have considered or were considering a different line of work.
YLD President Christian George of Jacksonville said the survey results confirm the Bar is on the right track in making mental health and wellness a top priority. The study was conducted in partnership with The Florida Bar to mark May as “Health and Wellness Month for Florida Lawyers.”
“We need to continue the conversation,” George said. “People shouldn’t be afraid to seek treatment for these issues or to be open and honest with their firms, their law partners, their friends.”
Thirty-nine percent of respondents reported experiencing a work-related event that resulted in prolonged symptoms, such as flashbacks, anxiety, heart palpitations, and panic attacks.
Another 37 percent reported being treated for or diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or “another mental health concern.”
The survey showed only slight disparities when the responses were broken down by gender.
Not all of the survey results were gloom and doom.
Some of the most hopeful responses came from lawyers who sought professional counseling, or turned to service work, yoga, exercise, meditation, journaling, 12-step programs, or the solace of religion to deal with stress.
“I seek out supportive social environments, such as support groups and women’s empowerment groups,” wrote one. “I also volunteer in the community through community service organizations, and I get a great deal of satisfaction from doing this.”
“Seeking mental-health treatment has greatly impacted my ability to complete tasks at work,” wrote another respondent. “I believe treatment provides the needed strength, resilience, and confidence to deal with the stress of litigation.”
“Recovery has given me the ability to pursue a legal career and help others with their own struggles,” wrote another. “The rewards are priceless.”
George said he was encouraged that the vast majority of respondents, 79 percent, reported getting a sense of accomplishment from their work.
“It shows that although there are problems with our profession, it’s a very important one, and people can be happy and fulfilled while doing this job.”
Bar President Michelle Suskauer said she was “incredibly proud” of the YLD for its hard work in raising awareness of the mental-health and work-life balance issues that young lawyers face, as well as working to erase the stigma of treating those challenges.
“The fact is that the YLD took a courageous stand in asking the hard questions and in committing to finding ways to help their membership be happier and healthier lawyers, and people,” Suskauer said. “The Bar continues to be focused on Florida lawyer mental-health initiatives, as well as fully supporting the YLD as it identifies solutions or strategies to help young lawyers and also our membership at-large.”
Authors of the “Young Lawyers Division Mental Health & Wellness in the Legal Profession” survey emailed 20,372 young lawyer members of The Florida Bar, with 10 percent completing an electronic questionnaire by the December 6, 2018, deadline. Young lawyers in Florida are defined as those 35 and under or who have been practicing for five years or less.
George points to the division’s most recent push, the “#StigmafreeYLD” health and wellness campaign, designed to extinguish the prejudices that discourage people, especially competitive professionals, from admitting problems or seeking help. He urged struggling lawyers not to overlook the obvious.
“As you can see from the poll results, you are not alone,” George said.
In the past few years, the Bar has made an unprecedented effort to combat the problem, forming special committees, launching studies, sponsoring professional forums, and offering continuing education. The effort came in the wake of previous surveys that showed lawyers face an elevated risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other stress-related disorders.
George acknowledged that the survey also confirms that much work still needs to be done.
“We can’t just create an entity that’s going to fix everybody’s problems overnight; it’s far more complex,” George said. “And it’s a two-way street. Until people start admitting that they have problems, and find a healthy way to deal with those problems, it’s not going to get fixed.”
A narrative section of the survey generated a flood of concerns about everything from lack of personal time to being saddled with six-figure student debt, relentless demands for billable hours, and unprofessional opposing counsel.
“I have found the single largest driver of stress is lawyers who fail to live in conformity with the Oath of an Attorney and violate the Rules of Professional Conduct,” wrote one respondent.
Unreasonable expectations and overbearing — or even abusive — managers were a recurring theme.
“I love what I do, but I cannot be in a toxic environment any longer as it is taking a huge toll on both my mental and physical health,” wrote one young lawyer who was considering leaving the profession.
“Emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse were a part of daily life at this firm, so much so, I worried constantly for the well-being of everyone there, including myself,” wrote another who blamed the former workplace for bouts of depression, anxiety, weight loss, and panic attacks.
Many respondents said they would not have enrolled in law school “knowing what they know now.”
“Instead of feeling a sense of accomplishment and pride for becoming a lawyer, I actively advise people not to make the same mistake,” wrote one respondent who described being deeply in debt.
“Being a lawyer is not what I thought it would be,” wrote another. “I’m exhausted all the time.”
‘A Lesson in Empathy’
YLD board member and Chicago attorney Natasha Dorsey, who helped design the study, found many of the narrative responses heart-breaking. She considers them a lesson in empathy.
“Being a litigator, I’ve dealt with some pretty, well, not nice people,” she said. “Every time I’m frustrated with opposing counsel, I’m going to think, maybe they’re going through something right now that I just don’t understand, and I’m going to extend some compassion. I kind of wish everybody could read some of these because maybe it would bring us more together.”
After identifying some common themes among the open responses, the YLD team will be focusing on producing materials to educate young lawyers on their options in reporting or handling unprofessional or hostile behavior in the workplace; creating and marketing CLEs to assist managers or partners to de-stress the workplace with management tips and best practices, in partnership with the Center for Professionalism; and, working with the Member Benefits Committee to add discounts for more accessible therapy options and practical wellness tools such as fitness or meditation apps.
Health and Wellness Month
Here are some of the activities the YLD has planned for Health & Wellness Month in May:
- The first annual Affiliate Health & Wellness Challenge, where local young lawyer groups are encouraged to host fitness challenges, classes, and other wellness-related activities. The YLD will support these efforts by providing up to $500 in grant money for each affiliate to use for related events.
- Continue to roll out #StigmaFreeYLD videos featuring lawyers who have overcome their mental health and wellness challenges.
- Profiling law firms to highlight what they are doing to promote attorney well-being.
- Presenting free wellness webinars each Wednesday between 12-1 p.m. for free CLE credit.
- Promoting Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc., through social media posts, the #StigmaFreeYLD campaign, website, and other avenues.
YLD board member Benjamin Gibson of Tallahassee, who worked on the survey, traces much of the frustration to economics. Debt has skyrocketed as students struggled to keep up with tuition rates that more than doubled over the past decade, Gibson said.
The 2018 YLD Earnings Survey showed, among other things, that 75 percent of recent graduate respondents have outstanding student loans — with a median debt level of $150,000.
A new lawyer who is deeply in debt has fewer choices, Gibson said.
“It’s a huge problem,” Gibson said. “The student loan crisis has forced many people into jobs where they would not have taken those jobs if it weren’t for the debt.”
Whitney George, a licensed psychologist and chair of the Department of Mental Health Counseling at Jacksonville University, was a consultant on the project. George, who is the wife of the YLD president, said heavy debt adds another layer of pressure that begins building in law school. She said she witnessed it up close when she served as an in-house therapist at a clinic at the University of Florida College of Law.
“The competitiveness, the desire to succeed, it’s a pattern that begins early,” she said. “After they graduate, they find out that through the practice of law, they can’t repay the debt.”
The survey also showed that gender bias remains a significant source of stress.
“As a young woman attorney, it is infuriating and frustrating to never be taken seriously or listened to by male attorneys, including those in my firm, opposing counsel, and even co-counsel,” wrote one respondent.
“I was questioned by my mentor if I was really interested in a successful legal career, and she stated that she believed I was more interested in ‘being a mommy,’” wrote another.
Gibson said the profession needs to do a better job eliminating a double-standard that continues to plague all of society.
“If I leave the office early to pick up my 2-year-old, people think I’m being a good dad,” Gibson said. “But if a woman leaves the office early, they tend to question whether she’s 100% dedicated to the firm.”
One respondent blamed prolonged symptoms of stress and anxiety on an age-old complaint, a flawed criminal justice system.
“A former client was convicted of DUI manslaughter, and I don’t believe he was driving,” the respondent wrote. “It caused me stress to see him sentenced to most of his life in prison when I was convinced he was innocent.”
Many respondents reported being too afraid to seek help for mental-health issues, saying they were worried about the repercussion on their careers.
“Seeking mental-health treatment is 100% stigmatized in the legal field,” wrote one respondent. “I see a therapist once a month or more but would never discuss this with other lawyers unless . . . he or she seemed troubled and in need of someone to talk to.”
“Unfortunately, mental-health treatment is still highly stigmatized, particularly in the legal profession where your mind is your job,” wrote another.
But Gibson says attitudes are changing and the legal profession has become much more progressive in the past few years. He credits Florida Bar and YLD leadership for efforts to destigmatize mental-health issues.
“I think there’s a lot more acceptance within the legal profession,” Gibson said. “I haven’t met anyone who thinks, wow, this is not an issue and we don’t need to address this, and that’s all happened within the last five years.”
The Florida Bar has dedicated resources to health and wellness on its website at www.floridabar.org/member/healthandwellnesscenter. The YLD has a specific health and wellness page at www.flayld.org/health-wellness-month.
Help is available
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, depression, mental health or some other issue, Florida Lawyers Assistance, Inc., can help you learn about new ways to merge healthier living with your legal practice. Visit www.fla-lap.org.
Other resources the Young Lawyers Division has identified that align with the problems outlined in the survey include:
- This link allows you to take an online screening exam to help identify if you are experiencing a number of issues (bipolar, depression, anxiety, work health, etc.) and then provide a local referral based off of your responses. https://screening.mentalhealthamerica.net screening-tools
- This link is for specific populations (LGBTQ, parents, etc.) living with mental illness or can help you find a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/.
- This is a link to the American Counseling Association where people can find resources about what different counseling services exist and it can link them to people in their area. www.counseling.org/aca-community/learn-about-counseling/what-is-counseling/.
- This link provides tests/assessments for hundreds of disorders and career matching. www.psychologytoday.com/us/tests/.
- This link helps find therapists in your area by specialty, zip code, insurance provider, and many other factors. www.psychologytoday.com/us.
- The ABA Mental Health Guide may be found at www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/resources/links_of_interest/.
- This link provides psychoeducation on hundreds of mental health topics, including depression, anxiety, alcoholism, post-partum depression, etc., www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/.