A landmark study commissioned by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association paints a painful a picture of our profession, one of silent misery and fear of seeking help. The study reports that 21% of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28% struggle with some level of depression, and 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety.
The numbers are not a surprise; in fact, most who work in advocacy for lawyer well-being note that accurate numbers—not generated purely by self-reporting—would likely be a great deal higher. What is unexpected is the finding that attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of these problems. Why? The stress of debt from student loans. Job insecurity (if a recent graduate could find a job in the first place). Excessive drinking as a social norm, if not carried over from college, then learned in law school. All of the foregoing, added to the stresses to which new attorneys have been subjected from time immemorial, namely, stratospheric billing requirements, lack of mentoring, lack of positive reinforcement and unrealistic demands for substantive competence, place new lawyers particularly at risk.
These explanations make sense, but they lead me to an unnerving conclusion. My experience and observation is that change usually comes from the young who are directly affected by a particular issue. I remember well the impact of the efforts of young women lawyers on the practice of law in the 1980s. They were fighting for, among other things, equal access to the partnership track without being penalized for maternity leave, equal pay for equal work and, not least of all, respect. In 1978 as a paralegal at a large Atlanta firm, people assumed that I would serve coffee. By the mid-1980s, that kind of thinking was largely a thing of the past, and the change came mostly through the efforts of determined women in their first decade out of law school.
Who, then, will bring about the changes needed to address substance abuse and mental health issues in the legal profession? Can the same young people who the study says are suffering the most fuel the change?
Experience tells me “no.” The study focuses on the continuing stigma within and outside the legal community that keeps those who are struggling mute. Beyond stigma, someone who is suffering from depression is not motivated to advocate for change. Typically, they have to overcome a deep malaise just to accomplish tasks at home and at work. Likewise, someone suffering from anxiety is focused on juggling all of the balls while containing their anxiety, not adding more to their plate. The common denominator in both cases is a feeling of being overwhelmed. This is not the crucible for an army of advocates.
That is not to denigrate those who suffer, it is to validate their experience. I know, having suffered from depression, anxiety and addiction (binge eating disorder) throughout my legal career (I’ve written about my experiences if you want to know more). Being fortunate enough to have come through the more persistent and intense of my struggles, I can speak from the other side, but not many of us have bridged that particular divide.
Who, then, will step forward on behalf of our newest colleagues to provide a lifeline to the help that they need?
By process of elimination, the first line has to be the rest of us, both young and seasoned, who are not suffering from mental health and/or substance abuse issues. And here’s what we can do: first, raise our awareness about the existence of our state Lawyer Assistance Programs (LAPs), and second, promote the LAPs within our communities, meaning within our department, our firm, our company, our government office, wherever we are working, making a particular effort to ensure that our newer colleagues are informed. The following are a few ideas of what such promotion might look like:
Where there is an OSHA sign in your workplace, put an LAP poster next to it.
During orientation for new lawyers, speak about the LAP and include information in their packets.
Include in your mentorship programs education about the study and your state LAP.
Have a representative of your LAP come speak to your firm; they are well informed and passionate about the services they provide. Require your younger lawyers to attend.
Promote the CLE programs devoted to these types of issues to your colleagues as preferred material to fulfill ethics and professionalism requirements.
Many of these CLE programs and other sources will teach you how to recognize the signs of mental health and substance abuse struggles. Learn them and watch out for them, particularly in your newer colleagues whom we now know are most at risk.
If your state LAP has a volunteer peer-to-peer program, learn about it and volunteer your time.
Include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and the Crisis Text Line (741741) in your firm directory and phone list, and inform your colleagues and staff of it.
Stigma is a national, cultural problem that is slow to change. The study is a wakeup call for the legal profession, and if we turn our heads away now, the pain and suffering of our colleagues is on us. We can and must do better than that, beginning right now.