The legal profession is waking up to the fact that it has a serious problem with substance abuse and mental health disorders; thankfully, several national lawyer organizations have stepped up to offer programs to promote lawyer well-being.
By Bree Buchanan, Lawyer and Lawyer Well-Being Consultant
Depression. Anxiety. Drug and alcohol abuse. For family lawyers, these words likely bring to mind the most memorable (for all the wrong reasons) clients. In the past few years, however, the legal profession has started to come to grips with the reality that these words apply to an astonishingly high number of lawyers. For a significant portion of the time I practiced family law, these words applied to me.
My Personal Story
In law school, I quickly learned that my passion for the law was ignited when representing individuals, as opposed to corporate entities. The flame was kicked up a few notches higher when the individuals had been the subject of violence or abuse. When I landed my first job as a young family lawyer for legal aid, charged with representing victims of domestic violence, I was elated. What I never considered was how this work could end up burning me.
The family law bar in my city was a tough crowd. Every day as a young lawyer, l lived in fear of the phone ringing, knowing that it could be an opposing counsel ready to make mincemeat of this new lawyer. My clients, many of them having been through years of physical and emotional abuse, were even tougher on me. Sandwiched between the two, I sought out relief from stress and anxiety by resorting to alcohol, the standard “go-to” cure-all for many lawyers.
Over the course of the next two decades, I continued working as a family lawyer for legal aid, as a solo practitioner and a director of a family law clinical program. The unrelenting stress – coupled with continuing exposure to some of the worst of human behavior – continued, and so did my drinking. It continued and increased. What had been two glasses of wine at night, ultimately, became two bottles. Whenever I could get them, I added opioids. Days of crush-ing hangovers blended with days numbed by depression. Anxiety over the tenuous nature of my existence was pervasive. At my worst, I was certainly not the best lawyer but, somehow, I never commit-ted malpractice nor violated any rules of professional conduct.
You can guess where this is headed because you’ve seen it in your clients’ lives. Ultimately, I lost my marriage. Then, a short while later, I lost my job. I’m writing this article today because, at that point, I finally asked for and received help. Today, I am a leader in the national movement to reduce lawyer impairment and promote well-being in the legal profession, a position that would have been absolutely unimaginable ten years ago when I sought help for my substance use and mental health disorders.
Addiction and Mental Health Issues Among Family Lawyers: A Dirty Little Secret Comes to Light
The legal profession is now waking up to the fact that it has a serious problem with substance use and mental health disorders. Two major studies, both published in 2016, served as the initial sparks for igniting the current lawyer well-being movement. In 2016, the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published their study of nearly 13,000 currently-practicing lawyers. It found that between 21 and 36% qualify as problem drinkers, and that approximately 28%, 19%, and 23% are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively. That year, 15 law schools and over 3,300 law students participated in the “Survey of Law Student Well-Being.” It found that 17% experienced some level of depression, 14% experienced severe anxiety, 23% had mild or moderate anxiety, and 6% reported serious suicidal thoughts in the past year. One-quarter fell into the category of being at risk for alcoholism for which further screening was recommended.
The Lawyer Well-Being Movement
Armed with this knowledge, leaders of several national lawyer organizations came together and pledged to work towards bringing about a culture change in how the legal profession dealt with not only these behavioral health issues, but also the overwhelming lack of well-being among so many. From this meeting in late 2016, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being was created. In the short amount of time since that meeting took place:
- Members of the National Task Force published a comprehensive report, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” a charge to all stakeholders in the legal profession to bring about a culture shift.
- Both the ABA and the Conference of Chief Justices passed resolutions that support the Report and urge consideration by all states.
- 28 states have created statewide initiatives to address impairments and promote well-being (go to: www. lawyerwellbeing.net to see what your state is doing).
- Over 100 legal employers (global firms, law schools, governmental entities, etc.) have signed a pledge to take specific action towards the promotion of well-being and the prevention of impairments.
In many states, supreme courts are establishing task forces or commissions on lawyer well-being; bar associations are creating well-being committees; law schools are mandating the study of how impairments impact professional responsibility; and funding for lawyer assistance programs is being increased. In others, very little is being done statewide, but efforts are taking hold among local or regional bar associations.
In Canada, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) is promoting lawyer well-being via confidential Lawyer Assistance Programs designed to help lawyers, paralegals, law students, and judges cope with the mental-health challenges that come with the profession. The CBA has also partnered with the Mood Disorder Society of Canada to create “Mental Health and Wellness in the Legal Profession” – an online program that provides educational tools, support, and resources in areas related to mental illness, mental health, and addictions that are so pervasive in the legal profession. (To learn more, see “Resources for Depression, Anxiety, and Addiction,” below.)
Recognition is Good, But How Does it Help a Lawyer with Mental Health Issues?
So, yes, legal associations across North America are working to promote well-being for lawyers (and law students) and to reduce substance use and mental health disorders. But what does this have to do with you, a family lawyer who likely is in a small or solo firm, and has little time or bandwidth to delve into what’s up with the ABA, CBA, Big Law, or the Conference of Chief Justices?
All of these national awareness-raising and policy initiatives, along with the accompanying legal media coverage, are setting the stage for what I believe is the single most important thing that could help a lawyer suffering as I was just over ten years ago. With each article written, each CLE program delivered, and every speech offered by a bar leader on these topics, we are breaking down the stigma that surrounds behavioral health issues. A conversation is taking place nationally and locally, sometimes from lawyer to lawyer. And, once we know it’s ok to talk about these issues in the open, it becomes easier for those suffering from one of them to know that s/he:
- Is not the only lawyer experiencing these issues;
- Can ask for help and receive it;
- Can recover and live a remarkably satisfying and successful life.
These conversations – at every level where they occur – set the stage for saving a life. This article could save the life of someone you know. Here’s how.
Family Lawyers Are Subject to High Levels of Unrelenting Stress
Studies consistently show that high levels of stress, particularly stress that is unrelenting, is a strong and consistent precursor to a whole host of physical and behavioral health disorders. On a simplified level, the process looks like this:
- Unrelenting stress instills an array of uncomfortable (sometimes seemingly intolerable) feelings, both physical and emotional.
- We, as humans adverse to pain, reach for whatever will take that pain away.
- Too often, what is initially a quick and convenient way to alleviate pain brings a whole host of its own problems over the long run.
We know that the practice of law – especially family law – is consistently and, in many ways, unavoidably stressful. Being caught between demanding clients and difficult opposing counsel, then being subject to trial-weary judges, all while trying to operate a business in a world that is changing more quickly than is barely imaginable – this truly is a recipe for unrelenting stress and all that stems from it.
In recent years, I served as director of a state lawyers’ assistance program (LAP). Part of my daily job was to listen to, counsel, and provide referrals to the many overwrought, stressed-out, depressed, anxious, and/or substance-abusing lawyers who called. No small number of those callers were family lawyers. For the lawyers who were in the “yellow light” zone of the stress continuum (not having reached the point of a diagnosable behavioral health disorder), we would often discuss tactics that would fall under preventative measures.
In essence, I encouraged lawyers to make themselves more stress-hardy through a variety of measures rooted in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), combined with some wisdom derived from my own years in the trenches of trial work. In addition to the ideas below, take a look at the ABA “Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers” for other evidence-based strategies. Perhaps, some of these ideas may spark interest. If so, I encourage you to use the keywords in parentheses in a search engine to learn more.
Four Strategies to Stop Stress from Escalating
1. Check Your Perspective on What It Means to Succeed.
Stress and its debilitating effects skyrocket when we set a standard for ourselves requiring absolute success in each case or (the impossible) satisfaction of all clients. Lawyers, by and large, are a perfectionistic lot, and studies are replete with feedback telling us that perfectionism is a setup for severe stress and dysfunctional responses to it (keyword phrase: “dangers of perfectionism”).
Is it possible to be a good lawyer and not require perfection from yourself? I believe the answer is “yes,” and a large cohort of lawyers seem to agree with me. As part of my work as a LAP director, I gave hundreds of speeches on well-being and prevention of impairments to thousands of lawyers. During each presentation, I asked audience members about their strategies for finding balance and reducing stress. A strong and consistent pattern emerged: the older the lawyer, the greater the sense of equanimity. Upon deeper questioning, these lawyers’ responses showed they had gained perspective over the passage of time on what success meant. They knew that a loss was not the end of the world and that, because they had done so in the past, they may very well win the next time. They knew that a successful life (and here’s the key) was about more than being the best lawyer. It was about enjoying what they had, loving the people in their lives, and – while being proud of their profession – being conscious about not letting this over-shadow everything else.
2. Adjust Your Attitude Towards One of Gratitude, Even When Everything Simply Stinks.
Intentionally and consistently turning your attention from what is wrong with your life (and the others in it) to what is right, begins to build a habit of looking for the good. Studies show that we are able to – over time – turn ourselves from “glass half empty” to “glass half full” people. We are not stuck in the mode to which we were born and molded by our upbringing.
The internet is ablaze with information, products, and apps for this well-being strategy (keyword phrase: “gratitude practice”). Essentially, it boils down to regularly writing down what you are grateful for in your life and why. I have tried this practice myself and found the benefit to be quick and significant. So that I would have something to put in the daily email to my gratitude practice partner, I began actively looking for what was good in my life. Rather than focusing on horrendous traffic, for example, I spent time thinking about what had happened that morning or what I saw on the way to work that brought a light to my life. Sound simple? It is!
3. Build Your Own Support Team.
Humans are intended to live in community with one another and, as such, we are hardwired for it. When this is thwarted, stress and its debilitating effects can bring us down. As a LAP director, I often explored with distraught lawyers who could be of support to them and then encouraged connection with those individuals. Studies are replete with results showing the stress-reducing and resilience-boosting benefits of connecting with the positive people in our lives (keyword phrase: “human connection theory”).
The benefits are even stronger when a connection is made with others who have experienced a common hardship. Consider bringing together two or three other like-minded family lawyers and start sharing a meal or coffee every week or every month. Share strategies and horror stories. Combine resources, when possible. You could also learn about the healing effects of debriefing with a partner, an essential practice to avoid or diminish the effects of secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. Find a partner and engage in this simple technique whenever you are shaken by particularly disturbing evidence, i.e., acts of physical or sexual violence (keyword phrase: “trauma informed debriefing”).
4. Change up Your Practice.
Get serious about letting go of the clients – or the cases with opposing counsel – who are the worst stress-inducers. Often, it’s a handful of these files that make the entire practice miserable. Withdraw and/or transfer the files to another hungrier, younger, or less-stressed lawyer. Put numbers to paper on how much income you need to live and reduce the number of clients you represent. Do with less so you can live more.
Before you reject this idea, take a moment to calculate how many years of practice you have until retirement. Now, consider: can you endure this degree of stress for that many years without succumbing to the worst that unrelenting stress can dish out? Is inconveniencing or disappointing clients worth that?
Addiction and Mental Health Issues Among Family Lawyers: When to Seek Professional Help
Finally, if self-help measures are not sufficient and you find yourself slipping from the “yellow light” to the “red light zone,” please be open to asking a professional for help. A good way to start your search is by contacting your state’s confidential lawyers’ assistance program. You can even call and ask to consult with them anonymously (keyword phrase: “your state + lawyers assistance program”).
Below, you will find links to self-assessments for depression, anxiety disorder, and substance use disorder: see “Resources for Depression, Anxiety, and Addiction”. As a first step, consider taking a look at the applicable survey tool to learn more about a problem that may (or may not) be developing. If there is cause for concern, it can be helpful to print the results and take them with you to a therapist or even your primary care physician.
I know just how frightening this simple proposition can be. In the midst of my using and abusing of alcohol, I never looked closely at my behavior for fear of finding what I truly knew inside but would not admit. Remember, in 2019, we now know that each of these is a medical condition – not a weakness of character – that is treatable and manageable. If you are suffering, know that life truly can get a whole lot better.
Resources for Depression, Anxiety, and Addiction for Lawyers
Directory of State Lawyer Assistance Programs
Directory of Provincial Lawyer Assistance Programs
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUDIT)
Mental Health Online Assessment
Mental Health and Wellness in the Canadian Legal Profession
Bree Buchanan, JD, MSF, a senior advisor for Krill Strategies LLC., is a frequent speaker and consultant to the legal profession on issues of lawyer impairment and well-being. She is a founding co-chair of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being and chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs. www.prkrill.com