The release today of "The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change" from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being is a watershed moment for the legal profession. For the first time, representatives from all sides of the profession have joined to propose tangible strategies as to how it can begin addressing the heightened levels of stress, depression, and substance use among lawyers and law students as well as provide advice on addiction treatment for lawyers.
Caron commends the year-long effort of the Task Force--a group of nine professional organizations and two experts in the field-- to produce such a broad array of practical recommendations. After recent studies cited by the Task Force identified the depth of these problems throughout the profession, this encompassing report gives a set of tools to move forward and represents the next logical step in preventing and reducing these toxic issues.
The Task Force was formed in response to a 2016 study the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation that surveyed nearly 13,000 practicing lawyers on their mental, physical, and behavioral health. Up to 36 percent of lawyers in the survey were classified as active problem drinkers, and between 19 and 28 percent were struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression. These results are far higher than those seen in any other professions--including doctors, whose addiction rates top off at 15 percent---as well as among the general public. For a profession deeply engaged in every aspect of our personal, social, political, business, and economic lives, these results are troubling, to say the least.
“To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer,” states the report. Not only have recent studies revealed that much of the profession is unhealthy, but the recent report even alludes to the possibility that many more in the profession are not satisfied or thriving. These previous studies have awakened firms and clients to the extent of the problem, and a recent New York Times feature article about a prominent Silicon Valley lawyer who died as a result of his drug addiction graphically personalized it. The time is right for the entrenched culture of law firms and law schools to shift decades of ignoring and enabling to “re-envisioning” a new template for their lawyers and students.
In its report, the Task Force offers concrete recommendations focused on five central themes:
1. Identifying stakeholders and the role each of us can play in reducing the level of toxicity in the legal profession
There are two aspects of this. First is a recognition that there is a “level of toxicity” in the profession that is driving the mental and behavioral health challenges seen among lawyers. Prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes, and building a healthier and more sustainable work culture could go a long way to preventing problems in the first place. The second is that all of us in the legal profession--and those of us outside the legal field who engage in the treatment and prevention of disease---have a role in making this happen.
2. Eliminating the stigma associated with seeking help
Unfortunately, in our culture, addiction is often seen as a moral failing. Bright and driven attorneys often fear that admitting to an addiction problem is tantamount to career suicide. Unlike other chronic diseases such as cancer or diabetes, there is a stigma to the very act of even asking for help. Even though addiction is also a chronic disease which can be successfully treated, too many lawyers attempt to appear “high-functioning” and hide the disease as it progresses. There needs to be a smooth, safe path for those seeking help for addiction, depression, and other mental and behavioral health issues.
3. Emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence
This actually represents the most profound and challenging of all the recommendations, and it ultimately may be the most impactful. The practice of law is a calling, and we have a duty of competence to our clients, to our courts, and to our profession. This report couples the key ethical duty of competence with the overlooked axiom that a lawyer’s career must be “sustainable,” especially since the peak years for attorneys are typically from their 40s to their 60s.
4. Educating lawyers, judges, and law students on lawyer well-being issues
Most lawyers, judges and law firms know little about substance use disorders and other behavioral and mental health issues. These disorders are so well hidden by those who are sick that they are not easily identifiable by others. And even when they are identified, we are not a profession which has the expert knowledge to deal with them. Education is the first step to overcome any stigma, and providing substantive information about these diseases, how to prevent them, how to recognize them, and how to treat them is a predicate for a cultural shift towards normalization and wellness.
5. Taking small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession
The legal and law school cultures have remained intact for decades (if not centuries), often a source of professional pride. Change will naturally come slowly. But the current state of the practice, coupled with the unhealthy consequences of it, cannot endure without profound shifts. Values must be re-examined and change--with a view towards long-term prosperity and quality---as many professions have already concluded and begun to implement.
How Should Firms and Schools Respond to the Task Force’s Recommendations?
This report is the natural catalyst for action. Each stakeholder now has a list of suggestions--some short-term, some long-term. I would recommend that each stakeholder recruit an interested cohort of individuals to implement those strategies it embraces in a staggered and practical manner. Some of these activities may need the oversight and the input from experts in the addiction and mental health fields. Resources should be accessed: From clinicians to interventionists to treatment centers. As with any chronic disease, the employers should assure a predictable and secure road for those needing help (or asking for help)--without fear of reprisal--coupled with relationships with experts, educators, and caregivers who can assist. Law firms and law schools themselves--much like the lawyers and students suffering today in silence--must also ask for help.
By Eric Webber, MA, CADC, CSAT/CMAT, CCS, CCPG