Lawyer Mental Health is an Important Conversation That Must Be Had

An exhausted lawyer rests her head on her laptop

A recent appellate court ruling has spotlighted the importance of lawyer mental health – an issue that is rarely discussed.

According to a Reuters news report, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Provident Life and Accident Insurance Company must resume paying total-disability benefits to a former personal injury trial lawyer who suffers from recurrent major depression brought on by the stress of practicing law. The attorney said he was still unable to return to the profession he left in 1998.

Stress of Practicing Law

One of the judges wrote in his decision that improvements in the lawyer’s mental health don’t necessarily mean he can return to working as a full-time personal injury attorney, which he called a “stressful occupation.” The attorney in this case was hospitalized for depression for several weeks in 1997 while serving as his firm’s managing partner.

He resigned in 1998 and filed his claim for total-disability benefits, which the insurance company paid from 2000 to 2018. The lawyer filed a lawsuit under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act or ERISA after the insurance company stopped paying those benefits because of a conclusion that he was “in remission” and also denied his administrative appeal.

Data About Lawyer Mental Health

A recent study about mental health and substance abuse by ALM Intelligence, which provides data and resources for legal professionals, shows that the problems of depression, anxiety and substance abuse among lawyers and legal professionals may be worse than realized.

The survey showed that an overwhelming majority of legal professionals believe their mental well-being is worse off as a result of their chosen career. ALM’s survey found that 31.2% of the more than 3,800 respondents feel they are depressed, 64% feel they have anxiety, 10.1% feel they have an alcohol problem and 2.8% feel they have a drug problem.

In spite of the high rates of drug addiction, depression and anxiety among lawyers, there is little public discussion or open acknowledgment of the problem, even by those who have sought treatment. Because of the stigma that mental health issues present in our society, most attorneys don’t disclose their illness to employers or supervisors because it might jeopardize their reputation or harm their career prospects.

In order to understand how to properly have a conversation about mental health and the legal profession, it is important to answer a few important questions: What are some of the characteristics of this profession that lead to mental health issues? How can attorneys navigate these situations that cause or contribute to depression or substance abuse? What services and resources are available for those who experience difficulty and need help?

What Contributes to Lawyer Stress?

Here are some contributing factors, some of which are specific to the legal profession, that could lead to higher rates of mental illness:

  • Pressures caused by time constraints and deadlines.
  • The high stakes involved, including loss of property, freedom, and in some cases life.
  • The high expectations of success.
  • Constant scrutiny and critical judgment of a lawyer’s work from different parties from clients to courts and opposing counsel.
  • The conflict-ridden nature of the legal process.
  • The threat of malpractice.
  • A tendency to assume the client’s worries and burdens.
  • Lack of camaraderie and positive work environment.
  • Law firm culture and expectations such as high billable hours.
  • Lack of work-life balance and stress on personal relationships.

The very nature of the job can take its toll on lawyer mental health.

What Steps Can Legal Professionals Take?

This leads to the question: How can attorneys guard against stress, burnout, and depression? What are some steps lawyers can take to achieve that elusive balance in life given the nature of their jobs? Here are a few tips and suggestions, based on what psychologists and mental health professionals have to say.

Setting goals and priorities: First, it is important to strike a balance and determine priorities. Setting long-term goals and deciding what experiences and values will enhance the process of achieving those goals is critical. In other words, attorneys need to ask themselves what they really value and how they can achieve that while accomplishing their personal life goals.

Avoiding isolation: It is also important to not become isolated from social and personal relationships. Maintaining familial and community ties is absolutely crucial for good mental health.

Material goals: An expensive lifestyle requires a significant salary, which is common in established law firms and corporations, but rare in careers that offer a work-life balance. While it might be tempting to work toward owning that expensive car or multi-million-dollar home, it is important to analyze what the true costs are and whether that process is going to actually improve one’s quality of life.

Separating work: Some lawyers are guilty of being a lawyer with family members and friends. This could destroy personal relationships. It is important to never lose one’s ability to listen, respect other’s views and be empathetic and compassionate.

Stress relief: It is also critical that lawyers devise their own strategies to disconnect and relieve stress. It could be something as simple as taking some time from the workday to walk on the beach, eating lunch in the park, or taking a yoga class.

Help and Resources for Attorneys

Whether you are negotiating a car accident settlement or providing the defense in a criminal case, the pressure on attorneys can be extreme. They often feel that they have people’s lives in their hands. There are ways to get help with lawyer mental health, and there are resources available to help legal professionals who are dealing with mental illness, addiction, or substance abuse. You could start with your own primary care physician or a medical professional.

911: If the situation is potentially life-threatening, get immediate emergency assistance by calling 911, available 24 hours a day.

Suicide hotline: If you or someone you know is suicidal or in emotional distress, you can call or text “988” or contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (https://988lifeline.org/). Trained crisis workers are available 24/7. Your confidential and toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in the Lifeline national network. These centers provide crisis counseling and mental health referrals.

Support: You can also contact support and recovery groups such as the Lawyers Depression Project (https://abovethelaw.com/2018/12/the-lawyers-depression-project/?rf=1)

Programs: State and local lawyer assistance programs (https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/resources/lap_programs_by_state/) can also help.

For lawyers and legal professionals, wellness is about finding ways to create more overall well-being in one’s life. This may be easier said than done because there is the need for a reset or overhaul in the industry as a whole – law schools, law firms, and legal associations. Our society as a whole has a long way to go in terms of having open and honest conversations about mental health and the legal industry is no exception. But, this is a good time to take a step in that positive direction.

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