Keeping Lawyers Mentally Fit Is on the Docket

By Gayle Cinquegrani

Lawyers must be mentally fit to fulfill their obligations, but the profession has done little to help attorneys struggling with mood disorders or substance abuse problems.

The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being is hoping to change that.

“We need lawyers who are healthy. If they’re not, they’re not going to do their best work. The practice will suffer, clients will suffer, and ultimately the bottom line will suffer,” Task Force Co-chair Bree Buchanan told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 22. Buchanan is the director of the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program.

The task force said it wants to start a cultural shift in the profession. In a report issued Aug. 14, it recommended that employers of attorneys adopt work policies that encourage self-care and discourage workaholism. The group also suggested reducing the prominence of alcohol consumption at work events.

The recommendations “will lead lawyers to a healthier and more satisfying life style, better representation of our clients and an improved system of justice,” Linda A. Klein said in an Aug. 14 statement. Klein was the American Bar Association president when the report was released.

Several groups make up the task force, including the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, the National Organization of Bar Counsel, and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers.

Hazelden Study Pushed Issue

The task force formed last year after the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation released a survey of nearly 13,000 practicing lawyers that revealed widespread levels of excessive drinking and other behavioral health problems. Hazelden is a major nonprofit treatment provider based in Minnesota.

“When presented with this hard evidence we felt like we had to do something,” Buchanan said. “The door opened for us to provide a clarion call to the legal profession that now is the time to change.” She said Hilarie Bass, the new ABA president, is forming a work group to develop model law firm policies on lawyer well-being.

“Legal professionals have substance abuse disorders over twice the rate of the general population and also extremely high rates of depression and anxiety,” Kevin Chandler, director of the Legal Professionals Program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 22.

Hundreds of lawyers from all over the country go through Chandler’s program at Hazelden Betty Ford each year. The typical stay lasts 30 days.

Legal employers should take several steps to foster lawyers’ mental well-being, the report said. It recommended that employers establish lawyer well-being committees to evaluate the work environment and address policies that create mental distress. The committees also should identify ways to promote a positive state of well-being and track the progress of various strategies, the report said.

The task force recommended that legal employers monitor their lawyers for work addiction and encourage them to make time to take care of themselves and their personal obligations. About 25 percent of lawyers are workaholics, which is more than double the estimated 10 percent workaholic rate for U.S. adults in general, the report said. It mentioned the availability of the Maslach Burnout Inventory for measuring burnout.

Downplaying Alcohol Consumption

Employers also should de-emphasize alcohol consumption at work-related social events and consider promoting physical activity, according to the report.

The task force also suggested that legal employers establish a confidential internal reporting procedure through which lawyers could seek help for themselves or express concerns about their colleagues’ mental health or substance abuse.

Bar associations should create a list of best practices for legal organizations and survey their members about lawyer well-being, the report said. In addition, they should encourage assistance programs to educate lawyers about well-being and decrease the role of alcohol at association events.

Law firms and bar associations could reduce the level of drinking by providing coffee or dessert bars in addition to cocktail bars at their events, Buchanan said. This also would be more inclusive of lawyers whose religions or medical conditions prohibit drinking, she said.

“Leaders of the industry need to model well-being. They need to prioritize it for themselves and for their firm,” Buchanan said. Top partners in law firms need to make it clear “that people will not be penalized for taking a vacation,” and they could establish a policy discouraging lawyers from answering emails late at night, she said.

Fighting Stigma, Encouraging Treatment

Substance abuse, anxiety, and depression can be treated, but “the stigma and shame that still attach to these disorders are huge,” Buchanan said. “A lawyer’s greatest asset is his reputation,” so lawyers may worry that their problems will become known. “If we could just accept that people are going to struggle with these things,” then we could address them, she said. Treatment is important because “people are suffering,” she noted.

Furthermore, “it just makes good economic sense to do what you can to prevent it, and if you can’t prevent it, to manage it,” Buchanan said. “If you open your eyes to the fact that you’re more susceptible to professional liability and actionable grievances, then you’ll see that it does affect the bottom line.”

“We are working with malpractice carrier insurers for them to incentivize the concept of lawyer well-being because it’s an issue of risk management,” Buchanan said. The malpractice carriers could discount premiums for law firms that have personnel policies encouraging lawyers’ mental well-being and for those that educate their lawyers about the damage that poor mental health can do to their competence.

Personality Traits Can Play a Role

Personality traits can predispose lawyers to experience these problems. “Lawyers tend to be introverts and prefer to work alone and to use the intellect rather than the heart. That’s a recipe for developing a substance abuse problem,” Hazelden’s Chandler said.

Factors within the legal profession also can harm mental well-being. Chandler said lawyers’ “very high job dissatisfaction” and “the adversarial nature” of the legal system can be stressors. So is the popularity of alcohol. “Drinking is very much a part of the legal culture,” he said. “You work hard, and you play hard.”

The tendency of lawyers and law firms to avoid dealing with the issue makes it worse. Lawyers are taught to “never show vulnerability and never ask for help because that’s perceived as weakness, and you can combine that with the pressures of legal practice, and it’s a toxic brew,” Chandler said. He said many firms overlook the gravity of a lawyer’s problems by rationalizing, using the explanation: “We know Fred has a problem, but he sure brings in the business.”

Lawyers must realize that “wellness is every bit as important to your career success as your billable hours,” Chandler said.

Program Customized for Lawyers

Hazelden Betty Ford has a program designed specifically for lawyers. It helps them address specific issues, such as entertaining clients without drinking and explaining their problems to their colleagues. Local lawyers and judges who are in recovery visit the program, which “lessens the stigma” for other lawyers, Chandler said.

As lawyers finish at Hazelden, Chandler’s staff connects them with an outpatient provider and a lawyer assistance program near their home. He tries to ease the lawyers back into their jobs.

“There’s a tendency to want to go back and work twice as hard to prove themselves” after being at Hazelden, but “if they go back to the 80-hour weeks, the tendency is to go back to the stress relievers” that got them into trouble in the first place, he said.

Holistic Wellness at Akin

Akin Gump is one law firm that’s moving in the direction suggested by the task force. “The legal industry is inherently very stressful,” Margaret Weathers Meserole, the firm’s chief human resources officer, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 23. “At Akin, we stress the importance of taking care of oneself.”

The firm uses a holistic wellness program called Be Well to address the emotional, physical, and financial well-being of its lawyers and staff. “It supports the culture that we’re here to help,” Meserole said. New Akin Gump associates also receive resilience training designed to help them recognize potential signs of distress in themselves or their colleagues.

Buchanan and Chandler are eager to see the task force’s recommendations take root throughout the legal profession. The task force asked the leaders of the state courts to convene task forces to implement the report’s recommendations. “We’ll track what’s being done,” Buchanan said.

The task force report provides “a roadmap to change the culture,” Chandler said. “Other segments of corporate America have come to the realization that well-being is important, but we’re dealing with a profession that makes a living off of precedent.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Gayle Cinquegrani in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at

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