Now more than any time in the history, we are talking openly about the issue. But we have miles to go.
While I greatly respect the work that you (and others) are doing to promote less addiction and better mental health in the legal profession, I regret that I am skeptical things will look any different five years from now. As a former practicing attorney and current law school professor in my 50s, I’ve perhaps become jaded, but lawyers have been “unhealthy” as long as I’ve been around, and I simply do not see that changing any time soon. What makes you feel differently? A skeptical reader
Dear skeptical reader:
I appreciate you sharing your doubts and skepticism about whether we can and will do better when it comes to our addiction and mental health problems. As an attorney and law school professor, you are strong enough, I’m betting, to withstand my saying that your mindset represents the sort of pragmatic but uninspired inertia that is and has been a big part of the problem. You’re clearly correct that our problems are indeed longstanding, but citing that long history to forecast more of the same is both a cop-out and a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Now more than any time in the history of the legal profession, we are actually talking openly about the issues of substance use and mental health. Of course, that’s a little like saying it’s never been wetter in the desert, but still, it’s a big step. Though our profession’s reluctance to confront some of its own demons has endured with incredible structural tenacity, the well-formulated polymer of denial that once seemed impenetrable is starting to show cracks. Step one is admitting you have a problem, and though the collective conscience of our profession is not quite there yet, on the whole we are closer to uttering those transformative words than we’ve ever been. Even through your jade-colored glasses, I think you’d have to concede that point.
Following the publication of the ABA/Hazelden-Betty Ford study on lawyer substance use and mental health problems in early 2016, a long overdue conversation was prompted—and prodded—by math. Data. Facts. The types of things that lawyers usually demand when evaluating an argument were finally available, and a current of vigorous dialogue sprang forth about just how sizable our behavioral health challenges really are. In the same year, a study related to law-student wellbeing was also released, and demonstrated a similar cause for concern about the health of the profession’s front end.
Since that time, many positive developments have already taken root, with more on the way. For starters, many more law firms are beginning to provide education, training and resources around addiction and mental health, something I can personally attest to through my own consulting practice. Secondly, more articles have been written about addiction, mental health and overall well-being in the legal profession during the last year or so than during any other period. If you scan all the various industry publications, you’ll see at least a couple of articles per week dealing with some aspect of mental health, addiction, or wellbeing. That volume of content is new, and it’s encouraging.
A few short years ago, a column like this probably wouldn’t have made sense, and the ABA certainly wasn’t moving to update the model rule on CLE to require more education about substance use and mental health disorders—something that finally happened this past February. We’ve never had nearly as many CLE’s, talks, and webinars offered on subjects related to improving mental health than we do in 2017, and thanks to a forthcoming report which I’ll discuss, there is good reason to believe that the appetite and demand for such material is only going to accelerate.
Citing the recent studies on lawyer and law student substance use and mental health as predicates for imperative change, a grassroots coalition known as the National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing was formed last year to help lead a response to the serious challenges we face in that arena. Conceptualized and initiated by the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs, the National Organization of Bar Counsel, and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, the Task Force is a collection of entities whose participating entities currently include: ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs; ABA Standing Committee on Professionalism; ABA Center for Professional Responsibility; ABA Young Lawyers Division; ABA Law Practice Division Attorney Wellbeing Committee; The National Organization of Bar Counsel; Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers; National Conference of Chief Justices; National Conference of Bar Examiners, and the authors of the studies which underpinned the Task Force formation.
Within the next month, the Task Force (of which I am proud to be a member) will issue an historic collaborative report that is ambitious in both scope and aim, and which seeks to lay out practical, useful, and effective strategies for all stakeholders in the legal profession to promote greater wellbeing. The recommendations we have drafted are innovative, evidence-based, and drawn from deep experience. By offering clear and insightful guidance to all segments of the profession, I am confident that the report will inspire enhanced dialogue and further progress.
Stay tuned, skeptical reader, because this type of collaborative effort—energized around the singular goal of improving attorney and law student wellbeing—is truly a first for the legal profession, and likely just the beginning of many efforts that could indeed have us in a different place in five years.
Have a question? Send it to email@example.com, and I’ll see you back here in two weeks.
Patrick R. Krill is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. Go to www.prkrill.com for more information.