The topic of mental health and substance abuse in the legal industry is getting some much-needed light. A quick search of recent media activity on the topic indicates there is a growing conversation and movement to recognize that both mental health and substance abuse are prevalent in the legal industry. More importantly, that there is a need to be open on these topics, offer support for those in need and work towards bettering the working environment, which is often referred to as “toxic”. However, in an industry where the professional staff are still often referred to as “non-lawyers” or simply “staff”, it should not be a surprise that the professional staff are often left out of this growing movement, nor should it be that they have fewer resources available to them from the law firms when it comes to mental health and substance abuse.


Stress and Pressure Do Not Discriminate at Law Firms

A lawyer’s job is stressful. Tight deadlines, with increasing amounts of non-billable reporting and paperwork, all while searching for a seemingly digital needle in an infinite haystack. On top of that, there are unhappy clients, aggressive and irritable opposing counsel. Yelling. Threats. Internal office politics.  Billable hour and budget requirements. While it’s not uncommon for this to be considered “all in a day’s work”, it’s become so common to many attorneys that it’s simply referred to as “Monday”. To most, it makes perfect sense that many attorneys face and struggle with mental health and substance abuse. Perhaps not always to the same level, but professional staff at a law firm (e.g. anyone not an attorney or partner) are at risk to many of the same stressors lawyers encounter. Moreover, depending on the firm size and the ratio of attorney to professional staff, the pressure on professional staff can be multiplied. While it’s not widely recognized, most attorneys and partners would agree that he or she has more contact with their administrative support than any other employee within the firm. Professionals in Marketing, Business Development, Knowledge Management, Pricing, Finance, and IT all routinely interact with attorneys, practice groups, client teams, and increasingly, clients. Each position is part of the ecosystem that is the law firm. If an attorney is having a bad day, you’re likely having a bad day too. As Deborah Farone of Farone Advisors LLC, a market strategy consultant to law firms and former CMO of Cravath and Debevoise & Plimpton (and author of soon to be published book “Best Practice in Law Firm Marketing and Business Development”), aptly put, “At times, even the most well-run firms can turn into pressure cookers. Client matters create pressure for partners, who in turn share the pressure with associates. Eventually, all of this raises the heat for the professional staff. Just as the stressors are shared, so is the pressure. All parts of the pot come to boil.”

On top of the pressures and stressors of the legal industry is the unique vantage law firm professional staff have. As Patrick Krill of Krill Strategies, and the columnist for Well Counseled on, explains:

“Staff frequently see the unfiltered—or at least less filtered—version of a lawyer’s personality. As a group, lawyers can be obsessive about managing their images and reputations with clients and other lawyers. The one group with whom they are more likely to let their guard down is staff, the same people that are often “in the trenches” with the lawyer and working hard to ensure that he or she is successful. This is not to say that the heightened candor and authenticity that may exist in a lawyer-staff relationship means a lawyer is always going to confide his or her most personal challenges to an assistant or paralegal. It does mean, however, that staff have a much better chance of catching a glimpse behind the curtain than other lawyers in the firm might.”

This, of course, is not always a negative relationship. But, the point is that law firm staff are subject to stress, pressure, and are often exposed to a version of the attorney that no one else sees. Needless to say, if your partners and attorneys are stressed, so are the professional staff.


If You Are Staff at a Law Firm, You Are Not an Equal

However, even if the professional staff are exposed to many of the same elements as the attorneys, and in many cases find themselves in the direct path of an attorney’s wrath, they do not always have the same benefits and resources available to them from their law firm to help them identify and cope with a personal issue. ALM Intelligence’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse survey of the Am Law 200 sadly proved this point (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Mental Health and Substance Abuse Law Firm Resources and Support for Staff

The firms that responded indicated that each of the nine categories of resources and support displayed in Figure 1 are available to attorneys. There was only one category – a leave policy that realistically supports time off for treatment of substance abuse, addiction or mental health – where the firms say they offer the same resources and support to both attorneys and professional staff. After this category, it becomes clear that within “Big Law” there is a differentiation between attorneys and professional staff. The largest instances of inequality are on offering educational programs about treatment options for substance abuse, addiction or mental health; and training to identify signs that a co-worker may be struggling with one or more of these. 36 percent of law firms that responded indicated they do not offer these to professional staff, whereas 100 percent do for attorneys.

In an industry steeped in hierarchy to the point where it mimics a caste system, and where the revenue generated per person is measured and almost solely viewed as the only criteria for success, the professional staff – those that enable and support attorneys and partners – take a seat way in the back. While drawing this clear distinction between attorneys and non-attorneys – and providing them with imbalanced resources – is not illegal, it certainly creates troubling divisions within firms. Regardless of the specific role in a law firm, each person is either directly or indirectly supporting clients and firm goals. Increasingly, the data suggest that firms believe that, because someone is not an attorney, that he or she is immune to personal events and struggles that will impact work. Moreover, unequal treatment is not good for morale or firm culture. As Deborah Farone describes, “When providing a new shiny perk to one part of the firm, it’s important not only to consider what it means to that group, but what message it sends to those for whom the benefit is not offered.”


Why Make Everyone an Equal at Law Firms?

There are two main arguments when it comes to making the case to offer each law firm employee the same resources and support for mental health and substance abuse. The first and the preferred reason for making a change is that it is the right thing to do. Treat everyone as an equal and provide them with the same tools to be set-up for success and well-being. Kathleen Pearson, Chief Human Resources Officer at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, does a great job of making a case for this route:

“It’s important for law firms to have the right mindset and recognize that regardless of a person’s particular role, they are inevitably going to experience some stress, whether professional or personal. A healthy workplace proactively addresses these pressures. It understands that a strong work culture requires that everyone be “well” in every sense of the word.”

The second case for offering equal benefits in the law firm when it comes to mental health and substance abuse is to look at the financial impact. If an administrative assistant doesn’t show up for work, it’s disruptive. If the CMO is struggling with a mental health issue at work, it’s disruptive. If the law librarian quits, it’s disruptive. There have been several research efforts quantifying this impact:

  • The American Institute of Stress says that 1 million US employees miss work each day due to workplace stress.
  • Loss for companies due to alcohol and drug-related abuse is $100 billion per year according to The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information.
  • According to an infographic pulled together by Eastern Kentucky University (EKU):
    • The cost of missing one day of work is $602 per employee per year.
    • As a result of workplace stress, employers spend $300 billion per year for healthcare and missed days at work.
    • Stressed workers’ healthcare costs are 46 percent higher than non-stressed workers.
    • Employees not functioning to their full potential costs $150 billion per year in lost productivity.

In contrast, Willis Towers Watson reported that organizations with high-OHPR (overall health and productivity effectiveness) scores have medical plan costs that are $1,000 lower per employee than organizations with low scores, one fewer days of unplanned absence per employee per year, are 60% more likely to financially outperform peers and have higher revenue per employee.


So, What Should We Do?

The issue is not a staff issue, nor an attorney issue. It’s a law firm issue. The structure of law firms and mindset shared by many has created this great inequality within the firm. There are several critical actions firms can take to create a fair, supportive and more pleasant working environment for all:

Provide Full and Equal Benefits, Resources and Support for All

This is a relatively simple, yet impactful step to take in evening the playing field. While this action does not resolve any underlying issues within the firm (see the following step), it does superficially make everyone an equal by providing all with the same support and benefits for mental health and substance abuse.

There are law firms that are already very advanced in this regard and do not differentiate between professional staff and attorney. These firms, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and Farella Braun + Martel to name two, recognize that everyone has to be in a good space to do the work that they do. For these firms, equality is baked into their culture, and they offer wellbeing programs holistically that include topics such as stress and anxiety management, mental health, and even stretch as far as physical health and alcohol-less events.

Change to a Team-based, Collaboration-based Culture

Yes, this is a big task. And, not one that is easily achieved. Law firms have put themselves into a twisted and tangled mess when it comes to culture. There are two main issues at play here, which are not independent of each other.

  1. Practicing Law is Very Isolating

Among attorneys within a law firm, there is usually little to no work-load sharing and little to no trust that your work can be completed by another. The cultural mindset is that each lawyer is solely responsible for his or her work, and success. To prove this theory simply look at the compensation structure of a law firm. Law firms have a highly individual-based culture. Darryl Cross, Chief Performance Officer of HighPer Teams and Senior Consultant at LawVision, says of this culture, “To think that law firms are the only place in the world where people can handle things on their own is a huge mistake.” Why does he say this? He works closely with law firm leaders to create teams by using and adapting the same methods that develop teams in other very high stress and pressure professions. He is also a former Chief Marketing officer with an international law firm, and is one of only 150 Certified Master Trainers in the world recognized by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. When leaders of firefighters, astronauts, and fighter pilots prepare their people, they assume “terminal consequences” if they fail. What’s the difference between the structure of these and that of the law firm? These three – and others – are highly team-based. No single individual is fully responsible. They share the work-load and rely on others. Because of training and a team-mindset, they trust that their co-workers, or teammates, will fulfill their own tasks. This relieves pressure from any one individual and brings the stress level down. This is a stark contrast to the law firm. An individual-based culture leads to very high stress, which can trigger other behaviors and issues – substance abuse, health issues, marital problems. The behaviors are symptoms of a culture that demands self-reliance in a world that makes it impossible to do so. As Darryl says, “this trickles down to the staff – they have to deal with attorneys with these issues.”

  1. Not Everyone Is Valued at a Law Firm

Law firm staff – anyone not an attorney or partner – are not viewed as valuable parts of the law firm. They are considered replaceable, when in fact they each play a critical role in fulfilling law firm services and meeting strategic goals. This causes low morale and mistreatment of anyone not a lawyer.

The solution is to treat everyone at the law firm like “equal members of the team with different expertise”, Darryl explains. “For example, when an astronaut lifts off on a mission, everyone in the crew, mission control, and even the person who closes the hatch is equally important. If one has a bad day, everyone has a very bad day. Thus, they need equal support, treatment, and development.” This combined with building trust across the team will relieve pressure and stress from the attorneys, which in turn will improve the working environment for all within the law firm, and will improve morale of the professional staff when viewed as an equal and not inferior.

Darryl adds, “All high-stress professions are taxing on the body, mind, and soul. However, the best organizations realize that the ability to trust and rely on others is the only way to minimize burnout and the consequences of substandard performance. There are no tiers within a team. If each is an expert, from staff support to superstar, they suffer the same repercussions of cumulative stress associated with overload, uncertainty, and change. Empower the team to treat the individual.”

Invest in Training and Tools for Efficiency and Collaboration

There are many tools and techniques available that will enable and support a team-based culture transformation. Project management training and capacity planning will create transparency into work-load, and help allocate tasks and steps, ensuring not one individual is responsible for a matter, project or initiative. They will also improve deadline tracking and management, and reduce stressful situations often encountered with forgotten deadlines or deadlines piled together. Cloud-based collaboration tools make it easier to work together in real-time, reducing stress related to document tracking, compiling notes, searching for the most up to date version, to name a few. Automation and AI reduce the workload related to tedious and typically time-consuming activities, which frees up bandwidth and improves accuracy, but also reduces monotony and “bottom-level” work (Wondering how law firms can leverage AI? Check-out our report here).

Create an Open and Supportive Environment

Play an active role in eliminating the stigma associated with mental health and substance abuse. Create an open and on-going dialogue within the firm and ensure there is a safe anonymous way to seek personal help or help for another. A critical component of this is providing training to all on how to identify the signs of struggle in another. Communicate the resources and benefits available, both offered through the firm and elsewhere. For all attorneys, the ABA offers Lawyer Assistance Programs by state. Additionally, there are local, state, regional and national programs open and available to everyone. Making these resources known and readily available (e.g. intranet) improves the support for those struggling, and those that are looking for a way to help another.


Removing the dividing line between attorneys and non-attorneys through a team-based culture, offering the same level of support for all employees and investing in stress-reducing tools and techniques will remove stress and pressure on individuals, and create a more pleasant working environment for all. In turn, those struggling with work-induced mental health and substance abuse issues should feel some relief, while those struggling due to personal matters will have the tools and support available to take steps toward getting help and moving toward recovery.


The ALM Intelligence Compass full survey on the mental health and substance abuse is available here for Compass subscribers. Not a subscriber? Click here.