Michelle Suskauer, Florida Bar president and Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein attorney. Courtesy photo Michelle Suskauer, Florida Bar president and Dimond Kaplan & Rothstein attorney. Courtesy photo

Young Florida attorneys are finding their legal careers fall short of the expectations they’d had of the profession.

A new study showed nearly one-third of fledgling lawyers would not apply for law school knowing what they now do about the field, many take little or no vacation, and 58% of respondents have considered changing careers, switching to a different firm or practice, and feel the legal work is becoming “less desirable.”

The data comes from a newly released survey by the Young Lawyers Division of the Florida Bar. Between Nov. 15, 2018, and Dec. 6, 2018, the group collected 1,967 responses from attorneys across the state over a six-month period, with input from psychologists.

Young Lawyers Division membership is open to attorneys who have been practicing for less than five years or are younger than 36. Division president Christian George said the survey was designed to gauge the mental health and wellness of attorneys who had recently entered the workforce, to then fine tune programs and resources aimed at providing relief.

“The goal was to find out … what mental health issues are affecting our constituents and how people are dealing with it, either in healthy ways or not,” said George, managing partner of Akerman’s Jacksonville office,

Attorneys on the group’s health and wellness committee put together the survey, then a team of voluntary psychologists modified it, and a Florida Bar in-house statistician made edits and gave it back to the psychologists.

“We didn’t want to just throw a survey together that wasn’t looked at by actual professionals,” George said.

‘Tough Numbers’

The survey also showed more than one-third of respondents said stress had caused them to leave a law office in the past, and more 25% reported they felt they are unable to balance their lives with their legal careers.

Almost one-third of those polled said time constraints kept them from taking more vacation time in 2018.

The questionnaire was released as part of the Young Lawyers Division and Florida Bar’s fifth annual “Health and Wellness Month for Florida Lawyers.”

The topic of mental health in the legal profession has become a subject of renewed focus in recent months, thanks to high-profile incidents. Last year, for instance, Florida’s legal community reeled in the wake of Miami-Dade County Administrative Law Judge Timothy Maher’s Aug. 24 suicide during a standoff  with law enforcement.

Florida Bar president Michelle Suskauer said the results of the survey and “Health and Wellness Month” present an opening for the state bar to better assist those in need.

“It’s a challenge but it’s an opportunity,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to say, ‘What can we do better to help our young lawyers? What can we do better to help lawyers, all of our lawyers, in dealing with these issues?’ ”

Suskauer said it’s her hope the survey will ultimately provide a guidepost on the challenges faced by Florida lawyers.

“I know this is going to help frame the opportunities for future presidents, young lawyers and bar presidents moving forward,” she said. “They’re tough numbers, but they’re instructional.”

She adds, “I think data always helps you fine tune. … It makes you rethink what are the programs we have and how can we do better?”

George said he’s “too close” to the profession to have been shocked by the survey’s findings.

“This has been one of my passions for so long I was not that surprised,” he said. However, he pointed to other numbers from the results — such as the 79% of lawyers who report a personal sense of satisfaction from their work — that pave a path forward for a profession grappling with how to take care of its own.

“There’s hope,” George said. “If you’re a lawyer and you’re struggling with these issues you’re clearly not alone, and you shouldn’t be afraid to address them.”

He adds, “ I’m hoping as a result of this and other efforts, in five years the disheartening responses will be more positive.”