Lawyer “wellness” initiatives have begun to catch on in recent years, as more law firms face mounting evidence that attorneys suffer disproportionately from depression, substance abuse and other mental health problems, including a greater incidence of suicide than most other professions.
For a growing number of firms, the evidence is far from just academic.
In recent years lawyers at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Covington & Burling, DLA Piper, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Reed Smith have taken their own lives, to list just some examples. Many were prominent partners whose deaths were widely noted, though it’s likely many more cases were never reported. And suicide is not the only killer: At Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, for example, the death of a drug-addicted partner in 2015 became national news after his former wife wrote about his struggles for The New York Times.
This week, just a day after the widow of a Sidley Austin partner wrote about the experience of her own husband’s recent suicide, the American Bar Association announced that 11 more law firms had signed an ABA pledge to do more to address mental health. That brings the total number of signatories to 24 since the campaign launched in September.
Sidley and Wilson Sonsini are among the new signatories. Akin Gump and Reed Smith were part of the original group of 13 firms that made the pledge.
The effort was launched by the ABA’s Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession, a group formed in September 2017 at the request of then-ABA president Hilarie Bass. Bass, who will step down as co-president of Greenberg Traurig at the end of the year, has said she was jolted into action on the issue of mental health partly by the suicide of fellow South Florida litigator Ervin Gonzalez, a partner at Colson Hicks Eidson.
One of the ways firms have addressed mental health concerns is to offer on-site counseling. Akin Gump began to offer counseling services though a third-party vendor earlier this year, and the firm said at the time that it has been especially committed to wellness issues since a 41-year-old Washington, D.C., litigator there, Michael Starr, killed himself in 2013. Akin Gump is also a supporter of the Starr Initiative on Character and Fitness, named after Starr. The initiative is a program of the Dave Nee Foundation, founded after the suicide of law student David Nee.
DLA Piper, where Boston-based partner Bruce Wickersham died by suicide late this summer, reiterated its commitment to wellness and mental health programs in a statement, saying the firm offers ”a range of mental health services and benefits for lawyers and staff, which includes coverage and access to counseling (virtual, telephonic or in-person), as well as awareness and prevention resources and programs.”
“These are provided on an ongoing basis and in a more targeted way, when needed, to address specific circumstances and situations,” the firm said.
Freshfields said in a statement that the 2015 death of attorney Timothy Coleman, who fell to his death from the firm’s Washington, D.C., office building, had helped focus the firm’s attention on the health of its lawyers.
“We have a strong commitment to the physical and mental well-being of our people across the firm, and have redoubled our efforts since we lost a beloved partner in 2015,” a spokesperson said. The firm cited its Global Mental Health Support Team program, made up of regional leadership groups that are trained in “mental health first aid skills,” including internal support and referrals.
Freshfields also has wellness program that includes seminars and meditation sessions, and an employee assistance program that includes mental health sessions and crisis management assistance, the firm said.
Reed Smith, which on Wednesday announced a “Month of Good Deeds” focused on giving and gratitude as a part of its larger Wellness Works initiative, declined to comment on whether the 2010 suicide of Chicago partner Stewart Dolin changed the firm’s approach to mental health.
In March 2017, Covington & Burling counsel Kenneth Freeling jumped to his death from his Park Avenue apartment building in New York. The firm did not immediately respond to requests for comment regarding any programs implemented at the firm in the wake of Freeling’s death.
When asked whether it took specific steps after the death of attorney Robert Worrall, who jumped in front of a train in London in 2010, Linklaters said it supported its lawyers’ well-being through a number of programs, including a “This is Me” campaign where partners and business team managers share their personal stories, and by looking for early signs of ill health and referring people to treatment resources.
“We have a strong focus on the importance of mental health and strive to create a culture where our people can talk openly about their mental health at work,” Linklaters’ global head of talent and engagement Kate Richardson-Moore said in a statement.
The ABA’s pledge campaign asks firms to adopt a seven-point framework that starts with the expectation that employers provide robust education to attorneys and staff around the issues of well-being, mental health and substance abuse. It also urges firms to develop partnerships with resources outside the firm to help in reducing mental health distress and substance abuse, and to provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts.
“It is critical that firms not view mental health and well-being as a box-checking exercise,” said Patrick Krill, an expert on attorney mental health issues who developed the ABA’s framework. “It requires thoughtfulness, creativity and buy-in to develop a meaningful and cohesive well-being program that will yield results and return on investment.”
But this also requires an acknowledgment by firms that the structural aspects of practicing law can undermine mental health and a willingness to make changes, he noted.
“Conversations aimed at breaking the ice and diminishing stigma around mental health and addiction are an essential component of the solution,” Krill said.