From a heart-wrenching account of a legal career’s toll on a young partner to a path-breaking mental health pledge signed by a growing list of the country’s largest law firms, the past year sharpened the industry’s attention on attorney well-being, substance abuse and work-life balance. Expect the focus to intensify in 2019.
While it has long been the case that lawyers are more likely than the general population to suffer from depression, substance abuse and other mental health problems, those issues were again cast into painful relief in 2018.
In October, 42-year-old Sidley Austin bankruptcy partner Gabe MacConaill fatally shot himself near the firm’s Los Angeles office. Less than a month later, his widow, Joanna Litt, who had met her husband in law school, penned a personal essay for The American Lawyer describing the extreme stress and workload her husband faced, and how they might have contributed to his death. One phrase, Litt wrote, replayed in her head as she searched for answers in the weeks after MacConaill’s suicide: “Big Law killed my husband.”
The suicide and Litt’s writing propelled an ongoing discussion about lawyer well-being and mental health challenges as the year came to a close. But even before that, a sense of momentum had been building in the aftermath of a data-backed wake-up call in 2016, when a study funded by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association showed the legal industry’s drinking and mental health issues were worse than previously thought. In 2018, key players in the profession committed to tackling those kinds of issues.
Strategies took different forms. Large firms rolled out wellness initiatives, such as Reed Smith’s “Wellness Works” program, launched in January 2018 to help support the firm’s lawyers and staff as they manage stress and try to balance their work and personal lives. Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which started a wellness program in 2016, also expanded its offerings in 2018. Those firms, however, are hardly alone.
On an industrywide level, the ABA launched a pledge campaign in September aimed at reducing mental health distress and substance abuse among lawyers. The pledge asks law firms and other legal employers to adopt robust education for attorneys and staff on well-being issues, and to develop partnerships with outside resources and mental health experts. Following an initial group of 13 signatories, a total of 39 law firms have now committed to the wellness campaign and, toward the end of the year, 3M Co. became the first corporate legal department to sign on.
Taken together, issues surrounding well-being have a grip on the industry, according to Patrick Krill, an advocate for lawyer mental health who was instrumental in both the Hazelden study and the ABA’s pledge campaign. Krill expects awareness will keep growing, and firms will continue to grapple with ways to ease the path for lawyers.
“I think 2019, candidly, is going to be the year of well-being,” Krill says.
Law school curricula and continuing legal education classes have already begun to take mental health into account, Krill says. He expects the trend will accelerate over the next year, and that a more firms will sign on to the ABA pledge and launch their own individual wellness initiatives. In his view, it’s now virtually impossible for firms to ignore the very real struggles facing many in the profession—and people throughout the industry are searching for concrete ways to address structural issues.
“Firms are looking for innovative solutions to bridge that gap,” Krill says. “And they’re going to have to continue to do that. More and more lawyers are expecting that from their employers. Even firms that don’t want to engage with the subject are going to be forced to—if for no other reason than remaining competitive.”