To better handle the stress that comes along with the battles of being a litigator, Jeffrey Bunn often spends 15 minutes silently meditating before a confrontational call or courtroom hearing.
Bunn considers it part of his practice of mindfulness, which for him is the mental equivalent of physical exercise. But his request to turn an interior office at Chicago’s 18-lawyer Latimer LeVay Fyock into a low-lit room for meditation fell upon deaf ears among his partners.
“I sent around an email. I got no response,” Bunn said. “I hope it will come, and I hope it’s not too far away, that law firms will start taking care of their lawyers’ minds.”
A report released Monday by the American Bar Association hopes to help the legal profession do just that by detailing sweeping changes that bar regulators, judges, law firms, law schools and others can make to address what the report states amounts to a crisis in lawyers’ well-being and mental health.
For instance, the report suggests that state bar regulators modify their rules of professional conduct to endorse well-being as part of a lawyer’s duty of competence and reconsider asking questions about mental health history in bar applications. Law schools, according to the report, should designate one class session to the topic of substance use and mental health issues. And law firms should create well-being committees and conduct anonymous surveys of lawyers’ mental health.
Among the biggest takeaways from the report is that leaders within law schools, law firms and the judiciary need to show that taking steps to address a mental health problem or addiction will not be perceived as a weakness or will result in stunted career possibilities.
The report is the result of a year’s worth of work by the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being following the release in 2016 of two studies showing the extent of mental health and addiction problems plaguing the legal profession.
A study of nearly 13,000 practicing lawyers commissioned by the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that between 21 and 36 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers. Approximately 28 percent struggle with depression; 19 percent with anxiety and 23 percent struggle with stress.
“These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence,” said the ABA report released Monday. “This research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.”
Bree Buchanan, the ABA’s task force co-chair and director of the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, said releasing the report will be the first step in an ongoing advocacy campaign that encourages leaders to take up the suggestions made by the task force. The ABA report’s plan in that regard is to have each chief justice in states across the country develop a working group to implement the recommended changes. The group has a leg up on that goal as last week the Conference of Chief Justices adopted a resolution in support of the ABA’s report.
“We have a long way to go and things will start to change when the leaders within the profession, which is the very first recommendation in the report, start to also become leaders in regards to well-being,” Buchanan said. “And they start understanding there are very strong fiscal, ethical, professional and humanitarian reasons to tend to our well-being overall as a profession.”
While the report is fighting against a taboo on the topic, the pervasiveness of mental health and addiction problems within the legal profession has seeped into public discourse more recently through a series of reports on suicide or drug-related deaths.
In July, the ex-wife of Peter Munson, an intellectual property partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in San Diego, wrote in The New York Times about his drug use and work-related stress that came before his 2015 death from a “systemic bacterial infection common to intravenous users.”
Prominent South Florida trial lawyer Ervin Gonzalez killed himself in June, prompting Cuban American Bar Association President Javier Lopez to call mental health issues “a giant unspoken in our community.”
“We’re either scared or embarrassed” to talk about it,” Lopez said. “We need to focus on bringing awareness to this issue and just shed some light on this because we’re seeing this happen more and more.”
Just last week, Florida investigators determined that former Foley & Mansfield partner Beranton Whisenant Jr. had taken his own life in May. And in April, the wife of Stewart Dolin, a Reed Smith partner who stepped in front of a train in 2010, won $3 million in a verdict against pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline plc. (Dolin’s widow claimed that his suicide was caused by a hidden side effect of a popular antidepressant, while GSK’s lawyers argued it was caused by the stress of Big Law life.)
While the ABA report states that the legal profession has known for decades about its issues with addiction and depression, it also claims there is some evidence that well-being problems facing the profession are worse today than in the past. One reason, according to the report, may be a rise in incivility.
A 1992 study said 42 percent of lawyers believed civility and professionalism among bar members were “significant problems.” By 2007, 72 percent of lawyers in an Illinois survey categorized incivility as a serious or moderately serious problem.
Patrick Krill, a lawyer and former director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Legal Professionals Program that treats addicted lawyers, said the studies last year that showed the extent of lawyers’ problems with addiction—particularly alcoholism—makes them more willing to respond to the ABA’s proposals.
“The difference is we haven’t had this sort of coalescing moment before now, where you really didn’t have good empirical evidence about the scope of the current problems coupled with a willingness to do something about it,” said Krill, who has written for Law.com. “It does feel as if many in the profession were waiting to begin addressing these problems that we’ve known about for a long time.”