Photo Credit: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

The issue of attorneys’ mental health will be a key issue confronting lawyers from around the country when they gather in Chicago for the American Bar Association’s annual conference this summer.

The ABA is “furiously working” on a draft policy for legal employees and law firms grappling with impairment issues that the ABA could adopt at its annual meeting, said Terry Harrell, chair of an ABA presidential working group to advance well-being in the legal profession.

The draft proposal will provide lawyers and firms of all kinds with a framework for attorneys to report if they are—or think a colleague may be—impaired due to issues such as stress, depression, or declining cognitive ability.

“Impairment is not a diagnostic term, it is a functional term,” Harrell said. “It is a model policy so we’re going to have to stay broad.”

The working group is drafting the proposal now so that it can be advanced to an ABA House of Delegates vote for adoption at the annual meeting, which starts at the end of July. Internally, the working group’s members are working to overcome concerns about how to draft a policy that can encompass legal employers of all different sizes and types.

At the same times as the draft proposal is introduced, the working group hopes to present a tool kit to give firms suggestions for best practices, such as having on-site counselors present in the office, using surveys, and disseminating information about lawyer assistance programs and educational materials that include details about how to detect impairment.

Harrell said this tool kit would be available to firms later this fall at the latest.

At the ABA’s National Legal Malpractice Conference in Washington last month, the organization’s president, Hilarie Bass, told attendees that the suicide of a colleague in June 2017 sparked a desire on her part to do more to address mental health issues in the profession.

“It’s not that we in firm management don’t want to solve this problem, it’s that we don’t know how to do it,” Bass said at the conference.

Some firms have already begun taking steps on their own to address mental health, lawyerly well-being, and impairment problems. Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, for example, added an on-site behavioral assistance counselor to its D.C. office last month on a once-weekly basis. Akin chief operating officer Sally King said she expects to expand the program to include a counselor in each of its 20 offices around the world next year, due to the success of the pilot program in Washington.

Patrick Krill, a behavioral health consultant focused on the legal industry, said he held a series of training sessions for Akin and is working with the ABA on its impairment policy. Krill said he doesn’t think Big Law is doing enough to address mental health issues, but that the climate is all beginning to change.

“What we’re beginning to see is an open dialogue about principles that we should be striving for within the profession,” Krill said.

Krill said he has also been working with the ABA on a campaign to have law firms pledge to make lawyer well-being a priority. That is expected to be rolled out later this year, he said.

Such efforts to address lawyers’ mental health and well-being will be informed by data gleaned from a law firm survey that Krill is working on with ALM Intelligence and The American Lawyer.

Harrell said the ABA Rules and Calendar Committee will review the impairment policy proposal on Monday and Tuesday, May 21 and 22. The ABA will then post the resolution online, which Harrell said would likely happen in June.

Read more:

Big Law Leader Shares Struggles with Alcoholism, Challenges for Profession

Out of Focus: Lawyers and Firms Can No Longer Ignore Dementia

ABA Report Promotes Changes to Treat Addiction, Depression

The Behavioral Health Crisis Among U.S. Lawyers: It’s Time to Take Action