Between 21 and 36 percent of practicing lawyers are problem drinkers. Twenty-eight percent suffer from depression; 19 percent struggle with anxiety; and 23 percent are impaired by stress. Law students fare little better—17 percent are depressed; 14 percent suffer severe anxiety; 6 percent reported suicidal thoughts in the past year; and 22 percent engaged in binge drinking during the year.
Those are the dismal results of the 2016 study of 13,000 lawyers by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and a separate Survey of Law Student Well-Being conducted that same year, which included 3,300 law students from 15 different law schools.
The adverse effect such statistics have on the legal profession—including the inability of its members to do their best work, or fully comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct, or even enjoy some semblance of job satisfaction and happiness—is obvious. So with the objective of doing something about that unwanted state of affairs, the ABA, the National Organization of Bar Counsel and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers created the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being.
The task force first agreed on a definition of “lawyer well-being” to include emotional health, occupational pursuits, creative or intellectual endeavors, spirituality, physical health and social connection, and then identified “five core steps” necessary to realize a “more sustainable culture.” In a 72-page report just recently released, the task force explored in great detail the importance of: (1) identifying the role each stakeholder can play in addressing the “toxicity” in the legal profession; (2) ending the stigma of reaching out for help; (3) emphasizing that well-being and the lawyer’s duty of competence are inextricably intertwined; (4) expanding and enhancing outreach and educational programs; and (5) changing the profession “one small step at a time” (e.g., de-emphasizing alcohol at bar association social events). The task force’s elaboration upon those basic concepts in its report is creative, sophisticated and robust—and far beyond the scope of this commentary. Suffice it to say, the report makes fascinating, disconcerting and, yes, hopeful, reading for all who care about our profession.
But what can/should we do beyond perusing the report and bemoaning the condition of the profession it describes? We have all encountered colleagues who suffer from substance abuse, gambling addiction, or depression and anxiety from the day-to-day stress inherent in our professional lives. But that very same pressure—from the courts, clients, partners or otherwise—all too often prevents us from taking the time and making the effort to extend a helping hand to our brother or sister in need—as we know we should. Perhaps the task force’s report—and the eye-opening statistics and stark reality it presents, the disheartening conditions it describes and the path to improvement it prescribes—will be the tipping point.
Perhaps now we will assist a colleague to find professional help for the depression that is crippling his ability to perform. Perhaps now we will convince a lawyer, who is so obviously struggling with a drinking problem, to contact Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers or AA or both. Perhaps now, instead of replying to uncivil outbursts with the same and in equal measure, we will engage the lawyer regularly acting out to see if there is an underlying problem that explains her behavior. Perhaps now we will agree to speak to law school classes and newly-admitted lawyer groups to share with them the coping skills we have acquired over many years in the trenches. Perhaps now, at the other end of the timeline, we will undertake to gently convince that older lawyer, who no longer can meet the unyielding demands of practice, that it is time to gracefully leave the stage. Perhaps now we will incorporate well-being courses into the CLE we offer through our bar associations and give MCLE credit for them. Perhaps now we will collaborate with the judiciary and law schools to make lawyer well-being a collaborative, bench-bar-academy undertaking. Perhaps now we will re-examine our Rules of Professional Conduct and their enforcement with a heightened concern for remediating—not just punishing—the impaired lawyer. Perhaps.