The American Bar Association’s pledge campaign to address substance abuse and mental health issues may not spark a sudden transformation, but legal professionals said it’s a signal that more people in the industry recognize the severity of the problem and want to do something about it.

Brian Cuban, a lawyer in recovery for substance abuse who has authored a memoir about his experiences, called the ABA’s effort “smart” and said law firm leaders don’t always see how such issues can affect them.

Changes to the industry’s culture, and systemic reforms to battle abuse in the profession, aren’t going to happen overnight, said Cuban, who has spoken out about his struggle maintaining sobriety while working for his brother, billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. “Recovery is one person at a time; culture change is one firm at a time,” he said.

Some early law firm signatories to the ABA’s pledge said they had already taken steps detailed in the campaign before it was created. That could make measuring any change brought about by the ABA’s newest effort difficult—and may also signal its limitations.

We fully support and are committed to adopting the seven-point framework outlined as part of the ABA’s pledge that we were pleased to sign,” said Jodi Joung, a Perkins Coie spokeswoman, in an email. “Many of the actions in the framework have been part of our firm culture for some time and there is no need for additional staff hires, but we look forward to fully adopting the remaining actions.”

Ditto signatory Am Law 100 firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Meg Meserole, Akin Gump’s chief human resources officer, led the effort to improve her firm’s mental and emotional wellness as part of a larger “Be Well” program that launched in 2016.

“I think we’re already on the path to embracing the changes that the ABA has outlined in their pledge,” Meserole said. “So we’re not starting from scratch here.”

The ABA is asking firms to sign on to a seven-point pledge that includes educating attorneys and staff on wellness; disrupting the status quo of alcohol at firm events; developing visible partnerships with outsiders aiming to reduce substance abuse; providing confidential access to mental health experts and resources; developing proactive policies and protocols that assess and treat the problems; demonstrating that “self-care” is a core value; and spotlighting the adoption of the framework to attract new lawyers.

Meserole said her firm was particularly looking for new ways to hold some events without alcohol present in light of the ABA’s effort. Akin Gump attorneys are not becoming teetotalers, however, and she said the firm’s attorneys were working toward an “appropriate balance.”

Latham & Watkins sounded a similar note about its pre-existing practices. LeeAnn Black, Latham’s chief operating officer, said the firm strongly supports the pledge and is pleased to be an inaugural signatory.

It is a significant initiative, and we hope it will serve as a powerful and enduring catalyst for the profession,” Black said in a statement, adding that it fit with the firm’s existing programs “aimed at developing mindfulness and resilience, behavioral health education that encourages use of professional resources, and a range of counseling offerings, among other initiatives.”

Several firms that haven’t yet signed on to the campaign have also taken steps to address issues involving substance abuse and mental health in recent years. Winston & Strawn’s staff has two women trained and certified as mental health first responders, and Norton Rose Fulbright has 20 such-trained first responders. Hogan Lovells, meanwhile, added on-site psychologists to its offices in 2016.

The nationwide opioid crisis, along with public accounts of lawyers succumbing to addiction and other mental health problems, have helped prompt the growing focus. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati partner Peter Munson overdosed on drugs and died in 2015, as detailed in The New York Times by his ex-wife. More recently, former ABA President Hilarie Bass cited the suicide of a colleague in June 2017 as one impetus for her desire to do more to address lawyers’ mental health.

Better statistics have had an impact as well. Approximately 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys are “problem drinkers,” 28 percent struggle with some form of depression, and 19 percent have demonstrated symptoms of anxiety, according to a study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the ABA published in 2016. The results, taken from 15,000 attorneys in 19 states, showed younger attorneys in their first 10 years of practicing professionally experience the highest risk of such problems.

The findings—and the drumbeat of stories about attorney suicides and other tragedies—show how deep-rooted and difficult to address the problems are, especially given the competitive nature of the profession and taboos about admitting impairment.

Alcohol and drug counselor Patrick Krill, who participated in the ABA’s working group for the campaign and is a key voice leading its charge, is poised to release new findings on attorney well-being from a survey of major law firms. He told ALM in an interview published earlier this week, “Many firms probably are not doing a lot in relation to these issues.”

He said the ABA’s pledge campaign can serve as much more than a marketing tool, and signatory firms that fail to make progress will be stricken from the list.


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