The story of Joseph Milowic III, the Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart & Sullivan partner who recounts his struggle with depression in a New York Law Journal column, heralds an important message to the legal community: Lawyer well-being is crucial to the future of the profession and there is no shame in seeking help.
A landmark 2016 study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) found that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers. That compares to just 12 percent of highly educated workers in other professions. In addition, 28 percent of lawyers experience depression while 19 percent have anxiety symptoms. The study found younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice have the highest incidence of these problems.
These numbers represent the real-life suffering of our colleagues. As president of the American Bar Association, I believe this is an important call to action. That is why the ABA created a well-being working group to help law firms create policies supporting their lawyers’ mental health and well-being.
The Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession is made up of members representing law firm management, professional liability carriers and lawyer assistance and wellness professionals and will work to develop policies for release later this year that law firms can use to help their lawyers.
Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being. Law firms need to emphasize that mental health is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s competence and work to educate lawyers on mental health and addiction issues. Perhaps there should be mandatory law school courses, followed by training for young associates, about the importance of well-being. Mentoring programs should teach young lawyers how to address stress and try to stop struggling attorneys from feelings of isolation.
As Mr. Milowic bravely points out, law firm policies must do away with the stigma that lawyers face when they seek help, allowing them to come forward confidentially and without repercussions.
The number of lawyers struggling with these issues is shocking. But instead of being disheartened, we should view this information as a clarion call for change. The ABA and its working group will continue to strive to provide greater education, prevention programs and public awareness campaigns so that we might fully eliminate any shame associated with substance-use disorders and mental health concerns.
Hilarie Bass is president of the American Bar Association.