Hearing about another attorney’s personal struggles can reinforce that it’s OK to talk about mental health
BY DAN CRYSTAL
When then-WSBA President Rajeev Majumdar gave an interview about his own mental health journey entitled “Working to Combat the Stigma Around Seeking Help”11 Find that article here: https://wabarnews.wsba.org/wabarnews/sept__2020/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=38#pg40. in the September 2020 issue of Bar News, and when current WSBA President Kyle Sciuchetti began his 2020-2021 term with a Bar News article about the importance of member wellness,22 Find that article in the October 2020 issue of Washington State Bar News, also online here: https://wabarnews.wsba.org/wabarnews/oct__2020/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=10#pg12. the WSBA Member Wellness Program welcomed the appearance of two prominent allies.
Discussed in more detail later in this article, but summarized here, are a cascade of positive developments in recent years aimed at supporting the mental health of attorneys. In 2016, we saw improved clinical research into attorney mental health; in 2017, the formation of well-being committees; in 2018, law firms began making well-being pledges. In 2020, the Institute for Well-Being in Law33 https://lawyerwellbeing.net/. was formed to provide research and best practices across various venues of legal culture. The Institute also created Well-Being Week in Law, which the WSBA will celebrate in May. These are all part of a national trend of bar associations thinking about how best to support the profession.
The seminal piece of research that inspired such recent changes was “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys” published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine in 2016.44 Krill, Patrick R., J.D., LLM; Johnson, Ryan, M.A.; Albert, Linda M.S.S.W., “;The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” Journal of Addiction Medicine: January/February 2016, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp. 46-52. While it had been speculated for decades that attorneys have a higher rate of addiction and mental health problems than the general population, no research with a viable sample size had been published in 25 years. With a sample size of 13,000 attorneys, the researchers found that between 21 and 36 percent of lawyers qualify as “problem drinkers” and 28 percent struggle with depression. In general, rates of mental illness and addiction among lawyers were approximately twice those of the general population. This article was quickly picked up by the media and led to a groundswell of interest by the ABA, state bar associations and their practice area sections, and the public.
An increase in attorney suicide became the next focus of media reporting. For instance, a 2017 article in The New York Times, “The Lawyer, The Addict,”55 www.nytimes.com/2017/07/15/business/lawyers-addiction-mental-health.html. examined the suicide of a talented attorney who had managed to disguise a profound drug addiction and vast depression from his family and colleagues. Another article from Law.com, “Big Law Killed My Husband,”66 www.law.com/americanlawyer/2018/11/12/big-law-killed-my-husband-an-open-letter-from-a-sidley-partners-widow/?slreturn=20210209173356. pointed the finger at law firm management for a spouse’s suicide at his firm. Where once such cases were seen as triggered by private and personal issues, they started to be seen as a not-unexpected result of joining a culture with punitive rules and few options to seek help.
Several recent initiatives have shown potential to break through the inertia of institutional cultures. In 2017, the National Taskforce on Lawyer Well-Being put out a report entitled “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change”77 Full report: www.mnlcl.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportFINAL.pdf. that details 44 objectives the legal profession can adopt to promote attorney well-being. Objectives include: provision of wellness-based CLE programming; outreach to statewide addictions groups for attorneys; support for judicial assistance; reviewing character and fitness committees that are part of the admissions process; examining the methods and tone disciplinary counsel take in reviewing grievances; reviewing law school practices for supporting student well-being; and promoting healthy work environments in law firms. Thirty-one state bars thus far have either formed committees to study or have begun implementing these changes.
In 2018, the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (COLAP) initiated a pledge campaign to promote best practices for law firms to take care of their attorneys, promote a cohesive work environment, and prevent turnover in the process.88 More information at: www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/well-being-in-the-legal-profession/. While just 13 firms signed the initial pledge, 197 have now signed and the number keeps growing. The pledge includes a seven-point checklist for law firms to improve the messaging to lawyers about a firm’s interest in well-being and the available methods of addressing difficulties. The seven points are as follows:
- Provide enhanced and robust education to attorneys and staff on topics related to well-being, mental health, and substance use disorders.
- Disrupt the status quo of drinking-based events:
- Challenge the expectation that all events include alcohol; seek creative alternatives.
- Ensure there are always appealing non-alcoholic alternatives when alcohol is served.
- Develop visible partnerships with outside resources committed to reducing substance use disorders and mental health distress in the profession: health care insurers, lawyer assistance programs, Employee Assistance Plans (EAPs), and experts in the field.
- Provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources, including free, in-house self-assessment tools.
- Develop proactive policies and protocols to support assessment and treatment of substance use and mental health problems, including a defined back-to-work policy following treatment.
- Actively and consistently demonstrate that help-seeking and self-care are core cultural values, by regularly supporting programs to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
- Highlight the adoption of this well-being framework to attract and retain the best lawyers and staff.
Here in Washington, a group of attorneys is looking at ways to bring this pledge to firms throughout the state. One of the first local signatories to the pledge was Perkins Coie.
Perkins Coie Director of Communications Jodi Joung explained that the firm enthusiastically supported the pledge from the get-go because it has long recognized that the practice of law is inherently demanding, and that’s especially true in large law firms where the pressure to deliver excellent work at all times, and to generate new work, can be extraordinary. She shared that the firm’s former managing partner first learned about the pledge at a meeting of the Attorneys Liability Assurance Society (ALAS).
Joung said that Perkins Coie regularly communicates to its lawyers and staff about mental health and addiction issues facing the industry and highlights resources available to address these issues. Over the past year, in particular, Perkins Coie took extra measures to ensure that its lawyers were offered flexibility and reduced schedule options to deal with the unique challenges and stresses resulting from the pandemic, and it established discussion forums for personnel to feel heard and supported. The firm’s human resources department also arranged for several outside experts to speak to its personnel about the importance and benefits of stress-reduction, relaxation and meditation, and more. The firm has also welcomed lawyers at Perkins Coie who have struggled with mental health or addiction issues to speak about their own experiences to other lawyers.
I spoke to one lawyer who gave a presentation to Perkins Coie attorneys about his own recovery from alcoholism. It is one thing to hear a mental health expert give a clinical take on substance abuse and depression, but it’s far more impactful to hear about another attorney’s personal struggles—it creates a unique connection that can give hope to other attorneys that there’s a way forward, and reinforces that it’s OK to talk about mental health.
When it comes to communicating the availability of mental health treatment and leave of absence options to staff, Joung said that Perkins Coie shares this through EAP emails, information about how medical plans fund treatment, and by posting the Well-Being Pledge and available resources on the firm’s intranet. She added that the firm contracts with an EAP that promotes itself as a “lifeline for healthcare help” and assists employees and their families with medical referrals and inpatient hospitalizations. In general, she noted that the firm strives to create a culture in which the issues of mental health—for lawyers and their family members—are recognized and discussed and are accepted as a normal part of the work they do.
Of course, these resources need not be exclusively for Big Law. Government offices nationwide are signing the pledge. And if these resources can be promoted in a readily accessible, cost-efficient way, it can inspire greater buy-in by small firms and even solo practitioners statewide.
We encourage you and your firm to commit to Well-Being Week in Law. If colleagues can unite in their objectives, your workplace can become a community and not just a place you draw a paycheck. If you have suggestions for our program, the Well-Being Pledge, or Well-Being Week in Law, or if you would like to contribute to the WSBA’s ongoing analysis of its commitment to member well-being, we hope to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Participate Virtually in May
From May 3-7, the WSBA will be participating in Well-Being Week in Law. During this week we will promote activity ideas for members for every day:
MONDAY. “Stay Strong” is about physical well-being, nutrition, exercise, and sleep.
TUESDAY. “Align” is about spiritual well-being. Foster a sense of purpose and align your work with your values.
WEDNESDAY. “Engage and Grow” supports improving occupational and intellectual wellness. Find ways to think about where your career is headed and what you need to take you there.
THURSDAY. “Connect—Social Well-Being” advocates for building connection, belonging, and a reliable support group.
FRIDAY. “Feel Well—Emotional Well-Being” encourages understanding and leveraging your emotions effectively and seeking mental health support as needed.
The WSBA’s Member Wellness Program team is working on a crowdsourced video of attorneys statewide speaking about what they love about their firms and what helps them to feel engaged in the profession. And a keynote presentation on May 5 will feature Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) expert Stefanie Harris.
LEARN MORE > https://lawyerwellbeing.net/lawyer-well-being-week/
1. Find that article here: https://wabarnews.wsba.org/wabarnews/sept__2020/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=38#pg40.
2. Find that article in the October 2020 issue of Washington State Bar News, also online here: https://wabarnews.wsba.org/wabarnews/oct__2020/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=10#pg12.
4. Krill, Patrick R., J.D., LLM; Johnson, Ryan, M.A.; Albert, Linda M.S.S.W., “;The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” Journal of Addiction Medicine: January/February 2016, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp. 46-52.
8. More information at: www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/well-being-in-the-legal-profession/.