Although the legal profession has known for years that many of its students and practitioners are languishing, far too little has been done to address it. Recent studies show we can no longer continue to ignore the problems. In 2016, the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published their study of nearly 13,000 currently-practicing lawyers [the “Study”]. It found that between 21 and 36 percent qualify as problem drinkers, and that approximately 28 percent, 19 percent, and 23 percent are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively. The parade of difficulties also includes suicide, social alienation, work addiction, sleep deprivation, job dissatisfaction, a “diversity crisis,” complaints of work-life conflict, incivility, a narrowing of values so that profit predominates, and negative public perception. Notably, the Study found that younger lawyers in the first ten years of practice and those working in private firms experience the highest rates of problem drinking and depression. The budding impairment of many of the future generation of lawyers should be alarming to everyone. Too many face less productive, less satisfying, and more troubled career paths.
Additionally, 15 law schools and over 3,300 law students participated in the Survey of Law Student Well-Being, the results of which were released in 2016. It found that 17 percent experienced some level of depression, 14 percent experienced severe anxiety, 23 percent had mild or moderate anxiety, and six percent reported serious suicidal thoughts in the past year. As to alcohol use, 43 percent reported binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks and nearly one-quarter (22 percent) reported binge-drinking two or more times during that period. One-quarter fell into the category of being at risk for alcoholism for which further screening was recommended.
The results from both surveys signal an elevated risk in the legal community for mental health and substance use disorders tightly intertwined with an alcohol-based social culture. The analysis of the problem cannot end there, however. The studies reflect that the majority of lawyers and law students do not have a mental health or substance use disorder. But that does not mean that they’re thriving. Many lawyers experience a “profound ambivalence” about their work,1 and different sectors of the profession vary in their levels of satisfaction and well-being.
Given this data, lawyer well-being issues can no longer be ignored. Acting for the benefit of lawyers who are functioning below their ability and for those suffering due to substance use and mental health disorders, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being urges our profession’s leaders to act.