The mental burden and negative impacts of day-to-day challenges are often ignored, and in the wake of a global pandemic that highlighted these mental health challenges, legal industry leaders are searching for the best ways to balance well-being with productivity. Now more than ever, we cannot ignore the impacts of loneliness on our mental and physical health. We must engage in a national effort to confront the epidemic of societal loneliness if we are to ever overcome the national loneliness epidemic.
In an effort to draw necessary attention to the “epidemic of loneliness,” in May 2023, the US Surgeon General released a public advisory on the importance of social connection and community strength (Murthy, 2023). This advisory encourages organizational leaders to consider the impact of loneliness not only on personal well-being, but also in the workplace, including issues like collaboration and team efficiency. With this framing, well-being advocates have been a valuable resource to help leaders communicate the need for action-oriented workplace change.
The legal profession has made significant strides towards greater well-being in firms, schools, and other legal organizations. However, with the Surgeon General’s advisory in mind, we must take specific measures to recognize and address the dangers of isolation and loneliness, particularly for our most vulnerable populations.
Historian Steven M. Buechler notes that civil advancements made for a society are often restricted to the most privileged individuals in that society. The nuanced needs of minoritized populations are often overlooked by those of majority populations (Buechler, 2000). Learning from the social movements that have preceded the movement for lawyer well-being, equitable advancement must be one of foremost objectives, lest we also overlook or ignore the needs of the underrepresented populations in our organizations and do them further harm.
In this article, I draw in marginalized voices to provide an overview of how industry-wide prejudice contributes to the heightened rates of loneliness experienced by legal professionals from minoritized backgrounds. Citing work by modern thought leaders, I contend that marginalized communities need to be at the front and center of our efforts to bolster well-being throughout the legal community. Lastly, in order to encourage action as well as awareness, I end by providing five suggestions that legal organizations should be taking to avoid remaining complicit within the further subjugation of societally disenfranchised employees.
The Link Between Discrimination and Loneliness
Before we discuss the unique challenges to integration which marginalized populations face within the legal profession, we must first understand the link between discrimination and loneliness. In his Advisory, the Surgeon General noted that discrimination limits opportunities for social integration (Murthy, 2023). This fact is evident within our social spheres, where, for example, White, wealthy, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical professionals (otherwise known as members of the dominant culture) tend to gravitate towards one another (Damen, Martinović, & Stark, 2021). This makes it challenging to relate to and therefore be open to the perspectives of those who have been historically oppressed. This leads to unconscious bias and creates systemic barriers to integration within the workplace.
With this dominant population having become as unintentionally insular as it currently is, studies show that “people with poor physical or mental health, disabilities, financial insecurity, those who live alone, single parents, as well as younger and older populations” experience the highest rates of loneliness. Given the reduction of opportunities for social connection due to the structural discrimination that they face, researchers posit that loneliness is also higher for “ethnic and racial minority groups, LGBTQ+ individuals, rural residents, [and] victims of domestic violence” (Murthy, 2023).
Amplifying Marginalized Voices
There is not yet a robust body of research from an intersectional perspective regarding the specific impacts of loneliness on legal professionals from minoritized backgrounds. However, we can learn about their experiences directly by listening to and amplifying their voices.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being hosted a series of town hall meetings with MA affinity bar associations starting June 2020. According to takeaways from their town hall meetings, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) lawyers “feel isolated when the only other BIPOC individual in the courtroom is the defendant on trial, and in the civil context, BIPOC litigation attorneys feel similarly alienated when they themselves are the only BIPOC individual in the courtroom.” Despite widespread sentiment that there is little cause for this isolation considering the progress that BIPOC lawyers have achieved in recent years regarding professional representation, it is undeniable that these “occurrences happen regularly” (Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, 2021). If we are to truly advocate for equity within our professional spaces, we cannot continue to turn away from the still-present indications of a longstanding history that vehemently excluded BIPOC and other minoritized groups.
The report noted that contrary to their courtroom experiences, MA BIPOC individuals felt comfortable in their affinity bar associations to express the hardships they face within their professional lives. In an interview with Law.com, former Big Law associate Kinika Young said, “[c]ulturally, you want to be somewhere where you’re recognized and you’re valued as a person, versus just being the one Black person. It doesn’t have to be anything racist that comes up in the meeting. Just sitting in a room and not seeing anybody that looks like you feels incredibly lonely” (Jackson, 2021).
Unquestionably, it would be impossible to address all of the nuanced struggles exacerbating loneliness for all marginalized communities in the span of this article. Nonetheless, it is necessary to acknowledge and attempt to understand that prejudice manifests itself differently for different populations. While, as the Surgeon General notes, there is limited research surrounding the unique barriers towards social integration for marginalized populations, we can still seek out the perspectives of those who identify as LGBTQ+, neurodivergent, disabled, living below the poverty line, just as we did for BIPOC folk, and just as we must continue to do so for people living with more specific and intersectional identifiers.
As you look to better understand forms of prejudice which may not affect you personally, here are a few resources for further reading:
- Accessibility of social places and leisure activities restrict social integration for many disabled people. This undermines feelings of belonging for disabled people and reduces their visibility to the dominant culture, therefore making their unique obstacles less salient to able-bodied folk (United Disability Services, 2021).
- The research conducted regarding the loneliness of gay men in 2023 has so far found that discrimination thwarts psychological needs of belonging, thereby “prospectively mediat[ing] the association between interpersonal discrimination, internalized homonegativity, and concealment motivation and changes in loneliness and lack of social support” (Lattanner & Hatzenbuehler, 2023).
- Research by Bross et al. indicate that neurodivergent individuals, specifically those living with autism spectrum disorder and other cognitive disorders, may experience “difficulty with social skills” in such a way that is “isolating in a vocational setting” (2021).
- A comprehensive study in Denmark revealed that having a low socioeconomic status exacerbates loneliness, which then mediates a concurrent increase in health-risk behaviors (Algren et al., 2020).
The Dangers of Inaction
If legal organizations do not act to address the obstacles to social integration for marginalized populations, our progress towards well-being in the law will slow to a crawl because we cannot truly move forward as a profession unless we all move forward.
In their research, Krill and his team found that “high levels of work overcommitment, high levels of perceived stress, loneliness as measured by the UCLA loneliness scale, and being male were all significantly associated with an increased risk of suicidal ideation” among lawyers (2023). As we learned from the report summarizing affinity bar town hall meetings as well as from the lived experiences of legal practitioners from minoritized backgrounds, marginalization holds significant consequences for feeling socially integrated and connected within the legal profession. Seeing that marginalization leads to loneliness and that loneliness leads to such profound desperation as was uncovered by Krill’s research, we must work together as legal community members to shift the culture in such a way that is cognizant of the unique barriers that exacerbate isolation within marginalized communities. Otherwise, members of these communities will continue to be subject to the terrible effects of loneliness, even when our efforts towards social integration benefit workers from the dominant culture.
Yes, disproportionate risk factors towards loneliness will affect workplace productivity for members of minoritized groups. But we cannot continue waiting for well-being to be profitable before we focus on addressing loneliness within the legal profession across the full spectrum of identities. Regardless of the bottom line, the severe consequences of loneliness indicate that it is our communal responsibility to combat the epidemic of loneliness. Now is the time for action.
The Path Forward
So, what can we do? As we progress into the movement for well-being within the law, we need to do so pragmatically and with cultural competence. Here are five suggestions that your organization can take to back up their commitments to diversity with action.
- Create, or continue to support, specific affinity groups for people from marginalized populations. Affinity groups provide opportunities for community formation that safeguard their members against loneliness, while also affording them the space needed to generate nuanced solutions specific to the inequities latent within the parent organization. This space is necessary for the identification of such nuanced solutions because it allows for the formation of “oppositional consciousness,” a term which refers to the unpressured critical thinking that minority groups are able to cultivate when free from the expectations of dominant-culture members (Morris & Braine, 2001). While well-intentioned members of dominant cultures may want to join affinity groups so as to hear perspectives that differ from their own, it is also possible that their presence is limiting free and open conversation between the minority-culture members. People from minoritized backgrounds need such spaces because, in all other facets of their lives, the wants and needs of the dominant culture obfuscate those of their own.
For Example: Your firm could send out an interest-form to all partners, staff, and associates, asking what specific affinity groups they would be interested in joining. Then, after coordinating with respondents from a given group to identify a time that works best for them, your firm would regularly provide a meeting space with appropriate resources and a lack of dominant culture intervention.
- Encourage affinity group leaders to schedule open meetings wherein members of other identities can sit-in on a discussion or presentation that pertains to the affinity group’s uniting identity. Affinity groups, in their meetings separate from the dominant culture, will have the freedom to voice workplace concerns with one another. The interpersonal validation cultivated through these meetings can build confidence to speak against the latent inequities within their specific workplace. If the members of affinity groups are willing, and if they believe it to be safe, it would be extremely beneficial for dominant-culture members to then have the ability to hear the peer-corroborated concerns of specific minority groups, as this would enable such individuals to become privy to perspectives that their mere presence may usually obfuscate.
For example: Law school students from the Desi diaspora could host periodic seminars where all students and staff can learn about the experiences specific to South Asian, aspiring attorneys. This could be similar to the town hall meetings reported by the Massachusetts Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being.
- Act to address the issues shared by affinity group members. Awareness is the first step in making the professional space more equitable, but means little if it is not followed up by subsequent action that elicits meaningful change. In all your efforts aimed at promoting legal well-being, provide a platform from which professionals from the most at-risk populations can speak, listen to them, and then act upon their suggestions.
For Example: After an open seminar hosted by an affinity group of disabled lawyers reveals that the firm they work at fails to provide an accessible sensory environment for employees, that firm’s directors should coordinate with the disabled affinity group to determine what changes would make the workplace more accommodating.
- Stay curious, and listen with an open mind and a genuine curiosity when people tell you about their experiences and the unique challenges they face. Limited attention is the primary enemy of the fight for promoting equity because dominant culture members tend to lose interest in informational resources (like this one!) that they cannot relate to. So, take care to seek out diversity, and embrace it with a warm and encouraging curiosity.
For example: even if you do not identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, you would gain so much should you bring a listening ear to the open meeting hosted by the queer affinity group of your organization, because you would be actively expanding your perspective to include life experiences that you have never had yourself.
- Continue to promote people from marginalized backgrounds into positions of power. Whoever is at the forefront of an organization in terms of leadership becomes that organization’s symbol. So, each time a member of the American dominant culture is in the foremost position of leadership within a professional space, that professional space becomes yet another symbol of the upward mobility of White, wealthy, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical men. This is not to say that merit should be clouded by socioeconomic status, but rather to say that nominating historically underrepresented individuals of comparable vocational merit to their dominant-culture counterparts will afford future generations a more equitable view of who is capable of professional advancement. Living as a member of a minoritized community, it becomes extremely isolating to feel relegated to a particular swath of social strata.
For Example: When two professionals of comparable professional backgrounds are competing for a chair position within your bar association, let equitable representation factor into your decision of who to nominate.
What to Take Away
Members of marginalized populations need to be at the center of our attempts to tackle the legal profession’s loneliness epidemic. Otherwise, like far too many past social movements, they will be gated from the progress made for dominant culture members, therefore isolating them even further. To center the perspective of people from minoritized groups, create space for them to find community, because doing so will help both stave off loneliness and generate productive paths forward. Actively listen to these perspectives and seek to be aware of inequities latent throughout the profession, even if they do not impact you personally. Moreover, turn your awareness into action by working to implement the solutions identified by legal professionals from disenfranchised populations. If we do not collectively work to dismantle the systemic barriers to integration for systemically subjugated populations, then we will deprive the legal profession of the moral integrity which it is meant to uphold.
Algren, M. H., Ekholm, O., Nielsen, L., Ersbøll, A. K., Bak, C. K., & Andersen, P. T. (2020). Social isolation, loneliness, socioeconomic status, and health-risk behaviour in deprived neighbourhoods in Denmark: A cross-sectional study. SSM – population health, 10, 100546. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2020.100546.
Bross, L. A., Patry, M. B., Leko, M., & Travers, J. C. (2021). Barriers to competitive integrated employment of young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Education and Training in Autism and Developmental Disabilities, 56(4), 394–408. https://www.proquest.com/docview/2598677804.
Buechler, S. (2000). The political. Social movements in advanced capitalism, pp. 163-183, Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0195126033.
Damen, R. E. C., Martinović, B., & Stark, T. H. (2021). Explaining the relationship between socio-economic status and interethnic friendships: The mediating role of preferences, opportunities, and third parties. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 80, 40–50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijintrel.2020.11.005.
Jackson, D. (2021). Lawyers of color reveal alarmingly higher instances of mental health struggles. American Legal Media. https://www.law.com/international-edition/2021/06/08/attorneys-of-color-reveal-alarmingly-higher-instances-of-mental-health-struggles-378-171251/.
Krill, P. R., Thomas, H. M., Kramer, M. R., Degeneffe, N., & Justin J. Anker, J. J. (2023). Stressed, lonely, and overcommitted: predictors of lawyer suicide risk. Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute. https://doaj.org/article/4f69fe4130fc462fa24230fe42b6548a.
Lattanner, M. R., & Hatzenbuehler, M. L. (2023). Thwarted belonging needs: A mechanism prospectively linking multiple levels of stigma and interpersonal outcomes among sexual minorities. Journal of Social Issues, 79(1), 410–445. https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/josi.12564.
Morris, A. & Braine, N (2001). Social movements and oppositional consciousness. Oppositional consciousness, pp. 20-37, edited by Jane Mansbridge & Aldon Morris, University of Chicago Press, 2001. ISBN: 0226503623.
Murthy, Vivek H. (2023). Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation: the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the healing effects of social connection and community. U.S. Public Health Service. https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-social-connection-advisory.pdf.
Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being (2021). Report summarizing affinity bar town hall meetings. Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. https://lawyerwellbeingma.org/s/Affinity-Bar-Town-Hall-Report-2021.pdf.
United Disability Services (2021). The importance of community integration for people with disabilities. United Disability Services Federation. https://udservices.org/community-integration-people-with-disabilities/#:~:text=Community%20integration%20enables%20persons%20with,%2C%20community%20centers%2C%20and%20more.
 Note that, with affinity groups, the more specific the better. A disabled person will not face the same set of systemic barriers as will a person of color, like how a Black legal professional will not face the same set of systemic barriers as will an Indigenous legal professional. In order to isolate the barriers faced by a given population, you must create space for members of said population to identify with one another. This is not to discredit broader groups, such as BIPOC affinity bars, so long as they are in addition to more specific groups.
 Safety is essential for members of minoritized communities when sharing their perspectives. Given the nature of systemic oppression, it is the unfortunate reality that members of the dominant culture will commit injustices that are invisible to them, but are salient in the everyday lives of those affected by such injustices. Knowing that dominant culture members may not be aware of their more harmful actions, many members of marginalized communities are hesitant to point out these injustices, concerned that doing so will elicit defensiveness or frustration within even the most well-intentioned ally. If a member of a marginalized group is going through the emotional labor of communicating to you how you may have hurt them, do what you can to make sure they feel safe while doing so.