Acknowledge the Problems and Take Responsibility

Every sector of the legal profession must support lawyer well-being. Each of us can take a leadership role within our own spheres to change the profession’s mindset from passive denial of problems to proactive support for change. We have the capacity to make a difference.

For too long, the legal profession has turned a blind eye to widespread health problems. Many in the legal profession have behaved, at best, as if their colleagues’ well-being is none of their business. At worst, some appear to believe that supporting well-being will harm professional success. Many also appear to believe that lawyers’ health problems are solely attributable to their own personal failings for which they are solely responsible.

As to the long-standing psychological distress and substance use problems, many appear to believe that the establishment of lawyer assistance programs—a necessary but not sufficient step toward a solution—has satisfied any responsibility that the profession might have. Lawyer assistance programs have made incredible strides; however, to meaningfully reduce lawyer distress, enhance well-being, and change legal culture, all corners of the legal profession need to prioritize lawyer health and well-being. It is not solely a job for lawyer assistance programs. Each of us shares responsibility for making it happen.

Use This Report as a Launch Pad for a Profession-Wide Action Plan

All stakeholders must lead their own efforts aimed at incorporating well-being as an essential component of practicing law, using this report as a launch pad. Changing the culture will not be easy. Critical to this complex endeavor will be the development of a National Action Plan and state-level action plans that continue the effort started in this report. An organized coalition will be necessary to plan, fund, instigate, motivate, and sustain long-term change. The coalition should include, for example, the Conference of Chief Justices, the National Organization of Bar Counsel, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, the ABA, state bar associations as a whole and specific divisions (young lawyers, lawyer well-being, senior lawyers, etc.), the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, state lawyer assistance programs, other stakeholders that have contributed to this report, and many others.

Leaders Should Demonstrate a Personal Commitment To Well-Being

Policy statements alone do not shift culture. Broad-scale change requires buy-in and role modeling from top leadership. Leaders in the courts, regulators’ offices, legal employers, law schools, and bar associations will be closely watched for signals about what is expected. Leaders can create and support change through their own demonstrated commitment to core values and well-being in their own lives and by supporting others in doing the same.

Facilitate, Destigmatize, and Encourage Help-Seeking Behaviors

All stakeholders must take steps to minimize the stigma of mental health and substance use disorders because the stigma prevents lawyers from seeking help.

Research has identified multiple factors that can hinder seeking help for mental health conditions: (1) failure to recognize symptoms; (2) not knowing how to identify or access appropriate treatment or believing it to be a hassle to do so; (3) a culture’s negative attitude about such conditions; (4) fear of adverse reactions by others whose opinions are important; (5) feeling ashamed; (6) viewing help-seeking as a sign of weakness, having a strong preference for self-reliance, and/or having a tendency toward perfectionism; (7) fear of career repercussions; (8) concerns about confidentiality; (9) uncertainty about the quality of organizationally-provided therapists or otherwise doubting that treatment will be effective; and (10) lack of time in busy schedules.

The Study identified similar factors. The two most common barriers to seeking treatment for a substance use disorder that lawyers reported were not wanting others to find out they needed help and concerns regarding privacy or confidentiality. Top concerns of law students in the Survey of Law Student Well Being were fear of jeopardizing their academic standing or admission to the practice of law, social stigma, and privacy concerns.

Research also suggests that professionals with hectic, stressful jobs (like many lawyers and law students) are more likely to perceive obstacles for accessing treatment, which can exacerbate depression. The result of these barriers is that, rather than seeking help early, many wait until their symptoms are so severe that they interfere with daily functioning. Similar dynamics likely apply for aging lawyers seeking assistance.

Removing these barriers requires education, skill-building, and stigma-reduction strategies. Research shows that the most effective way to reduce stigma is through direct contact with someone who has personally experienced a relevant disorder. Ideally, this person should be a practicing lawyer or law student (depending on the audience) in order to create a personal connection that lends credibility and combats stigma. Viewing video-taped narratives also is useful, but not as effective as in-person contacts.

The military’s “Real Warrior” mental health campaign can serve as one model for the legal profession. It is designed to improve soldiers’ education about mental health disorders, reduce stigma, and encourage help-seeking. Because many soldiers (like many lawyers) perceive seeking help as a weakness, the campaign also has sought to re-frame help-seeking as a sign of strength that is important to resilience. It also highlights cultural values that align with seeking psychological help.

Build Relationships With Lawyer Well-Being Experts

Partner with Lawyer Assistance Programs

All stakeholders should partner with and ensure stable and sufficient funding for the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) as well as for state-based lawyer assistance programs. ABA CoLAP and state-based lawyer assistance programs are indispensable partners in efforts to educate and empower the legal profession to identify, treat, and prevent conditions at the root of the current well-being crisis, and to create lawyer-specific programs and access to treatment. Many lawyer assistance programs employ teams of experts that are well-qualified to help lawyers, judges, and law students who experience physical or mental health conditions. Lawyer assistance programs’ services are confidential, and many include prevention, intervention, evaluation, counseling, referral to professional help, and on-going monitoring. Many cover a range of well-being-related topics including substance use and mental health disorders, as well as cognitive impairment, process addictions, burnout, and chronic stress. A number also provide services to lawyer discipline and admissions processes (e.g., monitoring and drug and alcohol screening).

Notably, the Study found that, of lawyers who had reported past treatment for alcohol use, those who had used a treatment program specifically tailored to legal professionals reported, on average, significantly lower scores on the current assessment of alcohol use. This at least suggests that lawyer assistance programs, which are specifically tailored to identify and refer lawyers to treatment providers and resources, are a better fit than general treatment programs.

Judges, regulators, legal employers, law schools, and bar associations should ally themselves with lawyer assistance programs to provide the above services. These stakeholders should also promote the services of state lawyer assistance programs. They also should emphasize the confidential nature of those services to reduce barriers to seeking help. Lawyers are reluctant to seek help for mental health and substance use disorders for fear that doing so might negatively affect their licenses and lead to stigma or judgment of peers. All stakeholders can help combat these fears by clearly communicating about the confidentiality of lawyer assistance programs.

We also recommend coordinating regular meetings with lawyer assistance program directors to create solutions to the problems facing the profession. Lawyer assistance programs can help organizations establish confidential support groups, wellness days, trainings, summits, and/or fairs. Additionally, lawyer assistance programs can serve as a resource for speakers and trainers on lawyer well-being topics, contribute to publications, and provide guidance to those concerned about a lawyer’s well-being.

Consult Lawyer Well-Being Committees and Other Types of Well-Being Experts

We also recommend partnerships with lawyer well-being committees and other types of organizations and consultants that specialize in relevant topics. For example, the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Division established an Attorney Well-Being Committee in 2015. A number of state bars also have well-being committees including Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The Florida Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division has a Quality of Life Committee “for enhancing and promoting the quality of life for young lawyers.” Some city bar associations also have well-being initiatives, such as the Cincinnati Bar Association’s Health and Well-Being Committee. These committees can serve as a resource for education, identifying speakers and trainers, developing materials, and contributing to publications. Many high-quality consultants are also available on well-being subjects. Care should be taken to ensure that they understand the particular types of stress that affect lawyers.

Foster Collegiality and Respectful Engagement Throughout The Profession

We recommend that all stakeholders develop and enforce standards of collegiality and respectful engagement. Judges, regulators, practicing lawyers, law students, and professors continually interact with each other, clients, opposing parties, staff, and many others. Those interactions can either foment a toxic culture that contributes to poor health or can foster a respectful culture that supports well-being. Chronic incivility is corrosive. It depletes energy and motivation, increases burnout, and inflicts emotional and physiological damage. It diminishes productivity, performance, creativity, and helping behaviors.

Civility appears to be declining in the legal profession. For example, in a 1992 study, 42 percent of lawyers and 45 percent of judges believed that civility and professionalism among bar members were significant problems. In a 2007 survey of Illinois lawyers, 72 percent of respondents categorized incivility as a serious or moderately serious problem in the profession. A recent study of over 6,000 lawyers found that lawyers did not generally have a positive view of lawyer or judge professionalism. There is evidence showing that women lawyers are more frequent targets of incivility and harassment. Legal-industry commentators offer a host of hypotheses to explain the decline in civility. Rather than continuing to puzzle over the causes, we acknowledge the complexity of the problem and invite further thinking on how to address it.

As a start, we recommend that bar associations and courts adopt rules of professionalism and civility, such as those that exist in many jurisdictions. Likewise, law firms should adopt their own professionalism standards. Since rules alone will not change culture, all stakeholders should devise strategies to promote wide-scale, voluntary observance of those standards. This should include an expectation that all leaders in the profession be a role model for these standards of professionalism.

Exemplary standards of professionalism are inclusive. Research reflects that organizational diversity and inclusion initiatives are associated with employee well-being, including, for example, general mental and physical health, perceived stress level, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, trust, work engagement, perceptions of organizational fairness, and intentions to remain on the job. A significant contributor to well-being is a sense of organizational belongingness, which has been defined as feeling personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others. A weak sense of belonging is strongly associated with depressive symptoms. Unfortunately, however, a lack of diversity and inclusion is an entrenched problem in the legal profession. The issue is pronounced for women and minorities in larger law firms.

Promote Diversity and Inclusivity

Given the above, we recommend that all stakeholders urgently prioritize diversity and inclusion. Regulators and bar associations can play an especially influential role in advocating for initiatives in the profession as a whole and educating on why those initiatives are important to individual and institutional well-being. Examples of relevant initiatives include: scholarships, bar exam grants for qualified applicants, law school orientation programs that highlight the importance of diversity and inclusion, CLE programs focused on diversity in the legal profession, business development symposia for women- and minority-owned law firms, pipeline programming for low-income high school and college students, diversity clerkship programs for law students, studies and reports on the state of diversity within the state’s bench and bar, and diversity initiatives in law firms.

Create Meaningful Mentoring and Sponsorship Programs

Another relevant initiative that fosters inclusiveness and respectful engagement is mentoring. Research has shown that mentorship and sponsorship can aid well-being and career progression for women and diverse professionals. They also reduce lawyer isolation. Those who have participated in legal mentoring report a stronger sense of personal connection with others in the legal community, restored enthusiasm for the legal profession, and more resilience—all of which benefit both mentors and mentees. At least 35 states and the District of Columbia sponsor formal mentoring programs.


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Enhance Lawyers’ Sense of Control

Practices that rob lawyers of a sense of autonomy and control over their schedules and lives are especially harmful to their well-being. Research studies show that high job demands paired with a lack of a sense of control breeds depression and other psychological disorders. Research suggests that men in jobs with such characteristics have an elevated risk of alcohol abuse. A recent review of strategies designed to prevent workplace depression found that those designed to improve the perception of control were among the most effective. Research confirms that environments that facilitate control and autonomy contribute to optimal functioning and well-being.

We recommend that all stakeholders consider how long-standing structures of the legal system, organizational norms, and embedded expectations might be modified to enhance lawyers’ sense of control and support a healthier lifestyle. Courts, clients, colleagues, and opposing lawyers all contribute to this problem. Examples of the types of practices that should be reviewed include the following:

  • Practices concerning deadlines such as tight deadlines for completing a large volume of work, limited bases for seeking extensions of time, and ease and promptness of procedures for requesting extensions of time;
  • Refusal to permit trial lawyers to extend trial dates to accommodate vacation plans or scheduling trials shortly after the end of a vacation so that lawyers must work during that time;
  • Tight deadlines set by clients that are not based on business needs;
  • Senior lawyer decision-making in matters about key milestones and deadlines without consulting other members of the litigation team, including junior lawyers;
  • Senior lawyers’ poor time-management habits that result in repeated emergencies and weekend work for junior lawyers and staff;
  • Expectations of 24/7 work schedules and of prompt response to electronic messages at all times; and
  • Excessive law school workload, controlling teaching styles, and mandatory grading curves.

Provide High-Quality Educational Programs About Lawyer Distress and Well-Being

All stakeholders should ensure that legal professionals receive training in identifying, addressing, and supporting fellow professionals with mental health and substance use disorders. At a minimum, training should cover the following:

  • The warning signs of substance use or mental health disorders, including suicidal thinking;
  • How, why, and where to seek help at the first signs of difficulty;
  • The relationship between substance use, depression, anxiety, and suicide;
  • Freedom from substance use and mental health disorders as an indispensable predicate to fitness to practice;
  • How to approach a colleague who may be in trouble;
  • How to thrive in practice and manage stress without reliance on alcohol and drugs; and
  • A self-assessment or other check of participants’ mental health or substance use risk.

As noted above, to help reduce stigma, such programs should consider enlisting the help of recovering lawyers who are successful members of the legal community. Some evidence reflects that social norms predict problem drinking even more so than stress. Therefore, a team-based training program may be most effective because it focuses on the level at which the social norms are enforced.

Given the influence of drinking norms throughout the profession, however, isolated training programs are not sufficient. A more comprehensive, systemic campaign is likely to be the most effective—though certainly the most challenging. All stakeholders will be critical players in such an aspirational goal. Long-term strategies should consider scholars’ recommendations to incorporate mental health and substance use disorder training into broader health-promotion programs to help skirt the stigma that may otherwise deter attendance.

Research also suggests that, where social drinking has become a ritual for relieving stress and for social bonding, individuals may resist efforts to deprive them of a valued activity that they enjoy. To alleviate resistance based on such concerns, prevention programs should consider making “it clear that they are not a temperance movement, only a force for moderation,” and that they are not designed to eliminate bonding but to ensure that drinking does not reach damaging dimensions.

Additionally, genuine efforts to enhance lawyer well-being must extend beyond disorder detection and treatment. Efforts aimed at remodeling institutional and organizational features that breed stress are crucial, as are those designed to cultivate lawyers’ personal resources to boost resilience. All stakeholders should participate in the development and delivery of educational materials and programming that go beyond detection to include causes and consequences of distress. These programs should be eligible for CLE credit, as discussed in Recommendation 20.3. Appendix B to this report offers examples of well-being-related educational content, along with empirical evidence to support each example.

Guide and Support The Transition of Older Lawyers

Like the general population, the lawyer community is aging and lawyers are practicing longer. In the Baby Boomer generation, the oldest turned 62 in 2008, and the youngest will turn 62 in 2026. In law firms, one estimate indicates that nearly 65 percent of equity partners will retire over the next decade. Senior lawyers can bring much to the table, including their wealth of experience, valuable public service, and mentoring of new lawyers. At the same time, however, aging lawyers have an increasing risk for declining physical and mental capacity. Yet few lawyers and legal organizations have sufficiently prepared to manage transitions away from the practice of law before a crisis occurs. The result is a rise in regulatory and other issues relating to the impairment of senior lawyers. We make the following recommendations to address these issues:

First, all stakeholders should create or support programming for detecting and addressing cognitive decline in oneself and colleagues.

Second, judges, legal employers, bar associations, and regulators should develop succession plans, or provide education on how to do so, to guide the transition of aging legal professionals. Programs should include help for aging members who show signs of diminished cognitive skills, to maintain their dignity while also assuring they are competent to practice. A model program in this regard is the North Carolina Bar Association’s Senior Lawyers Division.

Third, we recommend that legal employers, law firms, courts, and law schools develop programs to aid the transition of retiring legal professionals. Retirement can enhance or harm well-being depending on the individual’s adjustment process. Many lawyers who are approaching retirement age have devoted most of their adult lives to the legal profession, and their identities often are wrapped up in their work. Lawyers whose self-esteem is contingent on their workplace success are likely to delay transitioning and have a hard time adjusting to retirement. Forced retirement that deprives individuals of a sense of control over the exit timing or process is particularly harmful to well-being and long-term adjustment to retirement.

To assist stakeholders in creating the programming to guide and support transitioning lawyers, the Task Force sets out a number of suggestions in Appendix C.

De-emphasize Alcohol at Social Events

Workplace cultures or social climates that support alcohol consumption are among the most consistent predictors of employee drinking. When employees drink together to unwind from stress and for social bonding, social norms can reinforce tendencies toward problem drinking and stigmatize seeking help. On the other hand, social norms can also lead colleagues to encourage those who abuse alcohol to seek help.

In the legal profession, social events often center around alcohol consumption (e.g., “Happy Hours,” “Bar Reviews,” networking receptions, etc.). The expectation of drinking is embedded in the culture, which may contribute to over-consumption. Legal employers, law schools, bar associations, and other stakeholders that plan social events should  provide a variety of alternative non-alcoholic beverages and consider other types of activities to promote socializing and networking. They should strive to develop social norms in which lawyers discourage heavy drinking and encourage others to seek help for problem use.

Utilize Monitoring to Support Recovery from Substance Use Disorders

Extensive research has demonstrated that random drug and alcohol testing (or “monitoring”) is an effective way of supporting recovery from substance use disorders and increasing abstinence rates. The medical profession has long relied on monitoring as a key component of its treatment paradigm for physicians, resulting in long-term recovery rates for that population that are between 70-96 percent, which is the highest in all of the treatment outcome literature. One study found that 96 percent of medical professionals who were subject to random drug tests remained drug-free, compared to only 64 percent of those who were not subject to mandatory testing. Further, a national survey of physician health programs found that among medical professionals who completed their prescribed treatment requirements (including monitoring), 95 percent were licensed and actively working in the health care field at a five year follow-up after completing their primary treatment program. In addition, one study has found that physicians undergoing monitoring through physician health programs experienced lower rates of malpractice claims.

Such outcomes are not only exceptional and encouraging, they offer clear guidance for how the legal profession could better address its high rates of substance use disorders and increase the likelihood of positive outcomes. Although the benefits of monitoring have been recognized by various bar associations, lawyer assistance programs, and employers throughout the legal profession, a uniform or “best practices” approach to the treatment and recovery management of lawyers has been lacking. Through advances in monitoring technologies, random drug and alcohol testing can now be administered with greater accuracy and reliability—as well as less cost and inconvenience—than ever before. Law schools, legal employers, regulators, and lawyer assistance programs would all benefit from greater utilization of monitoring to support individuals recovering from substance use disorders.

Begin a Dialogue About Suicide Prevention

It is well-documented that lawyers have high rates of suicide. The reasons for this are complicated and varied, but some include the reluctance of attorneys to ask for help when they need it, high levels of depression amongst legal professionals, and the stressful nature of the job. If we are to change these statistics, stakeholders need to provide education and take action. Suicide, like mental health or substance use disorders, is a highly stigmatized topic.  While it is an issue that touches many of us, most people are uncomfortable discussing suicide. Therefore, stakeholders must make a concerted effort towards suicide prevention to demonstrate to the legal community that we are not afraid of addressing this issue. We need leaders to encourage dialogue about suicide prevention.

One model for this is through a “Call to Action,” where members of the legal community and stakeholders from lawyer assistance programs, the judiciary, law firms, law schools, and bar associations are invited to attend a presentation and community discussion about the issue. When people who have been affected by the suicide of a friend or colleague share their stories, other members of the legal community begin to better understand the impact and need for prevention. In addition, stakeholders can schedule educational presentations that incorporate information on the signs and symptoms of suicidal thinking along with other mental health/substance use disorders. These can occur during CLE presentations, staff meetings, training seminars, at law school orientations, bar association functions, etc. Stakeholders can contact their state lawyer assistance programs, employee assistance program agencies, or health centers at law schools to find speakers, or referrals for counselors or therapists so that resources are available for family members of lawyers, judges, and law students who have taken their own life.

It’s important for all stakeholders to understand that, while lawyers might not tell us that they are suffering, they will show us through various changes in behavior and communication styles. This is so because the majority of what we express is non-verbal. Becoming better educated about signs of distress will enable us to take action by, for example, making health-related inquiries or directing them to potentially life-saving resources.

Support A Lawyer Well-Being Index to Measure The Profession’s Progress

We recommend that the ABA coordinate with state bar associations to create a well-being index for the legal profession that will include metrics related to lawyers, staff, clients, the legal profession as a whole, and the broader community. The goal would be to optimize the well-being of all of the legal profession’s stakeholders. Creating such an index would correspond with a growing worldwide consensus that success should not be measured solely in economic terms. Measures of well-being also have an important role to play in defining success and informing policy. The index would help track progress on the transformational effort proposed in this report. For law firms, it also may help counter-balance the “profits per partner metric” that has been published by The American Lawyer since the late 1980s, and which some argue has driven the profession away from its core values. As a foundation for building the well-being index, stakeholders could look to, for example, criteria used in The American Lawyer’s Best Places to Work survey, or the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation’s best practice guidelines for promoting psychological well-being in the legal profession.