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.
REASONS TO TAKE ACTION
We offer three reasons to take action: organizational effectiveness, ethical integrity, and humanitarian concerns.
First, lawyer well-being contributes to organizational success—in law firms, corporations, and government entities. If cognitive functioning is impaired as explained above, legal professionals will be unable to do their best work. For law firms and corporations, lawyer health is an important form of human capital that can provide a competitive advantage.
For example, job satisfaction predicts retention and performance. Gallup Corporation has done years of research showing that worker well-being in the form of engagement is linked to a host of organizational success factors, including lower turnover, high client satisfaction, and higher productivity and profitability. The Gallup research also shows that few organizations fully benefit from their human capital because most employees (68 percent) are not engaged. Reducing turnover is especially important for law firms, where turnover rates can be high. For example, a 2016 survey by Law360 found that over 40 percent of lawyers reported that they were likely or very likely to leave their current law firms in the next year. This high turnover rate for law firms is expensive—with estimated costs for larger firms of $25 million every year. In short, enhancing lawyer health and well-being is good business and makes sound financial sense.
Second, lawyer well-being influences ethics and professionalism. Rule 1.1 of the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct requires lawyers to “provide competent representation.” Rule 1.3 requires diligence in client representation, and Rules 4.1 through 4.4 regulate working with people other than clients. Minimum competence is critical to protecting clients and allows lawyers to avoid discipline. But it will not enable them to live up to the aspirational goal articulated in the Preamble to the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which calls lawyers to “strive to attain the highest level of skill, to improve the law and the legal profession and to exemplify the legal profession’s ideals of public service.”
Troubled lawyers can struggle with even minimum competence. At least one author suggests that 40 to 70 percent of disciplinary proceedings and malpractice claims against lawyers involve substance use or depression, and often both. This can be explained, in part, by declining mental capacity due to these conditions. For example, major depression is associated with impaired executive functioning, including diminished memory, attention, and problem-solving. Well-functioning executive capacities are needed to make good decisions and evaluate risks, plan for the future, prioritize and sequence actions, and cope with new situations. Further, some types of cognitive impairment persist in up to 60 percent of individuals with depression even after mood symptoms have diminished, making prevention strategies essential. For alcohol abuse, the majority of abusers (up to 80 percent) experience mild to severe cognitive impairment. Deficits are particularly severe in executive functions, especially in problem-solving, abstraction, planning, organizing, and working memory—core features of competent lawyering.
Third, from a humanitarian perspective, promoting well-being is the right thing to do. Untreated mental health and substance use disorders ruin lives and careers. They affect too many of our colleagues. Though our profession prioritizes individualism and self-sufficiency, we all contribute to, and are affected by, the collective legal culture. Whether that culture is toxic or sustaining is up to us. Our interdependence creates a joint responsibility for solutions.