Over the past several years, the American Bar Association has promulgated suggested guidelines for addressing the proliferation of mental health and substance abuse challenges within the legal profession. While these guidelines represent positive developments within the profession, they largely focus on changing behavior of attorneys within the law firm as opposed to promoting more structural, holistic movement towards “wellness” within the profession.
A more systemic and structural approach would embrace the ways in which attorneys are conditioned over time to emphasize conceptual analysis and intellectual thought to the exclusion of felt connection to their present–moment experience. Over time, this emphasis on analytical thought comes to remove the attorney further and further from feeling “connected” to their experience. This state of disconnect is the primary driving factor in attorneys feeling heightened levels of depression and anxiety. In addition, this characteristic way of approaching life results in an ongoing state of ennui that often leads attorneys to seek relief in drugs and alcohol which may temporarily produce a physiological feeling of desired “connection” but over time exacerbate the mounting mental health challenges already faced by attorneys.
This more “holistic” approach requires a significant shift in the way in which law firms are fundamentally governed. Emphasis on helping attorneys maintain an ongoing connection to experiential reality would require the law firm culture to begin to reduce its emphasis on analytical thinking and cerebral problem-solving and begin to include more opportunities for attorneys to “feel” their experience on an ongoing basis during their daily work lives.
To navigate this change most effectively it may be that law firms embracing this new approach may alter the traditional hourly-billing model which imposes upon attorneys the persistent need to demonstrate articulable results for clients. This heavy emphasis on results contributes heavily to the extent to which attorneys ignore their underlying emotional life in the course of their typical workday.
While this structural change to the predominant law firm business model may on its face seem daunting, it is daunting largely because of the extent to which attorneys already feel a high degree of burnout. A new law firm culture that would meaningfully address the mental health of legal professionals will require change to the underlying business model.
The gravity of mental health challenges currently faced by practicing attorneys include the following:
- Studies suggest that it is higher compared to the general population. According to a study by the American Bar Association, approximately 21-36% of lawyers struggle with problem drinking. Another study by the National Substance Abuse Treatment for Lawyers found that lawyers had rates of substance use and abuse that were roughly twice those of the general population;
- While the percentage of attorneys who are dissatisfied with their career varies and can depend on several factors such as work-life balance, job satisfaction, workload, and compensation, a study by the ABA found that approximately 28% of lawyers reported high levels of dissatisfaction with their careers;
- The estimated divorce rate among attorneys is higher compared to the general population. A study by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 60% of lawyers surveyed reported that they had seen an increase in divorce cases among their colleagues in the legal profession. Another study by the ABA found that the divorce rate among lawyers is estimated to be as high as 60-75%;
- The incidence of depression and anxiety among attorneys is thought exceed prevalence in the general population. Some estimates suggest that 1 in 4 lawyers suffer from depression, while 1 in 5 suffer from anxiety. The high stress levels associated with the profession and long work hours may contribute to these elevated rates.