Seeking Paths to Lawyer Well-Being

“Physician, heal thyself,” is a maxim as old as the bible. Although we are not doctors, self-healing is also expected in the legal profession. After all, we are typically fantastic when it comes to solving our client’s problems, as well as serving as a combination psychologist and trusted advisor. The ubiquity of email, text and other technological advances, all of which make the advent of the fax machine feel downright quaint, have only exacerbated our legal responsibilities. The pressure is constant. And in the midst of taking care of everyone else, we all too frequently ignore our own stressors and health in the process.

Over time, the subtle adverse effects go unnoticed and mask the existing crisis that caused the ABA to create the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. The Task Force was conceptualized and initiated by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP), the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL). In August 2017, the Task Force released The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (Wellness Study).

In 2016, CoLAP co-sponsored, with Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, a study of mental health and substance abuse among lawyers (Addiction/Mental Health Study), as well as a 2016 Survey of Student Well Being (Student Study). The results serve as a wake-up call for the profession.

When a person is suffering from chemical dependency or serious depression, the potential exists for her/his work to suffer. Lawyers are no exception, and unlike for the general populace, the existence of lawyer disciplinary authorities in each state means we can track the impact. According to the Addiction/Mental Health Study, between 21 and 36 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers. In addition, on average, one in five lawyers are struggling with some level of depression (28%), anxiety (19%), or stress (23%), or combination thereof. Unfortunately, law students are tracking similar numbers.

“With between one quarter to one third of lawyers qualifying as ‘problem drinkers,’ and perhaps one in five facing a serious mental health issue, it is no wonder that over 36% of Minnesota’s lawyer disciplinary probations in 2016 involved one of these two conditions,” says Susan M. Hummiston, Saint Paul, MN, Director of the Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility.

Hummiston notes the following behaviors may be signs of the existence of one (or both) of these issues:

  • Missing appointments/failing to respond at all;
  • Declining performance, signs of procrastination;
  • Attendance issues, arriving late, leaving early or unexplained absences;
  • Declining relationships with peers or co-workers;
  • Heightened sensitivity to criticism;
  • Decline in personal appearance;
  • Unacceptable behavior at social gatherings;
  • Dishonest conduct or distortion of the truth; and/or
  • Poor management of finances or trust account issues.

Hummiston notes studies show that among the barriers to lawyers seeking treatment for mental health/addiction issues are (1) not wanting others to find out they need(ed) help and (2) concerns regarding confidentiality/privacy/license status.

“One area where change might really help,” offers Hummiston, “is to modify the confidentiality rules to permit one-way sharing of lawyer well-being related information from disciplinary authorities to lawyer assistance programs.” This is also a recommendation of the Wellness Study.

Tiny Little Habits

While the above statistics sound daunting, so many more tools exist today to combat these issues than existed back when fax machines represented “cutting edge” technology and were billed out to clients at $0.50 per page. Bar Associations are now designing CLE programs on subjects such as the full day “Health & Resilience for Lawyers” seminar at which Hummiston spoke.

Psychology has evolved considerably, as well, from what the author of this story studied when he received his undergraduate degree in the subject in 1985. “Positive Psychology” was first embraced by the American Psychological Association in 1998 when Martin Seligman was its president.

Since that time, research into what habits lead to healthier and happier lifestyles comprising a growing portion of the literature. This pivot resulted in psychology moving toward becoming as concerned with strength as weakness, as interested in building the best things in life as repairing the worst, and as concerned with making the lives of “normal” people fulfilling and with nurturing high talent. In fact, studies suggest that as we control as much as 40 percent of our happiness. The question is how can we exercise that control.

Over the next year, this column will explore several of these “tiny little habits” one might incorporate into life to turn the tide away from anxiety/depression and toward a healthier, happier and more vibrant life and practice. Here is a start:

Physical Building Blocks of Happiness

  • Exercise
  • Sleep
  • Meditation

Mental Building Blocks of Happiness

  • Understanding/Changing “Habit Loops”
  • Gratitude (including a 5-minute a night “trick” that at least one double blind test showed reduces depressions scores at a level similar to SSRIs without the side effects)
  • Volunteering
  • Forgiveness

Interpersonal Building Blocks of Happiness

  • Changes to Speech Patterns
  • Changes to Communication Styles
  • Increase social activity

As a profession, we are in this struggle together; we are looking for your real-life experiences to help heal our collective suffering. If you have a healing story you wish to share, whether anonymously or for attribution, please contact the author.

This article is republished with permission and originally appeared in the Spring 2018 Issue of Litigation News.