How Do Lawyers Cultivate Well-Being?
Atlanta-based Stacey Dougan, JD, LLM, MS, APC, NCC provides insights on how to promote lawyer well-being.
Stacey Dougan is a psychotherapist in private practice in Atlanta. She entered the profession after nearly 20 years’ experience as both a lawyer and a member of senior management at Big Law firms. She presents and writes frequently on topics related to lawyer wellbeing and serves as a member of the State Bar of Georgia’s Lawyer Assistance Program and the ABA Law Practice Division Attorney Wellbeing Committee.
A lawyer in the throes of a heroin overdose spends his last minutes alive, dialed into a conference call, slipping in and out of consciousness. A law student commits suicide after failing the bar. A lawyer is terrified she will be fired if her firm learns about her alcoholism and depression. Another lawyer recounts how she used cocaine to ward off symptoms of alcohol withdrawal during the workday.
These stories are not one-offs. A 2016 study conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA) and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation (the Study) found that up to 33 percent of lawyers fall into the category of “problem drinkers.” The Study also showed that other mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and stress, were reported at rates significantly higher than in other professional populations.
We need to take seriously mental health and substance use disorders among lawyers because they can, and do, increase risks of suicide, social isolation, health problems, work-life conflict, burnout, and an overall loss of meaning and purpose. And, the bottom line is that, regardless of whether they have what amounts to a diagnosable condition, many lawyers are just plain unhappy with their chosen profession.
Beyond the more obvious effects on quality of life, such problems can interfere with a lawyer’s ability to do quality work. In more extreme cases, they can undermine a lawyer’s capacity and ethical duty to provide competent representation to clients. As noted in the 2017 report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being (the Report), up to 70% of malpractice and bar complaints involve alcohol abuse, depression, or a combination of both.
Regrettably, pinning our hopes on the next generation to reverse these trends isn’t the answer. The Study found that younger lawyers in their first ten years of practice experience the highest incidence of problem drinking and depression. Similarly, a recent study revealed that as they move through their educational journey, law students experience heightened levels of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse that may emanate in part from a shift away from intrinsic values around meaning and being of service to extrinsic, prestige-based factors, such as law review, class rank, and prospective employer status.
So, what are we to do? One of the recommendations in the Report is to “facilitate, destigmatize, and encourage help-seeking behaviors.” Research shows that one of the most effective ways to reduce stigma is through direct contact with someone who has personally endured similar challenges. Put another way, we need to talk. Through talking and sharing experiences can we begin to break down the silence and stigma surrounding mental health, a position reflected in the Report’s recommendation that legal employers “actively combat social isolation and encourage interconnectivity.”
When I recently asked a client if she feels like she feels safe sharing her difficulties with colleagues at her law firm she responded, “We’re all wearing masks at the office.” At one level this comes as no surprise: Lawyers are the ones to whom people come for answers. The competitive, adversarial nature of the profession has the combined effect of causing attorneys to feel like asking for help is a sign of weakness, not strength. Indeed, the primary reason lawyers don’t ask for help when it comes to mental health or substance abuse issues is that they’re afraid it will diminish them professionally; they’ll look weak or inept. Instead, they often wind up suffering in silence.
Yet, being afraid to ask for help keeps us feeling separate from others and alone. This isolation carries a huge cost for lawyers. The research tells us that good relationships may be the single most important source of psychological well-being. Unfortunately, lawyers rank the highest of any professionals in terms of loneliness. While social connection is key, it’s usually the first thing we sacrifice under stress – cancelling plans or vacations because we “have to work.”
I have recently found cause to be cautiously optimistic that things are changing: it seems as though, as a direct result of the increased attention to attorney wellbeing, people are beginning to talk more. One example involved witnessing a newly-appointed managing partner share publicly that he had started seeing a therapist to address the challenges of trying to be his best self at the firm and for his family. Another one happened organically during a conference call organized to plan a seminar on attorney well-being. With five of us on the call, one of the participants acknowledged some concerns about his own well-being. Then, one by one, others began revealing their own concerns about themselves or family members who were lawyers or law students. I was later told that, in subsequent communications, they collectively described the call as a kind of “therapy session.”
Despite my occupation as a lawyer-turned-therapist, I can’t take credit for what happened on the call that day. Rather, it revealed the power that comes from one person having the courage to open the door by sharing struggles with which others can easily relate.
Another piece of encouraging news came through a recent report that calls to the Georgia Bar’s free counseling service is on pace to double what it was in 2017. Confidence in this trend is buttressed by the fact that 65% of adults between ages 18-25 view favorably seeking mental health counseling.
Whether it’s through sharing with a trusted colleague, calling a confidential helpline, or consulting a therapist who specializes in working with the legal profession, my hope is that lawyers increasingly resist antiquated notions that asking for help is a sign of weakness and instead recognize it for what it truly is: a sign of strength. Together, we can do what we cannot do alone.
Note: If you or someone you care about needs help: the Lawyer Assistance Program’s confidential helpline is 800-327-9631; the Georgia Crisis and Access helpline is 800-715-4225; and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255. Also, Psychology Today can help you find a mental health counselor in your area.