Lawyer Mental Health and Wellness: Changing the Conversation
January 27, 2023
Reading time: 6 minutes
By Sam Rosenthal
For many in the legal profession, the term “lawyer mental health” may seem contradictory. The demanding hours and stressful work environments at many law firms often have detrimental effects on legal professionals, who struggle to balance severe stress and self-care. Mental health issues among lawyers are notoriously prevalent, as are substance abuse and addiction.
Why lawyer mental health and wellness matters
The legal industry is, to put it bluntly, unwell. The stats speak for themselves:
A 2020 study featuring participants such as the California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar found that “roughly half of practicing attorneys are experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, with approximately 30% of those falling in the mild range and nearly 20% falling in the moderate/severe range.”
And a recent article by the ABA notes that “at least 25 percent of attorneys who face formal disciplinary charges from their state bar are identified as suffering from addiction or other mental illness,” and that substance abuse plays a role in “60 percent of all disciplinary cases …60 percent of all malpractice claims and 85 percent of all trust fund violation cases.” Even more concerning is that lawyers belong to a profession with one of the 10 highest suicide rates among all careers.
To combat these troubling statistics, legal professionals need to adopt new practices to improve work-life balance, reduce stress, and increase their overall wellbeing.
Defining lawyer mental health and wellness
Because of potential misperceptions of the wellness industry, it’s important to realize that legal wellness or lawyer mental health does not mean:
- Drinking kale smoothies
- Swearing off alcohol forever
- Re-reading your copy of The Power of Now until it’s pages start fraying
Of course, wellness CAN mean doing those things—and for many people, consuming superfoods, practicing yoga, cutting down on alcohol, and reading spiritual books is an excellent path towards wellness. But for others, the recipe for success looks far different.
In its purest form, wellness involves doing whatever you need to do to feel better and be healthier daily. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving a general sense of wellbeing and overall health, and anyone who claims otherwise is selling you something. What matters is discovering the path that works for you. Instead of looking for a quick fix, go with a practical, multi-tool approach that helps you grow over time.
For our purposes, lawyer wellbeing incorporates anything that:
- Improves your work-life balance
- Helps you manage stress better
- Fosters a more positive mindset
- Promotes habits of consistent self-care
These barometers of wellness apply to almost anyone, but they’re particularly important for legal professionals because of the alarming statistics presented above. Many lawyers work in environments that make wellness difficult to achieve. Taking care of yourself can be difficult when you are helping clients through potentially the most difficult times of their lives—not to mention working 60-80 hours per week while managing stress and complex personal lives.
By implementing helpful strategies for effective lawyer wellness, you can begin to navigate work and life in healthier ways.
Approaches to lawyer mental health and wellness
The goal with wellness is to identify a set of habits and practices that you can implement in your own life. Things that work for you. Your approach to wellness should be a holistic one. That is to say, wellness is not about making one giant change and suddenly transforming your life—it is about continually working to improve various aspects of your life so you can build a more sustainable lifestyle and career. And while no single wellness strategy works for all legal professionals, most worthwhile wellness strategies will incorporate the following elements:
You can meditate, practice yoga, or sit down for a few minutes to take a break and collect your thoughts. Regardless of your preferred self-reflection method, checking in with yourself to see how you’re thinking, feeling, and doing is an invaluable practice for positive lawyer mental health.
Self-reflection and mindfulness may not necessarily involve chanting “Om” in a circle with incense burning. The important thing is to create a routine habit of pausing during your day, taking a few deep breaths, and being aware of your inner state at that moment. It sounds simple, but taking a short pause every day can make quite an impact on your mental wellbeing over time.
Because legal professionals are so busy and may often have little time to cook meals at home, eating healthy can be a major challenge.
Although choosing what to eat is a deeply personal choice, it’s worth taking stock of your eating habits and identifying proactive strategies for improvement.
Working with a nutritionist, subscribing to a meal delivery service, and learning to prepare meals can all be helpful strategies. Learning which foods and eating habits do not work for you—is also important.
Exercise and personal self-care for lawyer mental health
Any list of wellness practices for lawyers should include physical activity and rest—because every lawyer needs both. As for what constitutes rest and exercise, try to find activities that you enjoy (or at least don’t hate) doing. Choose sustainable activities you can do for weeks, months, and years without getting bored or giving up.
“Exercise,” in this context, could be as simple as taking a 30-minute walk three-to-five times a week—or it could mean running a marathon.
“Rest” or “self-care” could mean visiting a massage therapist regularly, sleeping late one day each weekend, stretching for five minutes in between client calls, or taking more vacation time than you’re used to.
Look for that sweet spot where your body feels good, you have energy each day, and you’re breaking up the sedentary lifestyle of long office hours.
Invulnerability and stigma surrounding lawyer mental health
Unfortunately, there are some mental health challenges that cannot be solved with a successful wellness routine. Mental health issues that require professional medical intervention are unfortunately very prevalent among legal professionals.
One of the main reasons why mental illness and substance abuse persist at such high levels in the legal community is that legal professionals don’t feel they can talk openly about these topics.
As Brian Cuban, author of The Addicted Lawyer, puts it: “The issue is not so much ‘why lawyers get addicted’— lawyers are just as likely to experience the environmental issues that trigger addiction as anyone else. The question is ‘why are lawyers so afraid of seeking help?’”
The answer is: for a lot of reasons. Among them are long held beliefs that lawyers should just “suck it up,” that reaching out for help shows weakness, that asking for help could be detrimental to one’s career, and so on.
This is why it’s vital to change the industry-wide conversation around lawyer mental health and wellness. Allison Wolf and Terry DeMeo, two expert legal coaches, have wise advice for legal professionals struggling with their mental wellness. For lawyers who are “going through it,” they recommend taking the following steps:
- Talk to someone you trust about the difficult things you’re experiencing, so you can feel that you’re not facing mental health issues on your own. There are many lawyer mental health resources available for legal professionals who are dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, or addiction.
- Learn to recognize, in the moment, when you’re getting caught up in speculative, negative thoughts— and how to interrupt those thoughts and analyze them from an impartial standpoint.
- Because studies show that people actually function better when they focus their attention on one action instead of multi-tasking, try to execute tasks one-at-a time instead of trying to do multiple things at once.
In summary: Legal wellness is about individuals finding ways to create more overall wellbeing in their lives. However, on a broader scale, mental health and wellness is about the legal industry as a whole re-thinking and re-creating the way law schools, law firms, and legal associations approach attorney wellbeing.
On an industry-wide level, we can make a difference by encouraging open and honest conversations about wellness and mental health within the legal industry. Let’s get to work.
*To read the full article, please see www.clio.com/blog/lawyer-mental-health.
Sam Rosenthal currently lives in L.A. and is Director of Production at Nucleus, an innovative education technology company. His “life highlight reel” includes teaching English in Spain, bartending in New York City, covering the North Carolina Tar Heels as a collegiate journalist, and writing a novel. (And for what it’s worth, Sam’s mother thinks he would have made an excellent lawyer.)
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