Oklahoma Bar Journal
The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the words “attorney wellness” has nothing to do with our physical health. I don’t mean to diminish the importance of our physical well-being, but what I tend to think of is our mental health. Should we all eat healthy, exercise and take our vitamins? Yes. But anxiety and depression are prevalent in the legal community. In the 2015 survey of lawyers by the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, 28% reported depression, 19% reported incidences of severe anxiety and 11.5% reported suicidal thoughts during their careers.1 If this isn’t alarming enough, substance abuse is also highly prevalent, with more than 20% of licensed lawyers drinking at levels considered “hazardous, harmful and potentially alcohol-dependent.” Attorneys under the age of 30 have even higher problematic drinking rates. All these rates are higher than those found in the general public and other professions.
Although I once kept it a deep-buried secret, I am no longer ashamed to admit I have had my own mental health struggles over my lifetime and even during my career as an attorney. While it started as a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), my symptoms evolved to more generalizedanxiety and depression once some of my trauma symptomologies subsided. While my mental health is now well-managed with the help of medication and therapy, I still experience what I call occasional flare-ups, particularly of my PTSD. Because I am open about my struggles, I have had numerous other attorneys confide in me with some of their own mental health battles. My experience and the experience of other attorneys I know only affirm the findings from the study mentioned above: Our profession has a mental health and substance abuse problem.
While this may seem like bad news, it’s also an opportunity for our profession to make meaningful changes to not only help members of the legal community but to better serve our clients. This isn’t going to be something we can slap a Band-Aid on and call it good – it’s going to require contribution from the entire legal community, from law schools to bar admission agencies, bar associations, lawyer assistance programs, private firms and individual attorneys. Each entity has a duty to evaluate what it can do within its respective role and coordinate with other entities to implement change across the board. It is a systematic problem and, therefore, a systematic response is necessary. The research described above should be our wake-up call and our call to action. Too many of our fellow lawyers are struggling and suffering, and the impact is too great to ignore. If you are reading this, you can be part of the solution.
WHAT DO THESE PROBLEMS LOOK LIKE?
Anyone can Google depression, anxiety or substance abuse and find numerous articles and descriptions of the associated symptoms. To save you the step, I’ll lay out the general signs here but then also lay out some signs that may be particular to our profession. Signs of depression include persistent sad, anxious or empty feelings; feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism; feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness; irritability or restlessness; fatigue and decreased energy; overeating or appetite loss; and thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts. Some of the symptoms of anxiety include restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge; becoming easily fatigued; difficulty concentrating; irritability; muscle tension; and sleep disturbance. Signs of a substance abuse disorder include feelings of exhilaration and excess confidence; increased alertness; increased energy and restlessness; behavior changes or aggression; rapid or rambling speed; dilated pupils; confusion, delusions and hallucinations; irritability, anxiety or paranoia; and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop using the substance. All these symptoms can cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other areas of functioning.
Attorney impairment poses risks not only to the struggling individuals themselves but to our clients as well. Signs that are more unique to our profession include missing deadlines, not meeting obligations and work responsibilities, incomplete or irregular records, “borrowing” from trust accounts, non-compliance with CLE, being non-responsive to discipline inquiries, inadequate follow through and not returning phone calls. Despite these problems, many in our profession do not seek or receive help unless
and until forced to do so.
WHY DOES THE PROFESSION HAVE THIS PROBLEM?
Before we get into what can be done, let’s look at why this is a problem. Without getting too far into the weeds of the details of the study, the problems often have their beginnings in law school and only continue to grow and worsen after admission to the bar and the engraining of norms within our profession. The problem is pervasive, and no sector of our profession is immune, though those at private firms are at higher risk,
as are junior associates.
By nature, our work environment is inherently stressful and, therefore, is a definite risk factor. Conflict and competition are the norms in the profession – both external competition (i.e., opposing counsel) and internal competition (i.e., competition within your own firm for clients and advancement opportunities). In addition, our entire jobs center around solving problems, which are seldom solved to the complete satisfaction of the client. We face high and sometimes unrealistic expectations from clients and employers. We are obligated to maintain a minimum billable hour requirement and/or origination of business and have other time pressures such as deadlines. Moreover, good lawyering skills often don’t translate into good workplace skills (i.e., emphasis on winning instead of collaborating and being skilled at debate and arguments rather than discussion and collaboration). We also often have a distrust of colleagues and, therefore, an inability to share frustrations, problems and other issues out of a fear that we will look weak or the information will somehow be used against us. The demands of our profession find us working long hours, not getting enough sleep, not eating well and distancing ourselves from family and friends. Young lawyers often have trouble finding jobs and paying off oppressive student loans (in fact, I’m still working on mine 12+ years after graduation).
Individual personality traits of lawyers also play a role. Most attorneys are self-reliant, ambitious and perfectionistic. As a whole, when compared to others, we are often more people-pleasing,
competitive, argumentative, self-centered, stubborn, skeptical, emotionally detached, avoid rejection/criticism, predisposed toward denial and blame-shifting and experts at rationalization. I don’t hesitate to call us out because many of the same traits can be said to describe me! While we may be highly motivated to provide good service to our clients, we are among the last to seek assistance or even acknowledge a problem. The pervasive fear of damaging their reputation keeps many attorneys from receiving the assistance and treatment they need. Even worse, we fear our adversaries will find out and use it to discredit us and possibly even impact our license. These fears had me hesitant to even attach my name to this article.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
It is my hope that we can engage in public awareness campaigns to overcome the stigma associated with mental health and substance use problems and encourage ourselves and our colleagues to reach out for help. Unfortunately, mental health and substance use issues do not get better on their own; they are progressive and only get worse over time without help. The impact on families, careers and even lives lost due to untreated addiction or mental health issues is too great for us to ignore. In fact, the worst thing we can do is ignore it and carry on with our heads in the sand, hoping someone else will “fix” the problems inherent in our profession. This article is a start; indeed, this entire issue is a start, but it’s only that – a start.
We need to provide greater education aimed at prevention, especially for those in the early years of their profession when they are at greatest risk. Wellness concepts that include the importance of the basics – physical exercise, good sleep, nutrition and minimizing alcohol use – provide a good foundation. But it also should include stress management, building resiliency skills and incorporating interpersonal connections. What are law schools, CLEs and mentors teaching us about maintaining wellness? What messages are we receiving about seeking out and receiving help? Where are they falling short, and how can we improve those messages?
As discussed earlier, our profession has a unique culture. Social, personality and work factors lead to higher rates of stress, mental health problems and problematic drinking. Therefore, we may benefit from specialized treatment programs. Lawyer assistance programs are designed to not only maintain confidentiality and protect lawyers from negative professional consequences but also provide treatment. A greater investment of financial resources, attention and time by firms, schools, the bar association and individual attorneys is necessary to effect meaningful change. Lawyer assistance programs, such as Oklahoma’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers Assistance Program, must receive adequate funding so they can increase their services to provide more assistance, counseling, screenings, outreach, monitoring and education.
HOW CAN I HELP A FRIEND OR COLLEAGUE?
I already discussed why there are barriers to attorneys seeking help, and there are many. But there may come a time that you become concerned about a friend or colleague and want to be able to help them. Remember, the worst thing you can do is ignore the problem. First, expect that there may be difficulties and resistance. The person may not agree they have a problem; they may not want to change what they are doing or want to seek help. They may fear consequences. Most will feel embarrassed and not want to discuss such a personal problem with you. They may even become defensive. Try to not take such a response personally.
There is no magic formula or easy way to help someone struggling with a mental health or substance use issue. There’s no script to follow, but what is most important is to approach the person from a place of concern and care and tell them you come from a place of concern and care. Do not be accusatory, be descriptive. Explain what changes you have seen in them, whether that be physical, mental or emotional. If you have seen a change in work quality or work habits, be specific. They may be afraid to seek help, so be empathetic and acknowledge that fear. Let them know they can trust you. Be armed in advance with resources, whether that be the contact information for Lawyers Helping Lawyers, an employee assistance program or a local mental health professional. Remember the golden rule and treat them the way you would want to be treated.
In no way does this article outline all the problems or even all the solutions. It only scratches the surface, but that’s an important start. Finally, I want to leave you with this: There is no shame in seeking and receiving help. I would not be the person I am today or the lawyer I am today without having received professional help. I have fought hard to battle my PTSD demons and the accompanying depression/anxiety. I firmly believe you have that fight within you as well. Whether you reach out to me, a trusted coworker or the Lawyers Helping Lawyers Assistance Program, be assured that there are others available and wanting to help. You do not have to fight the fight on your own.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rhiannon K. Baker is a 2009 graduate of the TU College of Law, with highest honors. She practices civil litigation in Tulsa and is also licensed in Iowa and Minnesota. She has a passion for mental health and victims’ rights advocacy.
- “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns among American Attorneys” (Journal of Addiction Medicine; February 2016 – Volume 10, Issue 1, p. 45-52).
Oklahoma Bar Journal – OBJ 93 Vol 4 (April 2022)