Oklahoma Bar Journal

Ethics and Lawyer Well-Being

By Joseph Balkenbush

As 2017 comes to a close and we reflect on the year gone by, there is one major topic which immediately came to mind
– lawyer well-being. Specifically, your well-being. Whether it is your well-being as a lawyer, mom or dad, husband or wife, son or daughter or friend, you must take the best care of yourself in order to be the best you can be in each of these “roles.” For most of us, all of the other roles in our lives are at least as important as being a lawyer.

The personal characteristics of honesty and integrity are essential to be an ethical lawyer. These same characteristics are inherent in being a good person as well. Being a lawyer is not easy. In fact, it is often very difficult. There are so many responsibilities and tasks that must be coordinated to keep all of the “balls” in the air, and that doesn’t take into account our responsibilities at home. We all must make time to ensure we are physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy. Often it is a seemingly insignificant occurrence that can send us to the place no one wants to go. Before we know it, we can go over the edge and spiral into destructive behaviors.

In 2016, the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published their study of nearly 13,000 currently practicing lawyers [the “Study”]. It found as follows that between 21 and 36 percent [of lawyers] qualify as problem drinkers, and that approximately 28 percent, 19 percent, and 23 percent are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively. The parade of difficulties also includes suicide, social alienation, work addiction, sleep deprivation, job dissatisfaction, a “diversity crisis,” complaints of work-life conflict, incivility, a narrowing of values so that profit predominates and negative public perception. Notably, the Study found that younger lawyers in the first ten years of practice and those working in private firms experience the highest rates of problem drinking and depression. The budding impairment of many of the future generation of lawyers should be alarming to everyone. Too many face less productive, less satisfying, and more troubled career paths.

Additionally, 15 law schools and over 3,300 law students participated in the Survey of Law Student Well-Being, the results of which were released in 2016. It found that 17 percent experienced some level of depression, 14 percent experienced severe anxiety, 23 percent had mild or moderate anxiety, and six percent reported serious suicidal thoughts in the past year. As to alcohol use, 43 percent reported binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks and nearly one-quarter (22 percent) reported binge-drinking two or more times during that period. One-quarter fell into the category of being at risk for alcoholism for which further screening was recommended.

The results from both surveys signal an elevated risk in the legal community for mental health and substance use disorders tightly intertwined with an alcohol-based social culture. The analysis of the problem cannot end there, however. The studies reflect that the majority of lawyers and law students do not have a mental health or substance use disorder. But that does not mean that they’re thriving. Many lawyers experience a “profound ambivalence” about their work, and different sectors of the profession vary in their levels of satisfaction and well-being.

Given this data, lawyer well-being issues can no longer be ignored. Acting for the benefit of lawyers who are functioning below their ability and for those suffering due to substance use and mental health disorders, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being urges our profession’s leaders to act.

We offer three reasons to take action: organizational effectiveness, ethical integrity, and humanitarian concerns:

First, lawyer well-being contributes to organizational success – in law firms, corporations, and government entities. If cognitive functioning is impaired as explained above, legal professionals will be unable to do their best work. For law firms and corporations, lawyer health is an important form of human capital that can provide a competitive advantage.

Second, lawyer well-being influences ethics and professionalism. Rule 1.1 of the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct requires lawyers to “provide competent representation.” Rule 1.3 requires diligence in client representation, and Rules 4.1 through 4.4 regulate working with people other than clients. Minimum competence is critical to protecting clients and allows lawyers to avoid discipline. But it will not enable them to live up to the aspirational goal articulated in the Preamble to the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which calls lawyers to “strive to attain the highest level of skill, to improve the law and the legal profession and to exemplify the legal profession’s ideals of public service.”

Third, from a humanitarian perspective, promoting wellbeing is the right thing to do. Untreated mental health and substance use disorders ruin lives and careers. They affect too many of our colleagues. Though our profession prioritizes individualism and self-sufficiency, we all contribute to, and are affected by, the collective legal culture. Whether that culture is toxic or sustaining is up to us. Our interdependence creates a joint responsibility for solutions.1

If anything in the above excerpt from the article applies to you, if you are stressed out or overwhelmed, if you are depressed, anxious, suffering from addiction or are in need of help in any other way, the OBA provides you with a place to go for help. YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

The OBA Lawyers Helping Lawyers Assistance Program Committee (LHL) was created decades ago. There are literally hundreds of OBA members who volunteer their time to help other lawyers in need. LHL is not just for alcoholics or drug addicts. The committee also provides services to any OBA member who is experiencing mental, emotional, psychological and/or financial issues. As an OBA member benefit, the services provided are free. The contact number for LHL is 800-364-7886. Additional information regarding LHL can be found at www.okbar.org/LHL or by contacting the OBA Office of Ethics Counsel at 405-416-7055. Again, the services provided are free of charge and are confidential per ORPC Rule 8.3.

Take the best care of you!!!

Joe Balkenbush is OBA ethics counsel. He graduated with his J.D. from the OCU School of Law in 1986. Have an ethics question? Get tips, FAQ answers, ethics opinions and more online at www.okbar.org/members/EthicsCounsel or contact Mr. Balkenbush at joeb@okbar.org or 405-416-7055; 800-522-8065. It’s a member benefit and all inquiries are confidential.

1. The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations For Positive Change (citations omitted), www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportRevFINAL.pdf.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 88 pg. 2419 (Dec. 16, 2017)