in Law Firms
The elephant in the room
BY PAULA TSURUTANI
Few will disagree that practicing law is stressful and competitive under the best of circumstances. Still, mental health issues among lawyers
often are ignored or discounted until it's too late.
Maintaining good mental health among attorneys is a key element in a law firm's ability to thrive and be
successful. The Wall Street Journal
recently reported an alarming bottom-line cost of depression on the job $23 billion in lost productivity based on a survey conducted
by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
Buffalo, New York litigator Daniel Lukasik, who has battled depression himself, said, "There's a moral imperative in caring about the mental health of lawyers. There's also a big financial stake. Firms make significant investments in their lawyers. Aside from losing good people, you lose productivity. People may be in the office, but may not be productive. Or, they may not show up or miss appointments. Starting at the top, firms need to put some stock in this issue. If the issue is not acknowledged, it goes underground."
Seven years ago, Lukasik started a website after his own bout with depression. It's since grown to provide other resources, including a support group, a documentary and a coaching service, with a toolkit in the works.
ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) maintains a number of resources, including:
- Directory of Lawyer Assistance Programs
by state as well as international (Print version for 2012-13 also available)
- National resources,
including toll-free numbers for additional sources for information and help on topics, such as mental health, suicide, chemical dependency, self-help
and family support
- Publications, including such titles as Facing Mental Illness and
Dementia in Law Practice (audio CD-ROM and video); Judges Helping Judges; A Lawyer's Guide to Healing: Solutions for Addiction and Depression; Lawyers, Anger and Anxiety:
Dealing with the Stresses of the Legal Profession
- Speakers Bureau Directory by state. This
listing includes speakers who are available to discuss issues including aging, depression, stress, suicide, discipline and intervention. (Note: This is a voluntary listing;
speakers have not been screened.)
- CoLAP Café, a monthly newsletter/blog with updates and information about lawyer assistance
Dave Nee Foundation works to eliminate the stigma around depression and prevent suicide by promoting
and encouraging the diagnosis and treatment of depression among adolescents, young adults and law students.
Law Firm Mental Health Toolkit (2012):
The Lawyers' Mental Health Task Force of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association produced this 58-page toolkit. It is designed to help law firms recognize the signs of
depression and addiction, understand what they can and should do to assist, and understand the legal and ethical principles that apply.
Law Lifeline is an online resource geared to students, produced by the Jed Foundation and the Dave Nee
Foundation. It provides facts on a range of mental health issues, advice on how to stay well, resources at individual schools and a hotline number for a confidential
conversation with a counselor. It also includes guidance on helping friends who may have a mental health issue.
Lawyers with Depression: After lawyer Daniel Lukasik struggled with depression, he searched for a
site where he could contribute an article about his experience as a lawyer. When he couldn't find one, he created his own to help fellow lawyers, students and judges cope
with and heal from depression. The site includes a frequently updated blog, guest articles, suggested books and a documentary Lukasik produced, A Terrible
New York State Bar Association eLAP: This online resource, created by the New York State Bar Association's Lawyer
Assistance Program, is filled with information on issues including depression, anxiety disorders, suicide, stress and general wellness, as well as self-assessment tools,
videos and additional links.
A Wellness Guide for Senior Lawyers and their Families, Friends and Colleagues (2013): The State Bar of California's
Lawyer Assistance Program produced this online guide, which addresses health problems that come with aging, including dementia, cognitive impairment, behavioral issues, how to
spot symptoms and how to respond.
THE RISE OF DEPRESSION IN LAW FIRMS
Lawyers ranked No.1 for depression, according to an often-cited study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University who analyzed more than 100 professions. And, lawyers were 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers. Lukasik also confirmed that in the last two years, he has seen an uptick in inquiries from law students and new lawyers.
Sarah Krauss, Chair of the ABA's Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, said, "The greatest growing area of concern is the rate of depression that has exponentially increased in the legal profession in the last few years." Depression also is an issue "affecting law students in ever increasing numbers in recent years. This increase in cases of depression has seemed to also increase the incidents of suicide by attorneys." Lawyer and psychologist G. Andrew H. Benjamin's study of law students revealed that 40 percent of them suffered from depression by the late spring of their third year.
Patricia Spataro, Director of the New York State Bar Association Lawyer Assistance Program, has been on the frontlines working with lawyers and law firms regarding mental health issues. "Absolutely, depression is on the upswing," Spataro said. "The general public, for the most part, does not view lawyers favorably. It's highly competitive. Bottom line, it's a stressful profession. And the economy has made things worse. It's a perfect storm for problems."
Janet Piper Voss, Director of the Illinois Lawyers' Assistance Program, notes that while lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) started as a resource for alcoholism and substance abuse, they are increasingly sought after for guidance on mental health issues. She has observed changes at both ends of the age spectrum among young or new lawyers, as well as among experienced lawyers, some in their 70s and older. "Law students or recent law school grads are very concerned about paying their law school loans and finding jobs. The job market is much tougher," Piper Voss said.
"We're also seeing many more older lawyers dealing with the stress of not being able to retire because of finances," said Piper Voss. Spataro also has seen a growing number of older attorneys struggling to redefine or reinvent themselves after being laid off, or working longer and harder just to make ends meet.
UNPREPARED FOR LAW FIRM LIFE
Before becoming a therapist, Andrew Kang practiced law for 10 years at a large firm in Boston, Massachusetts. Working on complex commercial litigation and employment law, he had plenty of experience dealing with deadlines, stress and meeting billing expectations. Observing an absence of resources for lawyers seeking practical help to achieve work-life balance, Kang made a major career change, becoming a licensed therapist. He still works in the legal profession, but now as a therapist to lawyers. "Law school doesn't prepare you for the law firm life," Kang said. The transition from law student to lawyer can leave attorneys feeling unskilled and unprepared. "Many attorneys are well suited to an academic life, and are high-achieving, good students. But working within a law firm is entirely different."
What Kang has seen is a question of balance. "Lawyers take on as much as they can. Time management becomes a big issue, which leads to stress and anxiety – not knowing what to do," he said. "Lawyers have a hard time dealing with uncertainty, and the uncertain job market leads to increased stress and depression."
All ages are affected, but if there is a silver lining, Kang has noticed that younger attorneys are more willing and open to ask for and accept help.
STIGMA AND HOW TO DEAL WITH IT
Overcoming the stigma of mental illness is a major barrier, not confined to the legal profession. "It's not like having a chronic illness or disease," said Link Christin, Advisor to Hazelden's Legal Professionals Program. Christin, a civil trial lawyer for more than 25 years, said, "In a broad sense, law firms need to recognize it, and try to remove the stigma, so people reach out for help. The biggest threat is isolation." Kang agrees. "Law firms need to put it out there. If you had cancer, you would say so. But that's not the case with mental health issues."
Law firms can do preventative work that can create a healthier environment and lessen stressors, said Spataro. For example, firms can examine their work leave policies, childcare benefits, and salary and bonus structures. "Are firm policies family-friendly? Is there salary parity? People thrive when they have autonomy over their careers. Does the firm create a culture where attorneys feel valued, as if management cares?"
CREATING A SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT
At Holland & Hart LLP, the firm's approach to a healthy culture starts at the top and is part of the firm's fabric. Managing Partner Thomas R. O'Donnell said, "First and foremost, we believe our culture is unique and the firm works hard to make sure it doesn't get eroded. We place a high emphasis on client service, but we do it with a team of professionals. We appreciate collegiality and have a personal fondness for our co-workers. Mutual respect and trust are key. We want to set a tone in everything we do."
With this in mind, the firm has made a conscious and formal effort to help maintain the mental health of its attorneys. It has a formal Partner Responsibility Committee with its own charter that recognizes, "this is a stressful job. The committee provides a structure, and helps create an environment that will help improve the performance of partners. Committee members provide a support system for attorneys – meeting with and consulting with partners individually and collectively." Discussions, which are confidential, could cover a range of concerns – daily work stress, personal illness or family issues. "We provide a mechanism that can act as a pressure-reliever to partners," said O'Donnell.
The existence of this Committee is consistent with Holland & Hart's efforts to provide an overall supportive environment for its employees. The firm, well-known and envied for its benefits and work-life balance, has strong underlying firm values. "We don't chase short-term objectives," said O'Donnell. "You can't chase the money. If that's all you have, you're not going to last."
AVAILABLE RESOURCES AND PRACTICAL STEPS
Mental health information and resources are available to attorneys and law firms at the national and local levels. The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP) focuses on educating the profession on alcoholism, chemical dependencies, stress, depression and other emotional health issues, and also provides support to bar associations and lawyer assistance programs in developing and maintaining methods of providing effective solutions for recovery. CoLAP chair Sarah Krauss said, "Law firms can address these sensitive topics by encouraging staff to attend state LAP presentations or by inviting their LAPs to present on-site programs at their firms on the signs and symptoms of depression and where to turn for help….These programs educate lawyers about warning signs and resources. But they also go a long way in helping dispel the stigma and fear. And they instill a feeling of courage and hope, along with the ability to help or provide assistance tothe affected attorney."
ADDICTION & SUBSTANCE ABUSE AMONG LAWYERS AND LAW STUDENTS
Hazelden's Research Update recently published information on alcohol and substance abuse among lawyers. According to a study published in the
International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, the rate of problem drinking for lawyers was 18 percent compared to 10 percent in the general population.
Another study revealed that eight percent of prelaw students, 15 percent of first-year law students, 24 percent of third-year law students and 26 percent of
alumni reported concern with alcohol problems. In addition, the American Bar Association reported 27 percent of disciplinary cases involved alcohol misuse by
Hazelden has its own Legal Professionals Program, the only one of its kind at a major treatment center, created by Link Christin. Christin spent more than 25
years as a civil trial lawyer before receiving his master's in addiction counseling and serving as the program's first director. His new firm, Heightened
Performance, LLC, works with law firms and law schools on prevention and education, including substance awareness, crisis counseling and management, and policy
Spataro also said, "Every law firm should have a link to its local LAP on its intranet, and promote its services." In addition to bringing in LAP representatives for education and training, Spataro said to put firm policies in writing. "Policies are the scar tissue of past mistakes," she said. "Understand that treatment works. Managing partners need to compare notes about handling issues. Some have done it very sensitively."
GREY MATTERS: THE AGING ATTORNEY POPULATION
Cognitive impairment among aging lawyers is another growing problem. Krauss noted the ABA presented a webinar on this topic, and is working with the ABA Senior Lawyers Division on a working paper that provides information on signs and symptoms of cognitive impairment. CoLAP also is working with the ABA Commission on Disability Rights and the Senior Lawyer Division on programming and policies to help the profession deal effectively with the growing number of aging lawyers. "CoLAP is also collaborating with the National Organization of Bar Counsel to develop appropriate disciplinary rules to give lawyers who are found to be cognitively impaired a compassionate and dignified way to end their legal careers without disciplinary action, where appropriate," said Krauss.
LAPs around the country also are broadening the scope of their services and receiving training to help them recognize the signs of dementia. In response to the profession's changing demographics, the State Bar of California created an online publication, "A Wellness Guide for Senior Lawyers and their Families, Friends and Colleagues," that provides practical advice on mental health among the aging, mild cognitive impairment, dementia and how to help.
Local LAPs can provide many services and consultations (most free) regarding early identification of impairment, assessment and development of policies and treatment plans, and referrals to medical professionals, self-help groups, and in-patient and outpatient counseling. In addition to providing information and support to individual lawyers, LAPs are available to provide guidance to concerned family members, managing partners and law firm HR directors. They also can make referrals to trained volunteers and peers who can provide support. Additionally, services are confidential.
Acting quickly is most important, according to LAP directors. Reach out as soon as you think or suspect you have a problem. Doing so may avert a tragedy. The overwhelming message: "LAPs are confidential venues to discuss issues. Be proactive. Just call."
About the author
Paula Tsurutani ( www.paulatsurutani.com) is a marketing communications writer, focusing on issues in professional service firms, associations and arts organizations. You can reach her at email@example.com.