For more than three decades, study after study has shown that legal professionals struggle with mental health and addiction issues — including depression, anxiety, stress, and even suicidal ideation — at higher rates than both the general population and other high-stress professions.1 The recurrence of this data over the last 30 years indicates that up until recently, it has gone largely ignored.
In 2016, however, a report called “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys” (often referred to as “the lawyer study”) presented these harrowing statistics in such a way that as stakeholders in the legal profession, we can no longer turn a blind eye2 and we shouldn’t. Not only is fostering healthy lawyers the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective, but it also contributes to organizational success, influences ethics, and supports professionalism.3 In other words, it’s good for business and, in turn, good for clients.
Historically, it seems that calls for help to facilitate change in the well-being of legal professionals have been overlooked; some research suggests this is due in part to these pleas resting primarily on moral grounds.4 Although advocating for lawyer well-being is certainly a humanitarian issue, as we’ll soon discuss, many claim focusing on the bottom line would be a more impactful way to drive attention to this vital cause.5
To start, let’s look at how fostering lawyer well-being is good for business.6 In order for an organization to be optimally effective, its individual employees must be mentally healthy — output depends on how effectively its people, or human capital, function.7 The National Alliance on Mental Illness identifies the following as signs of declining mental health: excessive worry, confused thinking or problems concentrating, mood changes, difficulty understanding or relating to other people, feeling tired or having low energy, experiencing physical ailments without obvious causes, and an inability to carry out daily activities or handle routine problems and stress.8 Think about how well even the best attorney can practice law while struggling with the aforementioned troubles.
At more than $200 billion each year,9 employers in the United States are increasingly more burdened by the costs of mental health disorders than the costs of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and obesity. Additionally, the annual estimated cost of alcohol abuse to U.S. employers is $249 billion, with nearly $180 billion of that resulting from losses in workplace productivity.10 If an attorney is impaired because of an untreated mental health or substance use issue, this individual’s work will be negatively impacted and the firm or corporation suffers. Lawyer health is a form of human capital that cannot be denied.11
As one can likely surmise, if lawyer well-being is good for business, then it’s also good for clients.12 We now understand that impaired attorneys can struggle with even the smallest competencies; not surprisingly, authors suggest that between 40% and 70% of all disciplinary proceedings are related to substance abuse, depression, or both.13 In looking at the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.1 references a lawyer’s duty to provide competent representation and Rule 1.3 addresses diligence in client representation.14 We’ve seen that mental health dramatically impacts competence, and a lawyer bears the responsibility of competently practicing law. It would seem, then, that an attorney has a duty to ensure their mental health is intact. Employers’ support of employee well-being is not only good for business, but good for the clients the business serves.
Finally, though some may argue that pulling upon the humanitarian heartstrings of stakeholders in the legal profession is not overly impactful in evoking change, it must be noted that improving lawyer well-being is the right thing to do.15 As a therapist specializing in work with impaired professionals and, even more specifically, in addictive disorders, I have seen untreated addictions and other mental illnesses ruin not only careers, but also lives. With more than half of all mental illnesses left untreated,16 it’s time we destigmatize seeking help — especially among a population that is so concerned about someone finding out they need help that they often don’t seek it.17 Each and every stakeholder in the field of law is impacted by the collective legal culture, and we all are responsible for its well-being. Taking one small step in the right direction regarding one’s mental health can lead to a wave of change for every law student, lawyer, and judge tomorrow. Cultivating healthy lawyers is good for business, good for clients, and the right thing to do.