You Can’t Be Good If You Feel Bad

Lawyers are in bad shape as far as “wellness” goes. This was made all too clear last week by ABA President Hilarie Bass’s “call to action” in her article in the New York Law Journal in which she reminded lawyers of the need to take care of themselves and the importance to the profession of making sure that other lawyers do the same.

The article cites to the story by a big firm lawyer in which he chronicled his struggle with depression that was published just two days prior–on March 28, 2018.

March 28 was the ABA Law Student Division’s official “National Mental Health Day” at law schools around the country.

How sick are we?

Recent studies confirm that, in alarming numbers, attorneys practicing today are more likely than non-lawyers to suffer from:

  • Substance abuse: 21 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers and use alcohol at a rate 25% higher than the general population.
  • Depression: Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.
  • Suicide: Lawyers ranked fourth, right behind dentists, pharmacists and physicians.(comparing the proportion of suicides in that profession to suicides in all other occupations)

This should not come as a surprise to those of us who have practiced law for any length of time. Most of us know fellow lawyers whose careers were interrupted or destroyed by substance abuse or mental illness.

We also know lawyers whose mental health creates additional stress for us as opposing counsel.

There is a proposal in the ABA to include mental health as an additional element of competence in the model disciplinary rules. You would think this is implicit in the meaning of competence, but while most lawyers manage to cope with the pressure of practice with a certain amount of professionalism there also seem to be more and more lawyers who are taking their inability to cope out on clients, judges and opposing counsel. This lack of professional conduct–regardless of the cause–undermines the integrity of the profession and creates additional and unnecessary stress for everyone involved.

Three things have contributed to the current crisis.

Old fashioned pressure: The traditional stresses we all signed up for when enrolling in law school still exist and don’t seem to be going away anytime soon: Long hours at work, success measured by income, feelings of isolation, high-stakes career making and breaking cases, difficult clients and cut-throat work environments.

New fashioned pressure: A couple of decades into the internet era we are still learning how to cope with a technology-fueled 24/7 law practice in which clients and partners demand “everything, all the time”.[1] Today the ordinary practice of law is like driving on a German autobahn with no speed limit and no off ramps.

The threat of obsolescence:  Technology has reduced the need for much of traditional lawyering, especially the parts that were easy and therefore low stress. The result is more stress as more lawyers chase less and less work. As noted in the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being August, 2017 Report (the Report): “Our profession confronts a dwindling market share as the public turns to more accessible, affordable alternative legal service providers.”

What is being done?

The crisis has not gone unnoticed by the ABA, who, in 2017, proposed a new Model Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) Rule that recommends mandatory mental health programming for lawyers–at least one credit hour every three years.

Baby steps.

For law students, one recommendation from the Report is that law schools be required to include well-being education in their curriculum in order to obtain ABA approval. The Report, aptly subtitled: Creating a Movement to Improve Well-Being in the Legal Profession, is full of suggestions for creating wellness and includes detailed recommendations for Judges, Bar Associations and legal employers.

What can we do in Texas?

Read the Report and put its recommendations into action where you meet other lawyers–at your firm, your local Bar Association or committee, or at the State level.

Maintaining the profession’s integrity and providing the excellent service our clients demand and deserve requires a mind that is not only intellectually but emotionally capable. In an increasingly stressful profession we can no longer take mental health and wellness for granted, and each of us shares in the responsibility to protect the profession and each other.

The Tennessee State Bar is apparently breaking ground in this area and has already revised its CLE requirements to grant ethics and professionalism credit for a broad set of well-being topics. It seems obvious that this is the next step, and there is no reason for the Texas State Bar to wait for the ABA or anyone else to propose new or additional requirements or standards in order to put the kinds of programs in place that the Report recommends.

For my part, I intend to continue to add a wellness component to the ethics CLE programs that I offer, utilizing both my training and experience as a lawyer and as a 500 hour Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT).

Join me in asking the Texas State Bar to address wellness now.

Our standard CLE offerings should routinely include programs on self-care and wellness so we can learn to prevent problems instead of just coping with the aftermath. We need not only traditional CLE on things like time management but also courses on a wide range of self-analysis and coping techniques. No single program will fit every need, and  an hour or two of CLE isn’t a solution, but it might just serve as a spring board within the local Bar, a firm or among colleagues for conversations about the benefits of stress reduction programs and ways to identify and address the problems of stress before they result in disciplinary action, a loss of clients or worse.

Remember: If you have a problem or know someone who has a problem the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) provides confidential help for lawyers, law students, and judges who have problems with substance abuse and/or mental health issues. Its confidential hotline can be reached any time of day or night at 800/343-8527.

[1] “Life in the Fast Lane” by the Eagles (1976).

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