The legal trade press has given the topic of mental health issues in the legal profession a lot of well-founded attention this year. An emerging narrative is that the proliferation of technology has contributed to this grim reality.
Last year, over 17 million people in the U.S. suffered from at least one depressive episode, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In the legal profession, the number of lawyers, especially younger lawyers, suffering from depression, anxiety and/or substance abuse is jarring, according to a landmark study by the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.
A familiar refrain in the legal profession is that technology is taking away jobs from hardworking associates, and that the omnipresent smartphone has robbed lawyers of their work-life balance. In May, a special committee of the Virginia State Bar published a significant paper, The Occupational Risks of The Practice of Law, and identified technology addiction and over-connectivity as one of those risks.
Technology, however, does not need to be an enemy. In the right contexts, it creates opportunities to do better quality work, to upskill and to promote mental and physical well-being.
Associates Have Time to Do More Complex Work
Associates no longer burn out spending months on end looking at paper documents, stamping them, and using black markers to redact text. Digitization has allowed for the growing use of technology-assisted review to reduce the volume of documents reviewed and to assess cases faster and better.
As a result, associates have more opportunities to master complex areas of law, draft substantively interesting legal documents and have more interaction with more senior lawyers. Similarly, the use of automation tools to streamline the drafting on routine, low-risk contracts has done the same. The ancient rite of passage of burying associates under piles of paper for a soul-numbing period of time has passed.
Similarly, intelligent technology makes substantive content more accessible and reduces the unproductive time attorneys spend on research. As document management systems become more integrated with AI, attorneys can better access and optimize the use of their firm’s existing body of knowledge.
The same is true for legal research. Technology holds the promise of speeding up and enhancing legal research, yielding substantive and contextual analysis that can impact case strategy. As technology and its integration with AI continues to improve, attorneys will be better equipped to evaluate cases, assess the likelihood of success and give pragmatic advice with no wasted effort.
Opportunities for Learning and Impactful Work
In an increasingly competitive and corporate profession, technology is a tool for lawyers to learn, think long-term, and work more creatively. Increasingly, firms are giving young attorneys opportunities to create and think like entrepreneurs.
Some firms are renowned for their hackathons. One firm participated in a hackathon that taught summer associates the principals of design thinking. That same firm also gives associates billable credit to work on innovation projects. Similarly, another global firm hosts an annual two-day Associates Academy for legal innovation. More and more firms are empowering younger attorneys to apply their tech savvy to develop innovative solutions.
The work of these firms and others gives younger lawyers the ability to leverage technology to solve real world problems and derive more impact and meaning from their work.
Legal technology companies are offering similar opportunities for lawyers and law students. For example, students at Melbourne law developed an application that allows young retail workers to determine if they are paid according to applicable law. Students at Georgetown Law developed an application that helps social workers guide elderly clients through a legal health assessment to make sure no one is financially taking advantage of them.
Those projects empower lawyers to have a bigger impact, more diverse activities in their day-to-day, and derive more purpose from their careers.
Taking care of yourself should be your No. 1 priority, yet we often push this aside to take care of everything else. Exercise is an essential component of mental and physical wellness, yet so many lawyers don’t do it because it takes too much time to go to the gym.
Apps like Playbook bring fitness to you. Playbook and similar apps offer 10 to 30–minute workouts that you can do from your home or hotel room. If you go to Playbook, check out the workouts from master trainer Charlie Atkins. She has perfected the art of efficient compact workout that require little to no equipment other than your own body.
The benefits of meditation are undeniable, but proper technique and guidance used to be hard to come by. Apps like Headspace and 10% Happier offer guided meditation and sessions start at three minutes. All you need is a chair, a few minutes of quiet and headphones. Shutting your eyes, breathing slowly and focusing on only what is in front of you does not have to be a mystical experience.
Find an app that works for you and just get started.
Meanwhile, many insurance plans offer telemedicine as an option, yet so few people use it. We Skype, Facetime and Facebook Live—why not see a doctor the same way? Tell him or her your symptoms, show off your bright red throat and then go to the pharmacy to pick up your electronically prescribed medicine. If you feel comfortable doing a deposition via video conference, seeing a doctor the same way shouldn’t phase you.
Finally, overuse of technology and working at all hours of the day is a real concern, but the ability to work virtually is one of the single biggest gifts that technology has given lawyers. Working from home is the key to maintaining a steady work-life balance for many caregivers and families.
While too much technology can negatively impact mental health and well-being, technology does not have to overtake your personal and professional life. When used correctly, it provides the means to work smarter and live better. We live in a great age for learning and growth. Make technology your partner on that journey.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Mark Yacano is global practice leader, managed legal services for Major, Lindsey & Africa. He is a recognized innovator in the delivery of legal services and a trusted advisor to corporate law departments working with corporate counsel on business and legal strategy. He is the host of the MLA podcast “Erasing the Stigma: Conversations about Mental Health in the Legal Profession.”