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Legal Industry Needs to End ‘Blame and Shame’ on Mental Health

Nov. 10, 2021, 9:01 AM

Thankfully, Covid-19 infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths are improving across the nation. But even when we get a handle on this virus—and we will—its long-term implications will undoubtedly take years to fully understand and address.

Individuals who already experienced high incidences of mental health disorders and substance misuse prior to the pandemic have been hit particularly hard over the past 18 months—including members of our legal community both here in New York and across the nation.

A 2016 report in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found “hazardous” levels of problem drinking among lawyers at a higher rate than other professions, as well as significant levels of mental health distress. As a result of the stress, anxiety, depression, and isolation created by the pandemic, the situation is now even more dire. And by 2021, close to two-thirds of attorneys and law firm staff surveyed by American Lawyer Magazine said the pandemic worsened their mental health struggles.

These findings were consistent with the results of a wide-ranging New York State Bar Association 2021 survey conducted of more than 3,000 New York lawyers by the NYSBA Task Force on Attorney Well-Being. More troubling still was the fact that the respondents to our survey reported a reluctance to seek help when they needed it, with just 8% saying they had made use of support offered through employee assistance programs.

A Crisis for the Justice System

The legal profession is clearly facing a mental health crisis of epic proportions. But why should anyone outside the industry care? After all, lawyers are notoriously unpopular, consistently finishing dead last in the Pew Research Center’s annual ranking of the public’s esteem of a wide variety of professions.

The reality is that the well-being of those who work in the legal community—be they attorneys, judges, clerks, or paralegals—is central to the success of our entire justice system. Individuals who are struggling with their own mental health or substance misuse challenges cannot adequately represent their clients or mete out well-reasoned judicial opinions.

Our legal system has its fair share of problems—from overcrowded dockets to overburdened caseloads. An entire generation of unwell legal professionals could bring the entire operation to its knees, undermining the very foundation of our fragile democracy in the process.

A Paradigm Shift Is Needed

Though there is a growing recognition that wellness must be prioritized to ensure the longevity and productivity of the legal workforce, our industry has not yet realized that addressing a problem of this magnitude requires a complete paradigm shift. Our task force found that without question, we must change the very cultural underpinnings of our profession—from law school all the way through post-retirement.

That includes obvious steps like including mandatory well-being classes at law schools and inducing firms to allow lawyers to take appropriate leave to better prioritize health as a fundamental part of our careers.

But it also requires changes that will be far more difficult to accomplish—like addressing the discrimination some attorneys of color experience in courtrooms and standardizing the rules of certain courts to provide predictability and reduce stress for attorneys.

The legal profession is one of deep-seated traditions, many of which we have trouble admitting are outdated and no longer useful. We are, by nature, slow to change. It was only in 2017, for example, that New York removed questions about mental health from the bar application, which set students on a dangerous path of believing they would pay a price for seeking help.

But it’s clear to everyone that removing the mental health questions was not enough. The 2021 report of the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Attorney Well-Being is the embodiment of the massive changes we think are necessary to address this crisis.

Limit Hours, Encourage Leave and Counseling

In it, we propose that law firms should cap billable hours at 1,800 a year, make sure lawyers take their full allotment of vacation and leave, and encourage employees to use confidential mental health services. We ask the judiciary to consider the stress on lawyers when scheduling appearances and instituting rules. We want law schools to establish a culture of wellness throughout the institution and remove the façade of perfectionism endemic to the culture of law.

If the pandemic could be said to have a silver lining, it has taught us that overarching and systemic change is indeed possible—even necessary—in order to succeed in the new normal. Things that we once thought were absolute, like the daily commute or in-person court hearings, have turned out to be optional, if not outright counterproductive.

As we said in the 2021 Task Force Report on Attorney Well-Being, we must move beyond blame and shame as mechanisms to distance ourselves from the aspects of the legal system and law culture which are not working and instead shift our gaze to holistic solutions and better outcomes for ourselves and our colleagues. Our fondest hope is that we make manifest the believe that the healthy lawyer helps create a healthier world.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Hon. Karen K. Peters is the co-chair of the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Attorney Well-Being. She was the former presiding justice of New York’s Appellate Division, Third Department.

M. Elizabeth “Libby” Coreno is the co-chair of the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on Attorney Well-Being. She is a well-being advocate for lawyers and a land use and real estate development attorney.