Mental Health and Wellbeing: How the US Legal Profession is Encouraging Best Practices

Contributed by
24 Sep 2019

THE US legal profession is currently undergoing what is probably one of the most significant shifts in how mental health and wellbeing are perceived; law firms, in-house legal teams and law schools are, as a result, starting to pay more attention than ever to ways in which good mental health can be maintained in a demanding and fast-paced industry.

For the first time in decades, the legal profession has taken a serious look at some of the damaging behaviours that are often too common among its members, and that inevitably lead to concerning levels of poor wellbeing. The key turning point was in 2017/18 when the American Bar Association (ABA) released the results of a landmark study conducted in partnership with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation to assess the levels of alcohol and drug use among lawyers, and the potential correlations with poor mental health including depression, anxiety and stress.

This move from the ABA is particularly significant as its 400,000 members make it one of the largest, and hence most influential, voluntary professional membership organisations in the world.

The survey, which was the first empirical study on this subject in the last 25 years, reached nearly 13,000 US lawyers across 15 states and found that “problems are far reaching and consistent.” Some of the key statistics include:

· 20.6% of respondents scored at levels of problematic drinking (compared to 6% in the general population in the US)

· 46% reported having experienced depression at some point of their career

· 11.5% of respondents reported suicidal thoughts at some point of their career

· 57% of respondents reporting problematic substance misuse were younger than 40 years old (32% were younger than 30, showing that in the US today younger lawyers are most at risk of substance abuse and mental health problems)

The survey found a strong correlation between problematic drinking and higher than average levels of depression, anxiety and stress. It also confirmed that lawyers have significant substance abuse and mental health problems that are above average compared both with other professionals and with the general population. Finally, the survey found that many lawyers are still not seeking the help they need, largely either because of the fear of repercussions on their careers or because of the stigma still associated with mental health problems.

Such results play a vital role in raising awareness of the problems legal professionals experience. They also force the profession to take a serious look at how elements of workplace culture – like long working hours, pressure to cumulate billable hours, and social activities often built around the consumption of alcohol – are having a detrimental impact on people’s wellbeing. This decline in wellbeing on an individual typically leads to reduced performance in the medium term, alongside longer-term consequences for their colleagues and the business as a whole. The business case for preserving a workforce’s wellbeing is clear.

The good news is that the ABA did not stop at the awareness raising: they used the results to build a practical response and promote a campaign to tackle these issues in a systemic way.

Bob Carlson, ABA President at the time of the campaign launch (2018), said that “culture change must be at the heart of any long-lasting intervention to improve health and wellbeing in law firms.” He also acknowledged that “it may not be easy and it will take time but it is a challenge that cannot be ignored.”

The ABA-backed campaign is tackling the stigma still associated with poor mental health, and, importantly, is encouraging lawyers to access available support, including the many lawyer-assistant programmes available across the US, which offer a confidential and safe space to discuss issues and concerns about health and wellbeing.

So far over 130 organisations, including many of the largest law firms, law schools and in-house teams have signed the ABA well-being pledge and have started to make significant progress towards creating a healthier and more supportive culture in workplaces. Among the signatories are big names like Allen & Overy, Barclays, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Clifford Chance, Clyde & Co, Dentons, Hogan Lovells, Linklaters, Reed Smith, and U.S. Bank, as well as many state universities.

Now, more than ever, organisations appear to be taking the wellbeing of their people very seriously, as shown, for example, by the unequivocal statement Clifford Chance added on its website as part of the section dealing with what the firm defines as ‘Our responsibilities’, which recognised the importance of wellbeing as a bedrock for ensuring business success. Of course, statements on their own are not enough to improve mental health and wellbeing: actions are needed. This is why the ABA campaign is complemented by a toolkit to help the US legal profession embed positive change and promote healthy behaviours.

The toolkit covers a range of areas in which firms and in-house teams ought to make significant improvements, ranging from building a culture of trust and an effective leadership, to promoting a manageable workload and a healthy work-life balance. The toolkit is available online and the authors have given consent for it to be freely used and adapted by employers and lawyers for non-commercial purposes. It contains useful definitions, a comprehensive list of wellbeing consultants, and 17 worksheets with practical tips and activities to improve people’s health and wellbeing, including titles like “How to Be Happier? Make it a Priority” and “Managers, Don’t Forget Your Own Well-Being.”

We asked the newly elected ABA President, Judy Perry Martinez, what difference she thought this campaign was making and what we could expect from her presidency in support of positive mental health in the US legal profession. President Perry Martinez told us:

“The American Bar Association has been a leader not only in raising awareness of the issue of lawyer wellbeing, but also in providing knowledge and tools. We have helped to equip bar associations, law firms, other legal employers, and law schools with resources to assist colleagues struggling with substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. Wellbeing is not a one-and-done initiative but an ongoing movement. The ABA will continue its efforts to remove the stigma of these challenges, offer support to save the lives of our colleagues, and make our profession healthier and stronger.”