Lawyer Wellness and Mental Health: Changing the Conversation

image of weights, a mind, and sleep

To many in the legal profession, the term “lawyer wellness” may seem like a contradiction. The demanding hours and stressful work environments at many law firms often have detrimental effects on legal professionals, who struggle to manage high-levels of stress and find time for self-care. Mental health issues among lawyers are notoriously prevalent, as are substance abuse and addiction.

For these reasons, lawyer wellness, also referred to as legal wellness or lawyer well-being, needs to be an essential consideration for all law firms, law schools, bar associations, and legal professionals. And although there are many “wellness” resources and programs available online, many do not focus specifically on the challenges facing the legal industry, nor do most of the available resources take a bird’s-eye view of the legal wellness landscape.

This post will provide a broad overview of all things lawyer wellness and mental health in 2019.

Why lawyer wellness matters

The legal industry is, to put it bluntly, unwell. The stats speak for themselves:

As a 2016 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs shows, “21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety.”

A 2014 article by the ABA notes that “at least 25 percent of attorneys who face formal disciplinary charges from their state bar are identified as suffering from addiction or other mental illness,” and that substance abuse plays a role in “60 percent of all disciplinary cases … 60 percent of all malpractice claims and 85 percent of all trust fund violation cases.”

In our 2018 Legal Trends Report, we found that 75% of lawyers report frequently or always working outside of regular business hours, and that 39% of lawyers say these long hours negatively affect their personal lives.

Additionally, according to the Dave Nee Foundation, new law school students exhibit rates of depression around 8-9%—but after three years in law school, 40% of students are depressed.

And, lawyers are one of the top five professions for highest suicide rate.

To combat these troubling statistics, legal professionals need to adopt new practices aimed at improving work-life balance, reducing stress, and increasing overall well-being.

But this goes beyond simple self-help strategies; this is about an industry-wide shift. And it starts with gaining an understanding of what legal wellness is—and isn’t.

Defining lawyer wellness

A quick scan of Google—or the self-help section of your local library—will give you an overabundance of information related to wellness and mental health. This can make it hard to sift through which information has value, especially for members of the legal profession who aren’t very familiar with these topics.

Here’s how you can tell which wellness advice is worth your time.

What lawyer well-being is

In its purest form, wellness involves doing whatever you need to do to feel better and be healthier on a day-to-day basis. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving a general sense of well-being and overall health, and anyone who claims otherwise is selling you something.

For our purposes, lawyer well-being incorporates anything that:

  • Improves your work-life balance
  • Helps you manage stress better
  • Fosters a more positive mindset
  • Promotes habits of consistent self-care

These barometers of wellness apply to almost anyone, but they are specifically important for legal professionals because of the alarming statistics mentioned at the beginning of this article. Many lawyers work in environments that make wellness difficult to achieve—it can be hard to manage stress, keep a positive mindset, and care for yourself when, for example, you’re a bankruptcy attorney helping clients through the most difficult times of their lives while working 60-80 hours per week and trying to take care of your kids.

Effective lawyer wellness strategies help you navigate work and life complexities in a healthier way.

What lawyer well-being isn’t

Legal wellness is not:

  • Drinking kale smoothies
  • Keeping a yoga mat under your desk
  • Swearing off alcohol forever
  • Re-reading your copy of The Power of Now until its pages start fraying

Of course, wellness CAN mean doing those things—for many people, consuming superfoods, practicing yoga, cutting down on alcohol, and reading spiritual books is a great path towards wellness. But for others, the recipe for success looks far different.

You may have to try a number of different strategies and practices until you find the ones you like. If yoga isn’t your thing, maybe kickboxing is.

What matters is discovering the path that works for YOU. Not a fad or a quick fix, but a practical, multi-tooled approach that helps you grow over time.

Key legal wellness terms

Our approach isn’t to look at lawyer wellness from a happy-go-lucky perspective; rather, we try to think in terms of the real issues in legal professionals’ lives, and what well-being means within that context.

Under that mindset, here are some concepts and terms worth exploring.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness, awareness, presence, stillness, meditation—all these words indicate more or less the same idea: By learning to consistently calm your mind, relax your body, and center your attention, you can become better at living in the present moment.

For legal professionals, mindfulness can be an especially powerful tool because you can use it to break the routine of tiring, stressful days. Mindfulness won’t make the difficult situations in your job and life disappear, but it will give you the space to step back, analyze, and handle those situations more effectively.

Mental illness

There is a difference between wellness resources and programs for people who want to have a better sense of balance in their lives, and people who for one reason or another need professional help.

The term “mental illness” covers a broad range of conditions, from depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and substance abuse and addiction.

For legal professionals with mental illness, normal wellness practices on their own are likely not enough. If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of a mental disorder or substance dependency, seeking professional medical help is the right thing to do.

Approaches to lawyer wellness

The goal with wellness is to figure out a set of habit-building practices you can implement in your own life—things that work for you.

Your approach to wellness should be a holistic one. That is to say, wellness isn’t about making one giant change and suddenly transforming your life—it’s about continually working to improve a number of different aspects of your life, so you can build a more sustainable lifestyle and career.

And while there is no one wellness strategy that works for all legal professionals, most worthwhile wellness strategies will incorporate the following elements:

Self-reflection

Whether it’s meditation, yoga, or simply sitting down for a few minutes each day or week to take a break and collect your thoughts, checking in with yourself to see how you’re thinking—how you’re feeling, how you’re doing—is an invaluable practice for legal professionals.

As Jeena Cho, author of The Anxious Lawyer, says, “Every lawyer should be practicing mindfulness.”

One of our favorite strategies, for those newer to mindfulness practice, is to download an app like Headspace or Calm. These apps have guided meditations and other helpful resources.

Again, this isn’t about chanting “Om” in a circle with incense burning. If that’s your thing, by all means go for it, but if that’s not your thing, don’t worry. What matters here is creating a routine habit of pausing during your day, taking some deep breaths, and being aware of your own inner state at that moment. It sounds simple, but just taking a pause every day can make quite an impact over time.

Nutrition

Because legal professionals are so busy and may often have little time to cook meals at home, eating healthy can be a major challenge.

We’re not here to tell you what diet works for you—what we are here to say is that taking stock of your eating habits and identifying proactive strategies for improvement can help you create the kinds of lasting habits that are needed to change your eating patterns.

If you were to set healthy eating goals for yourself, what would they be? What type of dietary changes do you think you could realistically implement—and stick to? What kinds of support networks and incentives can you create so that you stay motivated and on-target? What would happen if you changed the way you think about food?

Re-imagining nutrition in this way can help you eat healthier. To change up your eating habits, working with a nutritionist, subscribing to a meal delivery service, and learning to meal prep can all be helpful strategies. Learning about what kinds of foods are healthiest, and which foods and eating habits don’t work for you, is also important.

Exercise and personal care

Any list of wellness practices for lawyers needs to include physical activity—and rest. Because everybody needs both.

As for what constitutes rest and exercise for you, the trick, once more, is to find activities that you enjoy (or at least don’t hate) doing. Things you can do for weeks, months, years without getting bored or giving up.

“Exercise,” in this context, could be as simple as taking a 30-minute walk three-to-five times a week—or it could mean running a marathon.

“Rest” or “self-care” could mean visiting a massage therapist regularly, sleeping in one day each weekend, stretching for five minutes in between client calls, or taking more vacation time than you’re used to.

What you’re looking for is that sweet spot where your body feels good, you have energy each day, and you’re breaking up the sedentary lifestyle of long office hours.

The most important thing here is to be honest with yourself. Are your current exercise and rest strategies working for you, or would you feel better if you made some improvements? This is where the holistic approach to wellness comes together—if you’re engaging in consistent self-reflection, you’ll be able to determine whether your exercise and self-care routines are in need of an upgrade.

Mental health

This gets its own category because it really is different than “routine” wellness. Mental health issues are serious, they require professional medical attention, and they are extremely prevalent among legal professionals.

They may not teach you about this in law school—but they should.

Invulnerability and stigma

One of the main reasons that mental illness and substance abuse persist at such high levels in the legal community is because legal professionals don’t feel they can talk openly about these topics.

As Brian Cuban, author of The Addicted Lawyer, puts it, “The issue isn’t so much ‘why lawyers get addicted’—lawyers are just as likely to experience the environmental issues that trigger addiction as anyone else. The question is ‘why are lawyers so afraid of seeking help?’”

The answer is: for a lot of reasons. Among them are long-held beliefs that lawyers should just “suck it up,” that reaching out for help shows weakness, that asking for help could be detrimental to one’s career, and so on.

This is why it’s vital to change the industry-wide conversation around wellness and mental health—legal professionals deserve to feel more comfortable coming forward about these issues, and legal organizations should constantly be looking for better ways to care for their constituents’ well-being.

Three steps to improve mental wellness

Allison Wolf and Terry DeMeo, two expert legal coaches, have wise advice for legal professionals struggling with their mental well-being.

“What’s important to know is that in many cases, you are not helpless,” they write, “and indeed mental wellness is something you can influence and change for the better.”

For improving mental wellness, here are three of Allison and Terry’s recommended steps to take:

  1. Talk to someone you trust about the difficult things you’re experiencing, so you can feel that you’re not on your own.
  2. Learn to recognize, in the moment, when you’re getting caught up in speculative, negative thoughts—and how to interrupt those thoughts and analyze them from an impartial standpoint.
  3. Execute tasks one at a time instead of trying to do multiple things at once, because studies show that people actually function better when they focus their attention on one action instead of multi-tasking.

For more detailed insight, read the full article, 5 Simple Steps Every Lawyer Can Take to Improve Mental Wellness.

Ways to get help

There are many resources available to legal professionals who are dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, or addiction. Among them are:

Conclusion

As much as legal wellness is about individuals finding ways to create more overall well-being in their lives, on a broader scale this is about the legal industry as a whole re-thinking and re-creating the way law schools, law firms, and legal associations treat lawyer well-being.

To truly change the stigma towards mental illness and substance abuse, and to prevent burnout and the formation of toxic work environments, we have a long way to go.

On a personal level, you can start making wellness a priority by:

  • Implementing mindfulness practice as part of your daily or weekly routine.
  • Studying your personal nutrition habits and eating food that makes you feel energized.
  • Committing to give your body the regular exercise, rest, and care it needs.
  • Experimenting with various wellness strategies and practices to see what works for you.
  • Reaching out for professional help if you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness or substance abuse.

On an industry-wide level, we can make a difference by encouraging open and honest conversations about wellness within the legal industry.

Let’s get to work.

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