Posted by: johnocunningham | March 8, 2016

More Communication Needed on Lawyer Health Issues

The Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association released a landmark study on February 3, 2016 about mental health concerns and substance abuse in the legal profession.

As demonstrated by the study, the profession has a growing problem, which deserves more attention. In light of the study’s findings, law firms may want to encourage more sensitive and effective communications about coping with the pressures of the profession, and they might consider greater and more effective use of lawyer/employee assistance programs.

Here are just some of the findings that merit attention:

  • 28 percent of licensed working attorneys admit to struggling with some level of depression (and 46 percent have suffered depression episodes during their career);
  • 21 percent admit to problem drinking (but the figure is 23 percent in law firms, and it is a whopping 31 percent for junior associates);
  • 19 percent struggle with anxiety issues, with 16 percent using sedatives, sleep medications or other prescription drugs to deal with anxiety;
  • 11 percent have had suicidal thoughts during their legal career, and 8 percent have suffered panic attacks or panic disorders.

The study’s authors noted that lawyers are entrusted with high stakes matters by their clients, who also place very high expectations on them. Since many of those matters are confidential, it is hard or impossible for lawyers to talk to an understanding friend or companion about their professional challenges. The authors also noted that lawyers often work in “harshly judgmental and highly competitive environments,” such as the traditional law firm pyramid structures that create an “up or out” mentality and allow for very few partners to be selected from many associates.

As one of the authors noted, younger lawyers are especially stressed because they are dealing with record amounts of student loan debt and a shrinking number of job opportunities and partnerships at firms.

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