In 2017, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being (Task Force), consisting of the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and a broad coalition of other organizations, published the most comprehensive report (Report) to date on the wellbeing of American lawyers. The Report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, relied on numerous empirical studies, two of the most notable being the recent ABAHazelden Betty Ford Foundation survey of nearly 13,000 currently practicing U.S. lawyers and the 2016 Survey of Law Student Well-Being, surveying over 3,300 law students from 15 law schools throughout the country. These studies revealed that many lawyers and law students struggle with anxiety, depression, and/or substance use issues.
Well-Being in the Legal Profession
The findings of these studies and the national media attention their publication generated, sparked the creation of the Task Force and its Report. The central question for the Task Force was how the profession can best address these health concerns in a collaborative, comprehensive, and sustainable way to meet the needs of all concerned.
The Report made clear that, although a disturbing portion of our legal profession has substance use and behavioral health challenges, the majority of lawyers and law students do not. It noted, however, “. . . that does not mean that they’re thriving. Many lawyers experience a ‘profound ambivalence’ about their work, and different sectors of the profession vary in their levels of satisfaction and well-being.” Well-being is thus more than “the absence of illness; it includes a positive state of wellness.” To be a good lawyer, the Report noted, one has to be a healthy lawyer, and the research suggests that “the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.” The Task Force thus undertook to address not only mental health and problematic substance use concerns, but also the overarching issue of lawyer well-being within the profession. How can lawyers experience well-being and actually thrive in their personal and professional lives?
The Task Force defined lawyer wellbeing as a continuous process whereby one
seeks to thrive in six primary areas of one’s life:
Emotional health – identifying and managing emotions in personal and professional
Occupational pursuits – cultivating personal satisfaction, growth, enrichment,
and financial stability;
Creative or intellectual endeavors – engaging in continuous learning and the pursuit of creative or intellectually challenging activities;
Spirituality – experiencing a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in all aspects of life;
Social connections – developing a sense of belonging and support with others important in one’s life; and
Physical health – striving for regular physical activity, proper diet, nutrition, sufficient sleep, and recovery from the use of unhealthy substances.
The Task Force’s Report makes over 40 recommendations, some general to all stakeholders within the legal community and some very specific to each individual stakeholder group. The Report is nothing less than a call to action. It seeks to encourage through collective action significant change in the culture of the legal profession. The stakeholder groups addressed include judges, regulators, legal employers, law schools, bar associations, professional liability carriers, and lawyer assistance programs.
Task Force Recommendations
To their credit, many of the stakeholders in Oregon are committed to lawyer well-being and have already begun implementing some of the Task Force’s recommendations.
However, there is always room for additional improvement when it comes to one of the most important issues for this and future generations of our legal community. Some of the general recommendations to all stakeholder groups include:
- Take action to minimize the stigma that is often attached to mental health and substance use disorders; encourage those with such conditions to seek help.
- Foster collegiality and respectful engagement throughout the profession; reduce chronic incivility that can foment a toxic culture that is counter to well-being.
- Promote diversity and inclusivity initiatives that encourage both individual and institutional well-being.
- Create meaningful mentoring and sponsorship programs, which research shows can aid well-being and career progress, particularly for women and diverse
- Guide and support the transition of older lawyers to, among other things, capitalize on the wealth of experience they can offer and, at the same time, reduce
risks sometimes faced by senior lawyers challenged by the demands of technically evolving professional environments.
- De-emphasize alcohol at social events, and provide a variety of alternative non-alcoholic beverages at such events.
- Utilize monitoring to support recovery from substance use disorders in environments where it can be supportive.
Some of the recommendations to specific stakeholder groups include:
- Conduct judicial well-being surveys.
- Provide well-being programming for judges and staff.
- Encourage judicial participation in the activities of lawyer assistance programs, such as volunteering as speakers, particularly when the judge is in recovery him/herself.
- Educate and inform the judiciary regarding signs and symptoms associated with substance use and behavior health conditions so they are better able to identify when a lawyer may be in need of assistance.
- Adopt regulatory objectives that prioritize lawyer well-being, such as expanding continuing education requirements to include well-being topics; require law schools to create well-being education as a criterion for ABA accreditation; more closely focus on conduct and behavior rather than diagnosis and treatment as character and fitness bar admission criteria so as to avoid stigmatizing mental and behavioral health conditions and treatment; educate and accurately inform law
students about bar admission criteria to reduce their fear that getting needed professional treatment will hinder their chances of bar admission.
- Adopt diversion programs and other alternatives to discipline for minor lawyer misconduct to encourage treatment for underlying substance use and mental health disorders.
- Add well-being-related questions to the multistate professional responsibility exam.
- In legal work environments, form active lawyer well-being committees; monitor for signs of work addiction and poor self-care in legal work; and actively combat social isolation and encourage interconnectivity.
- In law schools, create best practices for assisting law students experiencing psychological distress; provide training to law school faculty regarding student mental
- health and substance use disorders; and develop mental health and substance use disorder resources, including taking active steps to encourage help-seeking practices by students.
- Empower law students to help fellow students in need; facilitate a confidential recovery network for students; provide educational opportunities on wellbeing-related topics in law schools; and discourage alcohol-centered law-school-related events.
- Encourage local and state bar associations to sponsor quality CLE programming on well-being topics, and utilize the resources of state lawyer assistance programs when appropriate.
- Emphasize well-being in loss prevention programs, including being aware of the role of lawyer impairment in claims activity.
- Among lawyer assistance programs, encourage emphasis on confidentiality; high-quality well-being programming; and appropriate and stable funding for outreach, screening, counseling, professional staffing, and preventative education.
The Task Force Report “makes a compelling case that the legal profession is at a crossroads” and the time for action is now. It is premised on the belief that, through collective action by all of us, we have the capacity to create a better future for our nation’s lawyers. Improving lawyer well-being is a win-win for everyone: it is good for clients, good for business, good for the profession – and it is the right thing to do!
Douglas S. Querin, JD, LPC, CADC I
OAAP Attorney Counselor