Wellness is not an adjective often used to describe the legal community. Studies show that mental, emotional, and physical health issues have become more common among legal professionals as they struggle to deal with the demands of their chosen careers.
In 2019, The ABA and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation conducted a national study on attorney substance abuse disorders. The project, which included 15,000 attorneys from 19 states, highlighted some shocking statistics among licensed, employed attorneys:
In comparison to other professions, lawyers are reportedly three times more likely to suffer from depression, according to the American Psychological Association. Additionally, the legal industry has the 11th-highest incidence of suicide among professions.
Legal professionals typically deal with numerous demands on any given day. The myriad of cases, clients, deadlines, and expectations seemingly never end.
When working in a stressful law firm environment, some attorneys feel they need to sacrifice their own self-care in order to succeed in their professions. This decision can have detrimental effects on legal professionals, potentially leading to mental health challenges and substance abuse.
The entire legal industry is notorious for unhealthy work habits. It’s no secret that attorneys commonly clock 70-to-80-hour work weeks and these practices may extend to operations and support professionals like legal secretaries and paralegals. Working this many hours leaves little room for personal time, family, physical activity, or even sleeping. It also contributes to a pattern of poor eating choices and elevated stress levels.
Studies show that the stress of working too many hours raises cortisone levels within the body, increasing the risk of stroke, diabetes, and cancer. According to a study done by The University College London, the risk of heart disease increases by 67% for people who work long hours compared to people who work a standard eight-hour day.
Another report, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, suggests that long work hours can lead to long-term brain damage or dementia. Researchers found that middle-aged workers who clock more than 55 hours a week develop diminished mental skills at a higher rate. These deficiencies show up as short-term memory loss and the reduced ability to recall words when compared to those working a standard 40-hour week.
The ABA has started to recognize how problematic the lack of attention to individual wellness has become. In 2017, the ABA House of Delegates approved Resolution 106 which amended the ABA Model Rule for Continuing Legal Education (CLE) to include at least one hour of mental health and substance abuse credit every three years. Several states have followed suit with mandatory mental health or substance abuse CLE courses.
Wellness is not a one-size-fits-all concept because different people need different strategies to help them feel healthy and at their best. Wellness includes an improved work-life balance, better stress management, and a positive mindset that prioritizes self-care. Unfortunately, many law firm environments make it difficult for legal professionals to achieve a level of wellness. Demands for billable hours coupled with demands from numerous clients can make a work-life balance impossible.
For the individual, the path to wellness is a very personal journey. You may have to practice different strategies before finding a routine that builds positive habits within your life. There is no magic pill or secret recipe. Wellness requires a holistic approach that touches various aspects of your life to craft a more sustainable and healthy work-life balance. This may include some of the following elements:
Many law firms fail to classify employee well-being as integral to the firm’s existence, but the legal industry has a responsibility to promote wellness among its members and employees. Lack of transparency about wellness promotes the stigma that exists around attorney mental health. Firms are uniquely situated to address these issues by making wellness an aspect of their overall firm culture.
Wellness policies have become a common expectation among job seekers, so firms can better situate themselves competitively to attract new talent with these policies in place. They also promote a more enjoyable workplace, which can improve the firm culture.
Law firms need policies in place that include some of the following provisions: