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Stress, Drink, Leave: Warnings and Opportunities Around Lawyer Mental Health in 2021 and Beyond

August 01, 2021

Patrick R. Krill

Lawyer mental well-being With many legal professionals on the verge or in the process of returning to an office either full or part time, this is a pivotal moment that warrants pausing and reflecting on our mental health and personal well-being. It would be an understatement to say we have been through a lot over the last year and a half, with many of our minds and bodies enduring stresses that will not soon fade. In the legal profession specifically, data published earlier this year clearly demonstrate that reality, offering both warnings and opportunities for the road ahead.

In mid-May, a new study of lawyer mental health, substance use, and attrition that I co-authored was published online in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS-ONE. If you and others in your organization have not yet read the paper—entitled Stress, Drink, Leave: Gender-Specific Risk Factors for Mental Health Problems and Attrition Among Practicing Attorneys—I would strongly suggest that it is worth your time. This is especially true for employers who are seeking to build a successful return-to-office paradigm for the post-COVID era. I will address just a handful of our many useful findings here.

The study, part of a wide-ranging research project we conducted in collaboration with the California Lawyers Association and D.C. Bar, revealed alarming levels of mental health problems and hazardous drinking among practicing attorneys, findings which may not have come as a surprise to anyone who has been tracking the profession’s great mental health awakening in recent years. Even if we are not surprised, however, we should avoid resignation towards and acceptance of widespread problems whose effects ripple well outside of law. Clients, family members, society—they all lose when lawyers are unwell.

For women, who according to our study are experiencing higher levels of stress, depression, anxiety, and hazardous drinking than men, work-family conflict was the factor most predictive of thoughts about leaving the profession due specifically to mental health, burnout, or stress. Thoughts, by the way, which one in four women is having. Not to put too fine a point on it, but those numbers will not exactly help the profession achieve its longstanding gender diversity goals. Not now, not ever. (It is worth noting that work-family conflict was a significant stressor for men as well, albeit less so than for women.)

For purposes of charting a path forward around return to work, the implications of these findings may be obvious. As we state in our study, “a career in law should not be antagonistic to the full expression of a lawyer’s humanity, including their ability to undertake and navigate familial obligations should they so desire. Strategies and interventions aimed at alleviating work-family conflict would be wise pursuits for legal employers hoping to reduce unwanted turnover and increase the likelihood that their attorneys will be able to thrive across all dimensions of their lives.” If work-family conflict can be alleviated, even partially, by retaining more flexible policies around remote working post-pandemic, employers should be willing to explore those options with commitment and creativity.

Another opportunity for improving mental health that our data revealed pertains to a legal employer’s ability to influence the likelihood of hazardous drinking among their attorneys. Our study found that workplace attitudes and permissiveness towards alcohol significantly influence the likelihood of problematic drinking among attorneys. In fact, workplace permissiveness towards alcohol use was more predictive of risky drinking than both age and high levels of work overcommitment, a finding which clearly underscores the need for employers to be more conscious of the cultures and environments they are cultivating. Social and peer influences and pressure are well understood risk factors for problematic substance use regardless of the setting. In the legal profession, this is the first empirical evidence of how pronounced this connection can be.

Now that we have data demonstrating the link between workplace permissiveness towards alcohol and the likelihood of hazardous drinking, their ability to influence drinking behaviors will be critical for employers to understand. This is particularly true due to the increase in hazardous drinking that occurred during the pandemic.

Make no mistake, the workforce that legal employers sent home in early 2020 is not the same workforce they are in the process of welcoming back to the office. This is true in multiple ways, some very tangible and some more philosophical. On the tangible side, a meaningful number of lawyers will emerge from the COVID-era experience with a notably less healthy relationship with substances. Our data revealed that 35% of women and 29% of men reported that their drinking has increased during the pandemic. Perhaps the more alarming fact, however, is that the nature of that increased use appears to be problematic for many.

Men who reported an increase in drinking during the pandemic were almost four times more likely to engage in risky drinking. Women who reported an increase in drinking during the pandemic were seven times more likely to drink riskily. As we note in the study, these inauspicious findings may signal the early manifestation of what will ultimately prove to be a long-term problem for some lawyers.

Overall, my prediction is that the employers who are most successful at navigating a return to work and the post-COVID era will be those who fully acknowledge that the composite mental health profile of their workforce has changed. Additionally, they must be willing and prepared to offer support and accommodations that are reflective of that change. Employers who fail to acknowledge or understand the altered behavioral health landscape now present before them will be caught flat-footed. They will likely experience higher levels of workplace mental health crises, problematic behavior, and attrition, all coupled with lower levels of job satisfaction and thriving among their workforces. As the world emerges from the COVID-era, legal employers are confronted with both warnings and opportunities around lawyer mental health. How they respond could shape their organization’s trajectory for years to come.

About the Author Patrick Krill

Patrick Krill is an attorney, licensed and board-certified alcohol and drug counselor, author, researcher, and advocate who has spearheaded numerous groundbreaking efforts to improve mental health in the legal profession. Recognized globally as a leading authority in the field, he is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm exclusively for the legal profession. In that role, he serves as a trusted advisor to large law firms and corporate legal departments throughout North America and Europe, working to help them protect and improve the health and well-being of their attorneys and staff.