Over the past twenty years of living with depression, I’ve witnessed an evolution in how the legal profession sees mental health and well-being and its role and responsibility to address it not as a luxury but as a critical priority.
My perspective on this topic is the result of great personal pain. Two decades ago, while I was the managing partner at my law firm, life went into freefall for me. At first, the descent was gradual and then, over months, accelerated. Sadness became my constant companion despite attempts to mitigate it with therapy. Sleep became fragmented, and I felt bone-weary fatigue throughout my days and nights. My ability to concentrate and be productive on the job began to disintegrate slowly. I feared the consequences of what would happen to me if this came into the light of day. I hid it as long as I could—until I couldn’t anymore.
At my doctor’s recommendation, I took a three-month medical leave from my job. This time off was profoundly lonely. I didn’t know any lawyers with depression, let alone anyone with major depression. After I disclosed it, the few who cared about me were compassionate and understanding. Those who didn’t understand or care were indifferent or made snarky, stigmatizing remarks. The invites to lunch stopped coming. Where before folks at the firm would pop into my office to chat or joke, they now kept walking past my door. And that hurt. A lot.
My depression was not “cured” after returning from the hiatus. However, it’s of a much milder variety to this day. I’ve learned to successfully manage my illness and live a fulfilling and productive personal and professional life. And for this, I am deeply grateful. My life’s work now is to educate our profession on how we can grow into a healthier one, both individually and collectively.
I now know I was never the only one with a mental health problem. Over the past five years, numerous surveys have confirmed what I and others suspected: anxiety, burnout, depression, and problems with alcohol are rampant throughout the legal profession. Compared to the general population, the magnitude of lawyer distress is deeply troubling.
In a confidential ABA survey of 13,000 lawyers, twenty-eight percent reported they had experienced a problem with depression within the past twelve months, a rate four times that found in the general population. Yet, given this sobering fact, there’s good cause to feel optimistic about the profession’s future.
Today, there is nothing short of a revolution in the law at all levels regarding mental health.
Where before there had been only stigma and silence, there’s now an airing out of the mental health problems that afflict law students and attorneys, both in the U.S. and globally. One good result of this is an honest dialogue about the issues and what factors give rise to them. Now that we know the causes, our attention must turn to what concrete steps firms can take to create a better workplace culture that supports lawyer well-being and mental health.
For steps to be taken in a positive direction, there must be buy-in from law firm leadership. Until leaders figure out and embrace the critical role they must play in this effort, poor mental health will continue to haunt their lawyers. It is misguided to see it otherwise because ignoring their responsibility to solve the problem only serves to hurt the most crucial asset firms have: their attorney workforce.
What pragmatic steps can leaders take?
First, they need to take stock of the mental health of their workplace as it currently stands. What are the stressors and causes? They can then figure out where they want to move the firm in the future. One part of this reflection must include the question: What does our firm really value when it comes to this issue? Once answered, leaders can then map out a strategy to act on those values. Without such a plan, firms are rudderless and will continue to flounder.
Firms need to form a law firm well-being committee to drive incremental, positive change.
The formation of a law firm well-being committee is one of the specific recommendations of the ABA Task Force. Without an infrastructure to propel and implement well-being solutions, nothing changes. Not only must associates have a seat at the table, but partners with the gravitas and power to drive change. Given the magnitude of the problem, this group should meet monthly and plot a direction for the calendar year on what specific steps it will take. There is no shortage of proposed solutions out there, and what’s lacking is a bold vision and the courage of leaders to make it happen at their firms. More and more, those at the top are embracing the transformative role they can play, and signs are everywhere that more law firm leaders are joining their ranks.
Leaders have to recognize that changing their firm’s culture is the right thing to do; and it’s good business.
Poor mental health at firms hurts the bottom line, and it shows up in recruitment and retention.
Younger associates and those in law schools care a lot about mental health, and some of this is generational. They want and expect firms to take this issue seriously. Given a choice of potential firms to work for, they go to those that haven’t turned a deaf ear to the problem.
When it comes to retention, lawyers don’t want to stay at firms that make them unhappy, and they want to leave firms that make them sick. Essentially, lawyers get sick and tired of being sick and tired, and they conclude it isn’t worth it. When lawyers leave, they take their talents and books of business with them, and firms lose the investment they’ve made in these people. After their departure, they must now recruit new lawyers to handle the workload and drum up business, which takes time and money. In addition, firms may not be able to keep the clients a lawyer takes with them.
Another cost of depression in the workplace is the negative impact on lawyer productivity. This downturn is so because the illness compromises the part of the brain involved in the ability to concentrate and muster the energy to get things done. Not surprisingly, depression is implicated in over 70% of these matters in malpractice and grievance cases.
You can’t cut corners on giving lawyers the time needed to take care of their mental health.
Many big firms have recently recorded record profits, and this is driven by, amongst other things, the sheer number of hours attorneys must bill out.
The demand for unreasonably high billable hours is one of the biggest impediments to lawyer well-being. How can we realistically expect them to be healthy and thrive if firms do not give their attorneys the necessary time away from their work?
We don’t have to be rocket scientists to know some things that can help lawyers feel better if given the time: exercise, therapy, time off to rest and recharge, and more time with their families. Without the time off to do these things, the status quo of grueling work hours and correspondingly poor mental health will continue to exist, if not spiral upward.
Lawyers feel they’re always at the beck and call of their bosses and clients. Many lawyers don’t take vacations. They fear the negative consequences that might follow: “Will this be counted against me when I’m up for partnership?” they ask themselves. So, they grind away. And this unremitting pressure to perform hurts their mental health.
Firms must build into their well-being strategy a clear message: “We value your mental health, and we want you to have time off to take care of yourself.” Firms need policies and procedures to make this happen. But to demonstrate how serious they are about this, leaders need to practice what they preach. They need to lead more balanced lives and take time away from the firm. We no longer need to see lawyers who labor to exhaustion as deserving of a badge of honor.
Firm managers need to see the mental health crisis as a problem for those they lead and for themselves.
One of the saddest experiences I’ve ever had illustrates this point. A few years back, a partner at a big firm contacted me. I did not know him, and he wanted to stop by my office to talk. He told me he was suffering from depression. He related that he’d only taken ten days off in the past five years.
He was regularly sleeping at the hotel near the firm to continue working late into the night at the firm. “Can you give me the name of a good psychiatrist?,” he said sheepishly. “It’s not that simple,” I told him. Not only did he probably need medication, but also a therapist and other support to get better. In a quaking voice with tears rolling down his face, he said: “Dan, it’s too late for me. I just want you to give me the name of a doctor so I can get on meds.” I gave him that name. And I never heard from him again.
It’s not too late for firm leaders to take bold actions so that this not only doesn’t happen to their associates but to them, too. Please make no mistake; prioritizing mental health and well-being is not merely an option for firms. It’s a necessity to drive change now and into the future. A byproduct of this action will be morale-raising when lawyers witness the firm doing something about this problem. When people feel heard, they feel better. They sense hope in the air. And we all need that.
About the Author
Daniel T. Lukasik, Esq.
Dan Lukasik has been a lawyer for over thirty years and is the current director of the Judicial Wellness Program for the New York State Office of Court Administration. Over the past fifteen years, he has lectured on the mental health and well-being of the legal profession at law firms, CLE conferences, and law schools, including Harvard and Yale. News about his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and many other national and international media outlets. Over ten years ago, Dan launched the website lawyerswithdepression.com, the first website of its kind in the nation, over a decade ago to help those in the legal profession learn about and cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. He still blogs there about working with depression and trying to live a meaningful and good life.