Colorado Supreme Court
Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel
Promoting Professionalism. Protecting the Public.
Moving the Meter on Lawyer Well-Being
Task Force believes small, incremental changes will be key to success
By Jonathan White
The lawyer well-being wake-up calls keep coming. The first happened in February 2016. That month, the Journal of Addiction Medicine disclosed the results of a nationwide survey of nearly 13,000 practicing lawyers on issues of mental health and substance use. Sponsored by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (ABA CoLAP) and the Hazelden/Betty Ford Foundation, the study found that between 21 and 36 percent of lawyers qualified as problem drinkers. 28 percent of those polled in the same study reported struggling with varying degrees of depression. Nearly a quarter reported regular stress. 11.5 percent reported having a suicidal ideation at some point in their professional life. Another startling figure to emerge from the study was that of lawyers surveyed under the age of 30, 32 percent could be considered problem drinkers based on World Health Organization guidelines for alcohol misuse.
Another wake-up call came later last year. In the fall of 2016, the Journal of Legal Education published “Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns.” The survey results were equally concerning. The law student survey polled students at 15 law schools nationwide and found that of the students willing to respond, 53 percent reported drinking to the point of inebriation in the past thirty days. 43 percent binge-drank in the past two weeks. This compared to 39 percent of graduate students reporting drinking to the point of inebriation in the past thirty days, and 36 percent reporting binge drinking in the past two weeks. In terms of mental health, thirty-seven percent of the law students surveyed screened positive for anxiety, compared to an average of fifteen percent for other graduate students.
Both surveys identified two common barriers to treatment: fear of stigma from peers and colleagues as well as other negative professional consequences, such as denial of bar admission.
Meanwhile, in July, an article appeared in The New York Times titled “The Lawyer, the Addict,” written by the ex-wife of a Silicon Valley lawyer. That lawyer died of a drug overdose in June 2015. The article details the months and years leading up to this lawyer’s death. It discussed many never-acted upon clues that his undiagnosed, untreated, and unacknowledged drug addiction was catching up to him. The article mentions the lawyer’s state of “heavy stress” and the reluctance of the legal profession to acknowledge addictions. It suggests that institutional change is necessary, particularly at the law firm level.
Last August, leaders from the National Organization of Bar Counsel, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, and ABA CoLAP decided that it was time to do something about these stark trends. The wake-up calls required action, and they created the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being to tackle the lawyer well-being crisis. Attorney Regulation Counsel Jim Coyle agreed to helm and co-chair the task force. Bree Buchanan, Director of the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, joined Mr. Coyle. Through their leadership, a task force comprised of sixteen leaders from the three organizations mentioned above and a half-dozen other organizations, including the Conference of Chief Justices and the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility, wrote a report with 44 specific recommendations to improve well-being throughout the practice. The report, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” was released August 14, 2017, and its recommendations have been endorsed by the ABA House of Delegates and the Conference of Chief Justices.
Central themes that unite the 44 recommendations include reducing and eliminating the stigma associated with seeking help and acknowledging one has a problem. The surveys of lawyers and law students found stigma to be an entrenched barrier to help. Another common theme is emphasizing that well-being is part-and-parcel of a lawyer’s duty of competence enshrined in Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1. The authors recommend formalizing this connection with a comment to the Rule to formalize the interrelationship between well-being and professionalism. The report also recommends enhanced educational programming on well-being issues, be it at 1L orientation, in law firms, or as part of CLE programs offered by bar associations. It encourages more partnerships between bar associations, courts, law schools, and regulators and lawyer assistance programs to develop such programming.
An additional central theme is that all lawyers have a role to play in reducing the toxicity in the profession. The report acknowledges that change is incremental, but that in order for broad-scale change to happen, every lawyer has a role to play in changing the tone of the profession. The authors wrote: “[t]hough our profession prioritizes individualism and self-sufficiency, we all contribute to, and are affected by, the collective legal culture. Whether that culture is toxic or sustaining is up to us.”
There may be a tendency to think that publicizing the availability of resources like lawyers assistance programs or setting up a law firm well-being committee is someone else’s task. Some may think that the simple fact that excellent resources like the Colorado Lawyers’ Assistance Program are available means that the problem is “solved.” Lawyers may say “I’m too busy to help” or think “I don’t have a problem, so the issue does not affect me.” However, if a third of lawyers under thirty show signs of problematic drinking, and if nearly thirty percent of us struggle with depression, the extent of the problem is too great to either ignore, see as someone else’s burden, or some other committee or human resource professional’s focus.
Accordingly, take a moment to think about how you can promote your well-being and that of those around you. The report explains that well-being means more than physical health. It means achieving satisfaction in multiple aspects of one’s life through social networks, occupational pursuits, having intellectual challenges, maintaining physical and emotional health, and having a sense of purpose. Accordingly, prioritizing well-being does not mean you have to go out and start a well-being committee, or run a 5K tomorrow – though those certainly can help. Simple steps such as establishing a connection with another person in your office or a colleague practicing in the same area of law promotes camaraderie. A sense of connectedness goes a long way towards supporting well-being. Making sure you get enough sleep tonight improves your own health. Clients, support staff, and opposing counsel may be grateful tomorrow. If you mentor a law student, talk to them about well-being issues and what they are doing to stay sane. Get involved in a community service organization; take a pro bono case. These are the small, incremental changes that the task force believes can peel back the stress and toxicity pervasive in the profession. They are ones that every one of us has the power to do and do now. We are all responsible for addressing this well-being problem. What can you do to move the needle?
To review the full report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, "The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change," click here:https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportRevFINAL.pdf.
Jonathan White is a Staff Attorney in the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel.
 P. R. Krill, R. Johnson, & L. Albert, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 J. Addiction Med. 46 (2016).
 Id. at 48-49.
 Id. at 46, 51.
 Id. at 50.
 Id. at 51.
 J. M. Organ, D. Jaffe, & K. Bender, Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns, 66 J. Legal Educ. 116 (2016).
 Id. at 117, 129.
 Id. at 129.
 Id. at 142; Krill, Johnson, & Albert, supra note 1, at 50.
 Eilene Zimmerman, The Lawyer, the Addict, N.Y. Times, July 15, 2017, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/15/business/lawyers-addiction-mental-health.html?ref=business