By Jessie Spressart
For Mental Health Awareness Month, we are celebrating the progress made in the legal industry regarding lawyer and legal professional mental health and well-being. Over two hundred firms and law schools are signatories of the American Bar Association's (ABA) Well-Being Pledge, with more organizations waiting in the wings. It is encouraging to see the increased commitment of firms with new positions and departments created to focus intently on attorney and staff well-being. Taking a moment to recognize how far we have come is also a reminder that there is still a long way to go.
Our industry's well-being is challenged by many factors. Anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicidal ideation occur at higher rates among lawyers than the general population. A recent study by Patrick Krill and his colleagues shows that isolation, in addition to high levels of stress and workloads, leads to a higher risk of suicidal ideation among lawyers (see also his recent Bulletin+ article, "Cracking the Code on Well-Being in Law"). The issue of loneliness is not unique to the legal industry; however, its adverse effects are compounded when we contemplate the high levels of depression, anxiety and substance use prevalent among lawyers.
While many might believe hybrid work is the culprit for these issues of isolation and loneliness, it is only one factor. These problems are not new challenges for lawyers and law students. A casual search of scholarly literature and news articles turns up results going back many years that talk about law practice as the "loneliest profession" and the negative impact of social isolation on law students. Lack of social connection increases the risk of depression and anxiety. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified levels of social seclusion. We see the harmful effects on law school students' mental health, young attorneys at firms and legal organizations, and more experienced lawyers and legal professionals.
The negative impacts of social isolation and loneliness are not unique to lawyers and law students. The Surgeon General's office has released an advisory that sounds the alarm on what they call the "epidemic of loneliness." Americans are more lonely and socially disconnected than ever, and it is contributing to a decline in our mental health and well-being. In his introduction to the advisory, the Surgeon General tells us that "the mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day." This serious concern paired with the evidence that lawyers and law students are more gravely affected by outcomes of disconnection, is a clear signal that we must work to combat social isolation and loneliness in our firms and schools.
We know that work is an important social determinant of health. We spend so many hours each day (billable and otherwise) working, thinking about work, trying not to think about work, and feeling bad about not working enough, that often we can't extract the workplace from discussions and actions to improve the mental health and well-being challenges we face. Yet there is still too much emphasis placed on individual change when these challenges arise and not enough on what the workplace can do to mitigate them.
Fortunately, we already have the keys to foster social connection, which is the antidote to the concerning trend of disconnection and isolation. The Surgeon General's advisory sheds light on what workplaces can do to encourage social interactions. The advisory's pointers for workplaces include the following:
The Surgeon General's Office has also provided a framework to support mental health in workplaces, including law firms and law schools, in its Workplace Mental Health & Well Being document released in late 2022. The framework recommends systemic changes that organizations should implement to support the mental health of their people, and they have stressed the importance of managers and those in managerial roles in supporting mental health at work. In an environment where the reporting structure is not always clear, we can widen the "managerial" scope to include anyone who has a tangential interest in others' well-being, including firm leadership and management, team and practice group leaders, those in charge of work allocation and supervision, mentors, academic advisors and career offices.
The question is how do we educate and empower people in these roles to connect and engage with each other, especially when there are signs of struggle with a mental health challenge? Here are four areas to focus our efforts:
Psychological Safety. While many professional development, talent management, HR and DEIB professionals are familiar with the term and understand the importance of creating safe spaces for everyone, it is not widely taught, understood or expected in legal organizations. We can and must do better.
Mental Health Awareness Training. Curricula like Mental Health First Aid and other training designed to help people notice and support those whose mental health is deteriorating are crucial. Training people to be aware of warning signs and take action when discovered are the first steps. Early intervention in mental health struggles is a key predictor of recovery. (NALP is pleased to have trained over 80 — and counting! — law firm and law school professionals in Mental Health First Aid since 2021.)
Diversity, Inclusion, Equity, and Belonging Initiatives. Cultures that promote belonging can also be forces against bias, discrimination and exclusion. Spaces that build connection and community cultivate trusted relationships and foster collaboration and teamwork, forming the foundation to develop strong and successful client relationships.
Emotional Agility and Resilience Training. The ability to acknowledge and manage thoughts and feelings and the skill of recovering from setbacks when they occur is essential to many aspects of an individual's work. From being able to not overreact in volatile situations to acknowledging feelings of being overwhelmed with heavy workloads, to knowing when to seek help, or even prioritizing tasks for a workday, emotional agility and resilience are important skills that can be taught on their own or integrated into more substantive and skills-based training.
With the forward movement and focus on well-being in firms and law schools, organizations can implement these recommendations. Indeed, many organizations are already making progress in these areas. As we connect the dots between social disconnection and the mental health issues that endure in the industry, we must be intentional about infusing connectedness, belonging and care for each other into all aspects of the work of our firms and schools.
Jessie Spressart ([email protected]) is the founder and managing director of Optia Consulting. Jessie's coaching and consulting practice focuses on mindset, management skills, and mental health for attorneys and business professionals in the legal industry.