well-being in the legal profession

Currently, well-being is not part of the legal profession’s DNA like the billable hour, high workloads, professional advancement, and profits are.

But what if it did not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition? What if lawyers did not have to sacrifice their well-being at the cost of being an effective attorney?

I will ask Patrick Krill and Bree Buchanan of Krill Strategies, two global leaders in the study of attorney mental health and well-being, these questions at the Commission on Professionalism’s annual Future Is Now: Legal Services conference, which will be held virtually on Thursday, April 18, 2024.

There is still time to register! You can earn four hours of CLE for attending, including one hour of diversity and inclusion CLE and one hour of mental health and substance abuse CLE.

Troubling lawyer well-being data

Krill and Buchanan have dedicated much of their careers to uncovering the data that lies behind the stories of chronic anxiety and stress that are part of the legal profession.

Krill was part of a pivotal 2016 study from the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation that explored the prevalence of substance abuse and mental health among attorneys.

In the survey of 13,000 practicing lawyers, between 21% and 36% qualified as problem drinkers, and roughly 28%, 23%, and 19% said they were struggling with some level of depression, stress, and anxiety, respectively.

COVID-19 only exasperated the issue. In research Krill conducted during the pandemic, 35% of women lawyers and 29% of male lawyers reported an increase in their drinking, which became problematic for many.

Finally, a study Krill conducted on the connection between employer values and lawyer well-being found that lawyers who feel most valued by their employers for their billable hours, productivity, responsiveness, and other financial contributions are more likely to report that their time in the legal profession has been detrimental to their mental health.

These lawyers also reported that these feelings caused an increase in their alcohol and/or drug use and led them to contemplate leaving the legal profession due to mental health, burnout, or stress.

Based on these data, the problem cannot be ignored.

Ignoring the data is not the answer

Over the last eight years, there have been meaningful efforts to educate attorneys on the importance of mental health and well-being in the legal profession. However, according to Krill, the progress has frequently been obscured by inertia, maladaptive attitudes, entrenched business models, and budget cuts.

When attorneys don’t prioritize their mental health and well-being, it can lead to things like performance issues, disciplinary action, and even potential disbarment.

In addition, in a recent article about loneliness in the legal profession, Buchanan highlighted that the high workloads and competitive nature of the profession prevent much-needed quality connections with other people. This, in turn, makes law one of the loneliest professions.

Buchanan co-founded the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being and is a co-author of its 2017 report, The Path to Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.

She has also served as chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs, was appointed Board President of the Institute for Lawyer Well-Being in Law, and served as director of the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program.

Practical ways to incorporate well-being into the profession’s DNA

I have not painted a glowing picture of well-being in the legal profession. The good news is that, in addition to researching the issue, Buchanan and Krill currently help lawyers and employers understand, address, and reduce incidents of mental health distress and problematic substance use.

Join us at the Future Is Now on Thursday, April 18, to learn how big firms, small firms, and solo practitioners can realistically address the profession’s well-being problems and the simple steps lawyers can take to improve their mental health.

You don’t want to miss my discussion with these two insightful experts on the data behind the stories, what is working and what isn’t, and long-term solutions to ensure well-being becomes part of the DNA of the legal profession.

Click here to register for the Future Is Now!

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