Like other professionals, attorneys face stressful situations almost every day. It might be walking into a courtroom for a trial, negotiating with the other side’s counsel, dealing with client concerns or internal office issues. Of course, that doesn’t include the pressures from family members, friends and colleagues outside the legal world.
But rather than address these personal and professional pressures, most attorneys are encouraged to tamp them down to avoid showing any sign of “weakness.” After all, an attorney who cultivates a reputation as a tenacious legal bulldog probably finds it hard to admit to internal feelings of fear and uncertainty.
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that recent studies indicate that the suicide rate for lawyers is double the average rate or that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers. In addition, the American Bar Association (ABA) has estimated that 18 percent of all U.S. lawyers suffer from problem drinking – double the national average.
A new initiative
Recognizing the extent of the problem, The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors last year created a Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers with myself as chair. This May, the board unanimously agreed to make this a standing committee to continue this high-priority mental health initiative.
In establishing the committee last year, the Bar set the following five priorities:
- Destigmatize mental illness in the legal community (lawyers and judges)
- Educate employers, judges and lawyers how to identify and address mental health illness of Florida lawyers and create “best practices” on how to address mental health issues
- Educate lawyers about the benefits of balancing personal life and career obligations
- Provide wellness programs to provide Florida lawyers with healthy strategies to deal with the pressures of their practices to enhance the mental health and wellness of Florida lawyers
- Create a special, inter-disciplinary committee to study and improve the Florida Bar’s rules and programming related to mental health and wellness
As 2017-18 President Michael J. Higer wrote in a The Florida Bar Journal, “Mental health issues touch all of us in every facet of our legal community — from solo small firm practitioners, who make up approximately 76 percent of the lawyers in Florida, to lawyers who practice in the public sector to lawyers who practice with large law firms, as well as law students. All of us face daily pressures and stresses that compromise our overall mental and physical health. If we are not healthy, it affects the health of our justice system. It is, thus, critical for each of us, but also the public we serve, that we focus on the health and wellness of our lawyers.”
Changing the culture
It’s not easy to change the culture of “toughness,” instilled in attorneys at every stage of their education and careers. Nevertheless, there are already signs of progress in overcoming the discomfort that lawyers have in speaking about their emotional struggles and their need for assistance.
In the past year, there has been an outpouring of interest in the work of the special committee, which underscores the urgent need for solutions to the issues plaguing Florida’s legal community. Our committee has held town hall meetings to engage Bar members, hosted a symposium on mental health and wellness, and created a seminar program to educate managing partners and administrators on how to address these issues in their firms.
But this is just the beginning. Planned future steps will include increasing access to mental health professionals, well-being and career coaches, as well as lawyer support groups, mobile apps and wellness blogs. Attorneys can also benefit from healthy food delivery services, gym memberships, and the use of standing desks to improve their physical health.
Clearly, it will take a long-term, concerted effort to address the mental health challenges facing legal professionals. Removing the stigma associated with seeking health may well be the most important step forward. Attorneys should be able to take comfort in expressing normal human feelings of anxiety, depression, frustration and insecurity in a confidential, therapeutic setting. It’s like seeing a doctor for ongoing treatment of a chronic physical disease.
It’s not just legal professionals who can benefit from addressing the daily stresses and enhancing the personal satisfaction of their careers. Taking action to improve mental health and wellness can have a positive ripple effect on an attorney’s family clients, friends, family members and the entire judicial system.
Board certified in marital and family law, Dori Foster-Morales is a founding partner at Foster∙Morales Sockel∙Stone, LLC in Miami.