Tackling the Problem of Mental Health in the Legal Profession

Mental Health
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Law students and lawyers need to know more about safeguarding their mental health, according to a study undertaken by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. The study indicated that 21% of licensed, employed attorneys have problems with alcohol, 28% are battling depression, and 19% have anxiety. The research, which looked into the mental health of approximately 15,000 lawyers, counters previous assertions that mental problems only arise when attorneys have been practicing for various years. It is a wake-up call for the need to inform both law students and working attorneys, the importance of tackling mental health head-on and dealing with the stress and pressure of the profession proactively.

How Sustainable is the Current Legal Culture?

Co-author of the study, Linda Albert (who is also a representative of the ABA program mentioned above) notes that the data obtained may seem discouraging, but it can actually be used to tackle the problem at the root. The current corporate culture at many firms, she argues, is unsustainable, since it not only wrests from a lawyer’s motivation and ability to withstand inherent challenges of the job, but also potentially poses a risk for clients, the economy, the government, and society. Mental health distress, Albert notes, strikes at all stages of the profession – starting, many would argue, from the law school stage.

The Pressure for Perfection

Lawyers are expected to live up to high standards in their demeanour, their dress, and their wherewithal even during tough cases and meetings. Firms normally demand that lawyers have a sound financial history, comply with financial obligations, work long hours, and display emotional intelligence with clients and colleagues alike. From the word go, new lawyers have big challenges to face that may not necessarily be directly related to their job. Take the question of student loans. Currently, some law schools cost between three and five times more to attend than two or three decades ago, even adjusting for inflation. Therefore, students can struggle with their student debt without letting employers know. A firm grounding in financial education and the various options available to qualified lawyers, can help to lessen the strain. But as lawyers rise up the rungs of their profession, complex cases can result in lesser sleep, which in turn is linked to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Proactive Strategies that Work

To battle mental health issues, lawyers need to be aware both of the signs of mental illness and the options open to them. Legal firms can do their share by offering employees assistance in the form of therapy, opportunities to take part in mindfulness activities (such as yoga, Tai Chi or meditation), and by fostering a culture that respects a work-life balance. A report by Florida State Clinical Professor, Lawrence S. Krieger, notes that from the time lawyers are at school, they should be taught that “aspirations for achievement are valuable only in the context of a balanced, happy life.” To do so, issues such as acting in accordance with one’s personal values and ideals, and stressing that one does not have to be on Law Review to be successful and satisfied, are key.

Mental health is a pressing concern for law students and members of the legal profession. Ambition, coupled with long hours and (in some cases) financial pressure can make it difficult to find a work-life balance. From the outset, say experts, lawyers need to know that a failure to respect this balance can hamper their lives as well as their careers. The problem needs to be tackled both by the bodies and companies that hire lawyers but also by individuals, who need to protect their health proactively every day, respecting their limits and embracing activities that are proven stress and anxiety busters. These activities include but are not limited to mindful activities such as yoga and other holistic pursuits.

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