Attorney Mental Health and Well-Being: The Case for Change | Practical Law The

The cataclysmic events of recent years have raised unprecedented challenges to businesses and individuals across the globe. Attorneys are suffering from depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues at startlingly high rates, and at rates that are higher than professionals in other industries. Burnout, already an issue for overworked attorneys well before the COVID-19 pandemic, has become an even bigger problem. Data from the Institute for Well-Being in Law (previously the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being) indicates that the suicide rate in the legal profession is ranked in the top ten among all professions, with attorneys dying by suicide at a rate that is 33% above the national norm. Putting aside the clinical issues, many in the profession report feeling isolated, detached, and physically and mentally exhausted, with accompanying feelings of loss of motivation, focus, and satisfaction.

The state of well-being in the legal profession was already at a crisis level for several years preceding the pandemic, and since the pandemic, attorneys, like other professionals, are facing new and even greater stresses. For some, stress comes from competing work and family demands. For others, the cause is isolation. For many, especially those in historically excluded groups, the culprit is the increase over the past several years in violence and hate crimes directed at their communities. For those working remotely, burnout is at an all-time high due in large part to the blurrier lines between home and work. For everyone, the stress that accompanies uncertainty looms large.

While some legal employers have taken certain measures to address attorney well-being, such as by implementing wellness initiatives and providing education on mental health and substance use disorders, traditional cultural norms in the legal industry have not changed in any meaningful way. This article describes the factors contributing to the current poor state of attorney well-being, sets out the business case for why law firms and other organizations should support and invest in the improvement of attorney well-being, and recommends practical solutions that legal employers can adopt to effectuate real change in the industry.

Industry studies that have examined the state of mental health and well-being in the legal field nearly universally show that it is at a crisis level. These studies provide valuable insights into the experiences of practicing attorneys and where to focus attention to improve attorney well-being going forward.

ALM’s 2023 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey, which surveyed 2,900 law firm attorneys and staff, found that attorneys who had already been struggling with stress and isolation pre-pandemic, were in worse shape from a mental health perspective in mid-2023 than they had been 12 months earlier. These results were surprising and upsetting, given the increased dialogue around mental health and well-being in the profession in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Respondents to the ALM Survey reported increased levels of depression and anxiety. In particular:

  • 38% reported being depressed (up 4% from 2022).
  • 71% reported having anxiety (up 5% from 2022).
  • 31% reported having another mental health issue (up 17% from 2022).

The ALM Survey also introduced a new set of questions on how individuals were feeling, which revealed that:

  • 51% have a sense of failure and self-doubt.
  • 35% feel detached and alone in the world.
  • 53% have lost motivation.
  • 56% have decreased satisfaction and a lesser sense of accomplishment.
  • 65% feel physically or mentally overwhelmed or fatigue.
  • 61% experience moodiness or irritability.
  • 70% are exhausted.
  • 62% have trouble concentrating.

Respondents cited the following familiar reasons for their poor mental health:

  • The expectation that they be on call 24/7.
  • Billable hour pressure.
  • Lack of sleep.
  • Unreasonable client demands.
  • Artificial deadlines.
  • Lean, understaffed teams.
  • Lack of support for personal well-being and work-life integration.

Patrick R. Krill (of Krill Strategies, LLC) and Nikki Degeneffe, Kelly Ochocki, and Justin J. Anker (of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Minnesota) published a study in June 2022 of 1,959 practicing attorneys to determine whether the perceived values of employers were differentially associated with attorney well-being, stress, and work overcommitment. The study found that attorneys who work in environments that value professionalism, skill, and humanity over productivity and availability are in better health and experience lower stress than their counterparts in other work environments.

Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession: A Global Study, conducted in 2021 by the International Bar Association’s (IBA’s) Presidential Task Force on Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession, examined the mental well-being of legal professionals at both an individual and institutional level. The report:

  • Identifies worrisome well-being trends across the profession, including that:
    • one in three surveyed said that their work has a negative or extremely negative impact on their well-being;
    • 41% said that they would not discuss mental well-being concerns with their employer for fear it may have a negative impact on their career; and
    • 82% of institutions said they take mental well-being seriously, but only 16% provide training for senior management.
  • Sets out the following well-being principles for legal workplaces and organizations to help address the crisis:
    • mental well-being matters;
    • mental well-being is not weakness;
    • raising awareness is fundamental;
    • a commitment to change, and regular continuing assessment, is needed;
    • policies matter;
    • maintain open dialogues and communication;
    • address systemic problems;
    • recognize intersectionalities (most significantly, the intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and well-being);
    • share good practices; and
    • learn from others.

One of the recommendations of the IBA report was to create a permanent entity dedicated to continuing the work of the IBA’s Wellbeing Task Force. At the end of 2022, the IBA established the IBA Professional Wellbeing Commission, whose objectives are to:

  • Promote the importance of well-being as a core issue and priority for the global legal community.
  • Identify, coordinate, and organize global stakeholders in changing or modifying the culture and mindset of the legal profession.
  • Raise awareness of the challenges and stigma surrounding discussions of well-being, while bearing in mind the cultural differences that must be taken into account when engaging on this issue at an international and local level.
  • Highlight the ways in which well-being issues, needs, and responses vary between different demographic groups.
  • Promote and share policies and working practices that help to foster positive and sustainable well-being within the legal profession, and where possible, make recommendations to change or modify the practical and regulatory environment of the legal profession at all levels.

In May 2021, the Institute for Well-Being in Law conducted an electronic survey of 771 attorneys and nearly 300 support staff on burnout and engagement.

In the study, 63% of the participating attorneys (and 51% of support staff) reported some level of burnout. The study found that attorneys are prone to burnout when what they want and expect with respect to certain factors does not align with their lived experience. These factors are:

  • Workload. This refers to when an individual does not have enough time to complete work that must be done, do what is important at work, or participate in personal interests, and works intensely for prolonged periods.
  • Control. This refers to professional autonomy and independence, including the individual’s control over how work is done, influence over decisions affecting the individual, and ability to obtain needed resources.
  • Community. This refers to feeling close to colleagues, including professional relationships characterized by trust, open communication, cooperation, and support.
  • Fairness. This refers to when opportunities and resources are distributed fairly and based on merit rather than favoritism and the availability of appeal procedures to question decisions.
  • Values alignment. This refers to the alignment of the individual’s values with their employer’s values, alignment of the individual’s career goals with their employer’s stated goals, as well as the employer’s commitment to quality service.
  • Psychological detachment. This refers to the individual’s ability to turn off thoughts of work and take a break during nonwork time.
  • Employer commitment to well-being. This refers to an employer’s visible support and prioritization of employees’ well-being and work-life balance. This commitment was the strongest buffer against burnout.

In 2017, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being (which in 2020 became the Institute for Well-Being in Law) published The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, which triggered concern and made high level recommendations for the profession that focused on five key themes:

  • Identifying stakeholders and the role each can play in reducing the level of toxicity in our profession.
  • Eliminating the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors.
  • Emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of an attorney’s duty of competence.
  • Educating attorneys, judges, and law students on well-being issues.
  • Taking small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how attorneys are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession.

A 2016 study funded by the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation is recognized as one of the foundational reported studies on legal professional well-being. The study examined depression, anxiety, stress, and substance use and abuse in the legal profession based on a representative sample of over 12,800 practicing attorneys across 19 states. Of that sample:

  • 28% experienced depression.
  • 19% experienced anxiety.
  • 23% experienced stress.
  • 20.6% screened positive for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking.

Many states have formed their own task forces and committees to better understand and address the barriers to well-being within their jurisdictions and are publishing reports and recommendations setting out their findings (for recent examples, see Attorney Well-Being: Where We Are, the Business Case for Change, and Strategies for Getting There on Practical Law).

While the legal industry is not the only profession experiencing a mental health crisis, there are numerous reasons why attorneys are vulnerable to mental health challenges.

For many attorneys, mental health challenges first arose during law school, a period often marked by stress and competition for grades and prestigious job offers. These pressures mount at a point in students’ lives when many:

  • Have never before experienced such a heavy workload.
  • Have had little training in mental health-related coping skills.

A National Survey of Law Student Well-Being, originally conducted in 2014 and updated in 2021, found, among other things, that:

  • Rates of anxiety and depression among law students increased between 2014 and 2021.
  • The number of students who reported having thought seriously about suicide, both in the past 12 months, and in their lifetime, also dramatically increased.

(For more on the law student survey, including a Q&A with two of its three principal investigators, see Forging the Path to Law Student Well-Being on Practical Law.)

Factors that contribute to stress and poor law student well-being include:

  • The massive debt many students take on to attend law school, leading many to feel like they have no choice but to seek a high-paying law firm job when they graduate.
  • State bar character and fitness applications that ask questions about mental illness, thereby encouraging law students to hide any mental health challenges and avoid seeking therapy or other treatment. However, recently, several state supreme courts, including New York, have elected to eliminate mental health questions from the character and fitness portion of their bar admission applications.
  • A culture that cultivates competition among its students, including through its curve grading system.

Law school culture and students’ experiences in law school are relevant to the broader legal industry because:

  • Law school is an aspiring attorney’s first exposure to the legal profession and may influence their expectations regarding appropriate behavior and professional norms going forward.
  • A negative law school culture may cause students to drop out and pursue a different career altogether. Losing talented future attorneys for this reason:
    • derails individual careers;
    • negatively impacts individual well-being;
    • reduces the available talent pool at a time when legal employers are scrambling to find talent; and
    • is inconsistent with the values of, and reflects poorly on, the profession.

Notably, the ABA adopted Revisions to the 2021-2022 ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools, effective February 2022, which, for the first time, includes law student well-being among the standards for accrediting law schools.

Some of the factors that put a strain on a practicing attorneys’ well-being include:

  • Notoriously long hours.
  • Pressure regarding billable hours.
  • Pressing client demands.
  • Partners who want to please clients at all costs.
  • Difficult, high-stakes work.
  • The adversarial nature of the job.
  • Competition among attorneys, for example, for the few coveted partner spots.
  • Pressure to advance, for example, from associate to counsel or partner.
  • Tight deadlines.
  • Business development pressure.
  • People in leadership roles who lack management and people skills.
  • A culture that views vulnerability and help-seeking as weakness.
Returning to the office and getting back to “business as usual” does not negate the ongoing need for industry leaders to address the cultural issues that have been adversely impacting the mental health and well-being of attorneys and other legal professionals for decades.

Culture, that is, the set of norms, beliefs, and socially transmitted behavior patterns that are learned and shared within social groups, informs societal and institutional issues in both positive and negative ways. In law firms, some of the traits that have been traditionally emphasized as part of the law firm (and especially Big Law) culture include:

  • Being a warrior.
  • Being adversarial, combative, and competitive, not only with opposing attorneys but also with colleagues, for example, to:
    • secure one of only a few coveted partner positions; or
    • get credit for generating business.
  • Winning at all costs.
  • Perfectionism, including the need to:
    • be the smartest;
    • always know the answer; and
    • never make a mistake.
  • Leading by being tough and decisive, and pushing those who report to attorneys to work harder and bill more.
  • Being “on” and available at all times.
  • Prioritizing and committing to work over other aspects of one’s life, including family.
  • Proudly carrying the following badges as status symbols:
    • being overworked;
    • being a top biller; and
    • being continuously busy and stressed.

While the well-being movement has gained considerable traction in recent years, and many law firms now offer well-being programs and tout their collegial culture on their website, without real and broad-based cultural transformation among the industry’s leaders, these changes are more likely to be band-aids than panaceas. Frustrated associates frequently point out that a free gym membership or yoga app is unlikely to be particularly helpful if they are so stressed and overworked that they are unable to use it. Further, returning to the office post-pandemic and getting back to “business as usual” does not negate the ongoing need for industry leaders to address the cultural issues that have been adversely impacting the mental health and well-being of attorneys and other legal professionals for decades.

Cultures that reward certain types of behaviors while penalizing others also inevitably inform identity. Unsurprisingly, some of the reported personality characteristics that are commonly found among the attorney population include:

  • Perfectionism. A perfectionist strives to be the best and not make mistakes, and is reluctant to admit difficulties.
  • Independence. Someone who is independent is always in control and reluctant to admit they need help.
  • Pessimism. A pessimist is always on the lookout for possible perils and pitfalls, making them very prudent, but also making it difficult for them to turn off or disengage.

Being a perfectionist and independent may make attorneys particularly susceptible to the unfortunate but well-known stigma against admitting that they are struggling with a mental health or substance abuse problem.

Renowned positive psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman has reported that of the many careers that he has studied, law is an outlier because attorneys who are by nature pessimists are more successful in law school and in their legal careers, as measured by grades and professional accomplishments. In all other careers, optimists were found to be most successful. While being a pessimist may be a great trait for excelling as an attorney, it is also a risk factor for unhappiness and depression.

Any attempt to improve attorney well-being must incorporate meaningful efforts to understand the experiences and the specific burdens and barriers to well-being faced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) attorneys, and attorneys from other underrepresented and historically excluded groups.

A 2021 report published by the Massachusetts Standing Committee, which compiled feedback from over 115 attorneys, law students, and judges in Massachusetts based on meetings with individual affinity group bar associations, clearly and painfully illustrates where DEI and well-being intersect.

In a 2022 interview with Practical Law, former Massachusetts Standing Committee Fellow Gavin Alexander summarized the report’s conclusions as follows:

  • Being a member of the Massachusetts bar from a historically excluded population results in significant to extreme challenges on top of those faced by all attorneys and law students.
  • People from underrepresented groups were continually faced with recurring identity-based challenges and discrimination, no matter how far they had advanced in their careers. These discriminatory experiences were exhausting and continually impaired mental health and well-being.

(For the full interview, including more on this report, see Trailblazing Toward Better Mental Health & Well-Being in Law: Q&A with Gavin Alexander, Well-Being Advocate on Practical Law.)

Calls to change the underlying culture, make a greater commitment to attorney well-being, and take on and change the massive mental health problem in the legal industry have been made on moral, humanitarian, and even ethical grounds (focusing on attorneys’ ethical duty of competence) but have until relatively recently largely been ignored. However, there are reasons to be optimistic that the tide may finally be turning.

A combination of the following factors has increased focus on these issues within the legal industry and opened up a serious dialogue about addressing the problem:

  • The exacerbation of mental health concerns following the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The large-scale social re-evaluation of priorities and re-framing of work and life, resulting in what has been termed “The Great Resignation.” People have been quitting their jobs and seeking more meaningful work aligned with positive values and better balance.
  • The generational tendencies and characteristics exhibited by younger generations. Gen Z is a generation that cares about mental health and wellness and, relative to older generations, is willing to talk about these issues. Reports have found that both Gen Z and Millennials prioritize their mental health more than prior generations.
  • The competition for legal talent. Law firms are competing for associate and partner talent, and salaries and bonuses have been on the rise. Attorney recruitment and retention have been identified by firm leaders as a critical issue. There is an opportunity for firms to differentiate themselves in the talent war based on factors other than compensation, such as firm culture and mental health related benefits (see Attorney Recruitment and Retention below).
  • The increased focus on environmental, social/sustainability, and governance (ESG) issues in the broader business and corporate world, which has the potential to shift business and leadership practices and cultural norms across industries in ways that align with positive mental health and well-being.

Additionally, a growing number of organizations and legal professionals have joined the well-being movement and are vocal about mental health issues, and committed to cultivating positive change (for information on specific individuals, organizations, and initiatives dedicated to addressing well-being issues, see Attorney Well-Being: Where We Are, the Business Case for Change, and Strategies for Getting There on Practical Law).

Clients can play an important role in driving change. Clients are increasingly recognizing that creating a working relationship and culture that is more attentive to mental health and well-being benefits both themselves and their outside counsel. For example, when an important client sends an email late at night that results in hordes of stressed, overworked, and mentally taxed attorneys quickly scrambling to address the client’s request, it can lead to:

  • In the short-term:
    • more mistakes; and
    • poorer quality work product.
  • In the long-term:
    • burnout; and
    • retention issues for trusted outside counsel partners.

This issue was recognized by Barclays Bank, which, in founding the Mindful Business Charter, together with two of its panel firms (see Learn from Existing Frameworks, Resources, and Other Guidance below), recognized the stress and strain that they, as an important client, were placing on their outside counsel who were required to drop everything when they called and often work around-the-clock. Barclays recognized that these demands not only contribute to poor attorney well-being but could ultimately lead to mistakes and poorer overall work product.

To the more cynical among us, history indicates that law firms are slow to make sweeping changes until forced to do so by clients. But the history of corporate social responsibility, pro bono, and DEI also provides a roadmap for how clients may provide a top-down push to their law firm partners in the area of mental health and wellness.

If a large swath of clients impose a certain baseline level of mental health and wellness requirements among their law firm partners as a prerequisite to requests for proposals (RFPs) and in forming business relationships, as they did in the pro bono and DEI areas, this could create larger change. For example, in 2022, in-house leaders at US Bank recognized that mental health is an industry concern and began to craft wellness guidelines for its outside counsel.

US Bank created a pilot initiative to foster wellness among its outside counsel in which it worked with seven of its panel law firms to develop guidelines addressing:

  • Communication practices.
  • Work-life balance.
  • Effective project management.
  • Sharing of well-being opportunities.

These client-driven initiatives are models to create larger-scale change and hold much promise as a way to drive real and sustainable improvement in attorney mental health and well-being.

Providing a positive and thriving atmosphere for mental health and wellness is not just the right thing to do for moral or humanitarian reasons. It is good business.

Providing excellent, creative client service as advocates and advisers is at the core of what attorneys do. Additionally, recruiting and retaining talent are among the most critical issues confronting legal employers today. However, there is growing recognition that the traditional approaches to ensuring excellent client service and talent retention may no longer be working.

Mentally healthy attorneys do better and higher quality work. Workplaces with high levels of mental well-being are more productive, with surveys finding increases in productivity by over 12%. By contrast, unresolved hidden mental health issues create large, significant, and often untracked direct and indirect costs for law firms, including in terms of lost time and efficiency that impact the bottom line.

Providing a positive and thriving atmosphere for mental health and wellness is not just the right thing to do for moral or humanitarian reasons. It is good business.

It has been noted that mental health disorders cost US employers (including legal employers) more than $200 billion each year (Professor Jarrod Reich, Capitalizing on Healthy Lawyers: The Business Case for Law Firms to Promote and Prioritize Lawyer Well-Being, 65 Vill. L. Rev. 361 (2020)). According to one study, businesses suffer more than $101 billion in indirect costs annually due to the absenteeism and “presenteeism” (working while impaired) of its depressed employees (see Paul E. Greenberg et al., The Economic Burden of Adults with Major Depressive Disorder in the United States (2005 and 2010), 76 J. Clinical Psychiatry 155-162 (2015)).

Other costs that can be attributed to poor attorney well-being include:

  • Disability claims.
  • Loss of clients due to sub-par work.
  • Liabilities due to malpractice and ethics violations resulting from mental health issues.

Creating a positive and healthy workplace that supports mental health and well-being is critical to attracting and retaining the best and brightest legal talent. Mental health problems and an absence of support for well-being can greatly contribute to attorney attrition, which adversely affects the law firm’s bottom line.

According to one estimate, the cost of replacing a departing associate ranges from $200,000 to $500,000 or roughly one-and-a-half to two times the annual salary of that attorney (see Nancy Levit & Douglas O. Linder, The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law (2010) at 162). Associate attrition costs a 100-attorney law firm $5.6 million and a 500-attorney firm $28 million annually. As attorneys are increasingly prioritizing their mental health and well-being and seeking nourishing, open, and inclusive work cultures, firms that heed the call should reap the reward.

The Thomson Reuters 2022 Stay-Go Report found that the reasons cited by attorneys for wanting to potentially leave their current law firms were not related to compensation. Instead, the report concluded that the firms that attorneys are choosing to stay at longer term (stay firms) are not always at the top of the market in terms of compensation but have found ways to lean into what matters to their attorneys, including:

  • Providing clear career paths.
  • Expressing concern for their attorneys’ well-being.
  • Fostering supportive and collaborative cultures.
  • Treating their attorneys in a way that the attorneys perceive as fair.

Stay firms also have invested in support functions that their attorneys value, such as IT and marketing. Significantly, stay firms also generally fared better financially than their counterpart go firms for most of the past several years.

Data indicates that work-life balance, as opposed to higher compensation, is more likely to entice associates away from their current law firm. The Thomson Reuters Institute’s 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market: A Challenging Road to Recovery found that the reasons cited by attorneys for wanting to potentially leave their current firm were unrelated to compensation. (For more on these findings, see Attorney Well-Being: Where We Are, the Business Case for Change, and Strategies for Getting There on Practical Law.)

Legal employers can take certain tangible steps to steer the future of attorney mental health and well-being in a better direction.

Legal employers should start by visibly committing to supporting and prioritizing attorneys’ well-being by:

  • Communicating the organization’s commitment to well-being clearly and often.
  • Hiring a well-being team, including a senior level, full-time director or head who is involved in creating policies and other significant decision-making.
  • Implementing well-being initiatives and programs that support all dimensions of well-being, such as offering reimbursement for gym and yoga memberships, subscriptions to mental health focused apps, off-site or on-site behavioral health services, mental health focused employee resource groups, and education and outside speakers on mental health and wellness. Additionally, employers should:
    • ensure that attorneys have the time to participate in the initiatives and programs; and
    • continuously assess the effectiveness of the initiatives and programs.
  • Engaging regularly with attorneys, including those from underrepresented and historically excluded groups, to address well-being.
  • Adopting a zero-tolerance policy for toxic behaviors that applies equally to everyone in the organization.
  • Taking the ABA’s Well-Being Pledge or signing on to the Mindful Business Charter (see Learn from Existing Frameworks, Resources, and Other Guidance below).
  • Creating a process through which attorneys can provide constructive feedback regarding any lack of alignment between the organization’s stated commitment to well-being and their actual lived experience.
  • Holding themselves accountable when there is lack of alignment between the stated commitment to well-being and attorneys’ lived experiences.

Legal employers should take advantage of existing mental health and well-being resources and frameworks and the experiences of individuals in the legal profession. A number of organizations have laid out helpful guidance that lay the groundwork for improving attorney well-being and mental health. Some examples include:

  • The ABA Well-Being Pledge, which sets out the following principles for legal employers to improve attorney well-being:
    • provide enhanced and robust education to attorneys and staff on well-being, mental health, and substance use disorders;
    • reduce the expectation of alcohol at law firm events by seeking creative alternatives and ensuring that non-alcoholic alternatives are always available;
    • partner with outside providers who are committed to reducing substance use disorders and mental health distress in the profession;
    • provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources, including free, in-house, self-assessment tools;
    • develop proactive policies and protocols to support the assessment and treatment of substance use and mental health problems, including a defined back-to-work policy following treatment;
    • show that the law firm’s core values include self-care and getting help when needed by regularly and actively supporting programs to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being; and
    • use the pledge, and the organization’s commitment to these principles, to attract and retain the best attorneys and staff.
  • The Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers, which:
    • includes hands-on activities, guidelines, and reminders to help boost well-being; and
    • is designed to be used by both individual attorneys and legal employers.
  • The Mindful Business Charter, which is a set of best practices and behavioral principles aimed at reducing avoidable stress in the workplace (for more information, see Mindful Business Charter: Re-Imagining Our Ways of Working on Practical Law). The Mindful Business Charter Toolkit includes a selection of FAQs, checklists, and recommendations to help organizations embed the Charter into their organizations.
  • Practical Law’s Legal Operations, Professional Development & Well-Being Toolkit, which includes numerous resources related to mental health and well-being in the legal profession, including interviews with attorneys who have struggled with their mental health and are sharing their stories to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health within the legal profession.

Moreover, the well-being movement has gained traction in recent years in large part because individuals who are passionate about change have:

  • Found other well-being advocates who are similarly committed.
  • Shared their networks and program ideas.

Many of these individuals are themselves attorneys who have struggled with mental health issues and are now speaking out about their experiences and committing to helping others and the profession at large in better addressing these issues. By joining forces and sharing their stories, networks, and ideas, they have contributed to a shared sense of meaning and purpose that adds greater momentum to the well-being movement.

Legal employers can learn from these well-being advocates how to:

  • Help the legal industry to emerge from its longstanding mental health crisis.
  • Create a more positive, sustainable business model.

(For an example of how attorneys are shaping the well-being movement, see Towards Thriving Together in New York: Q&A with Elizabeth “Libby” Coreno, Chair of the New York State Bar Association Committee on Attorney Well-Being on Practical Law; for more on the work of other well-being advocates in the legal industry, see Attorney Well-Being: Where We Are, the Business Case for Change, and Strategies for Getting There on Practical Law.)

It is critical to look at well-being in a holistic way. Well-being is not simply the absence of mental illness. Rather, it is a continual process of seeking to thrive across multiple dimensions of health, including:

  • Emotional health. This includes identifying and managing our emotions to support mental health.
  • Spiritual health. This includes developing a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in all aspects of life.
  • Occupational health. This includes cultivating personal satisfaction, growth, and enrichment in work.
  • Social health. This includes developing connections, a sense of belonging, and a reliable support network.
  • Intellectual health. This includes engaging in continuous learning and pursuing creative or intellectually challenging activities that foster ongoing personal development.
  • Financial health. This includes attaining a financial situation sufficient to meet current and future financial obligations and achieve a sense of financial security for the future.
  • Physical health. This includes striving for regular activity, good diet and nutrition, enough sleep, and recovery.

Legal employers should consider and address all of these dimensions when designing their well-being policies and programs.

DEI issues are a core part of improving attorney well-being. The Law Firm Antiracism Alliance recognizes that attorneys and law firms are uniquely positioned to analyze and advocate to change laws and policies that encourage, perpetuate, or allow racial injustice.

To be part of that change, legal employers must:

  • Ensure diverse representation in senior leadership positions within the organization.
  • Ensure that attorneys from underrepresented and historically excluded groups are provided the same opportunities to advance within the organization as other attorneys.
  • Educate leaders and other employees across the organization on:
    • the specific barriers to well-being that are experienced by members of BIPOC, AAPI, LGBTQ+ and other underrepresented and historically excluded groups, and the nature and cause of these barriers; and
    • the specific needs of these individuals.
  • Hold leaders accountable by setting clear expectations and goals around DEI as critical to improving attorney well-being.

Attorney well-being and mental health begins with leadership, as leaders at every level within the organization (including senior attorneys, law firm partners, senior and midlevel associates, and anyone who supervises others) play a pivotal role in creating and shaping culture.

A number of studies outside of the legal field have concluded that human-centered leadership is a key part of well-being at work. Organizations need leaders who empathize and communicate with employees and authentically share their own mental health challenges so that everyone feels supported. By being honest about their own struggles, leaders create a culture of psychological safety, which is essential for reluctant attorneys to genuinely open up about their personal experiences. Research has shown that being able to be authentic and open at work increases employees’:

  • Performance.
  • Engagement.
  • Retention.
  • Overall well-being.

It is also important to create a top-down culture of wellness and support where people know they can get help without feeling fear or stigma. Once there is high-level leadership buy-in and formal or informal champions who care about addressing these issues, organizations can proceed to developing an effective mental health and well-being program. This includes:

  • Creating structures to ensure that the right people are appointed to leadership positions (and the wrong people are removed).
  • Hiring or designating personnel to make up the well-being resource and leadership team.
  • Creating and implementing well-being policies (including policies that advise on what to do when an attorney is struggling or needs to take or return from a mental health-related medical leave).
  • Developing internal resources and bringing in outside partners to provide education and training on issues such as:

While top-down change and the tone of the organization’s leaders is critical, it is also important that change comes from the bottom-up. Rather than imposing a cookie-cutter mental health and wellness plan or program on attorneys, leaders should:

  • Actively listen to understand what the organization’s attorneys are struggling with or say they need or want.
  • Engage with affinity groups to ensure that these voices are heard.
  • Provide solutions that are responsive to attorneys’ needs and wants.

Supervisors are the lynchpin of each individual attorney’s experience and can play a key role in decreasing burnout and increasing engagement by:

  • Ensuring that the attorney is continually growing in their job.
  • Making the attorney feel that they matter, belong, and are safe in their environment.
  • Providing the attorney with meaningful work and talking about why their work matters and why it is significant in the bigger picture.
  • Supporting equilibrium between the attorney’s work and life outside of work.

Legal employers should aim to create a culture in which attorneys know that they can speak openly about their mental health by:

  • Educating leaders and others about mental illness and substance use disorders.
  • Communicating that mental health is health and taking care of one’s mental health is essential to optimal performance.
  • Encouraging leaders to speak openly about their own mental health challenges.
  • Supporting those who are struggling by offering support and encouragement.

(For more on the role that stigma plays in attorney well-being, see Mental Health and Well-Being Challenges in Law Firms in the March 2023 issue of Practical Law The Journal.)

Legal employers can improve attorney mental health and well-being by leveraging technology to:

  • Reduce the amount of time attorneys spend performing menial, time-intensive tasks.
  • Free up time for higher level knowledge- and connection-based work.

Legal employers should also consider providing information to their attorneys about the various apps available to support their well-being, such as:

  • Headspace.
  • Calm.
  • Insight Timer.
  • Breathwork.
  • I am.

Regular use of these apps can help attorneys to better integrate fitness, work-life balance, meditation, mindfulness, breathwork, and positive affirmations into daily life.

The Thomson Reuters 2022 Stay-Go Report found that lack of career progression prospects can contribute to an associate’s dissatisfaction and desire to leave their law firm. Providing career coaching and laying out a clear career path can:

  • Improve an attorney’s connection to the law firm.
  • Contribute to their well-being.
  • Prevent attrition.

Many attorneys report that they are unhappy in their current roles, but they are unsure what alternatives are out there for them. They therefore feel trapped, which can lead to languishing and depression. During on-campus recruiting at law schools, traditional associate roles at law firms are typically emphasized, however attorneys may not be aware of alternative legal careers and roles. Law schools and legal employers should consider highlighting opportunities for attorneys beyond the traditional associate track (for more information, see Career Planning for Non-Partnership Track Associates in the September 2023 issue of Practical Law The Journal and see Legal Operations, Professional Development & Well-Being Toolkit on Practical Law).

The well-being movement has gained so much traction in recent years in large part because individuals who are passionate about change have:

  • Found other well-being advocates who are similarly committed.
  • Shared their networks and program ideas.

Industry leaders, well-being advocates, and legal professionals at every level within every type of legal organization all have important roles to play in:

  • Helping the legal industry to emerge from its longstanding mental health crisis.
  • Creating a more positive, sustainable business model.

By joining forces and sharing our stories, networks, and ideas, we can each contribute to a shared sense of meaning and purpose that will add even greater momentum to the well-being movement.

Michael would like to thank the Practical Law team for their collaboration on this article.