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Lawyer wellness should be a priority, report says

By Thomas Franz and Barbara L. Jones

The official word is out and it confirms what we already knew: Law students and lawyers are languishing and far too little has been done to address it.

That’s a paraphrase of the first sentence of “The Path of Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” a 74-page report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, a coalition of organizations from the ABA and elsewhere. It includes 44 separate recommendations for all stakeholders — judges, legal employers, legal assistance programs, and the like.

The next step is for the community to decide how to proceed, and that’s in the wheelhouse of the Supreme Court and Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers right now. Chief Justice Lorie Gildea told Minnesota Lawyer she will be bringing the matter of the report to the court in the coming weeks.

“As to whether there will be further action in Minnesota, I would say stay tuned,” Gildea said.

Meanwhile, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers has a link to the report on its website, mnlcl.org, and is seeking the involvement of members and others in taking the next steps. “We’re very interested in finding ways that these recommendations can make a difference to the profession,” Executive Director Joan Bibelhausen told Minnesota Lawyer.

The report warns: “Change will require a wide-eyed and candid assessment of our members’ state of being, accompanied by courageous commitment to re-envisioning what it means to live the life of a lawyer.”

A cover letter accompanying the report singles out former ABA President David Brink, who died July 20, a week shy of his 98th birthday. Brink is quoted as saying, “Lawyers, judges and law students are faced with an increasingly competitive and stressful profession. Studies show that substance abuse, addiction and mental disorders, including depression and thoughts of suicide — often unrecognized — are at shockingly high rates. As a consequence the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being, under the aegis of CoLAP (the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance programs) has been formed to promote nationwide awareness, recognition and treatment. This Task Force deserves the strong support of every lawyer and bar association.”

 

Taking small steps

In its entirety, the report provides an overview of a 2016 ABA study of 13,000 lawyers that showed between 21 and 36 percent of them qualify as problem drinkers and that approximately 28 percent, 19 percent, and 23 percent are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.

For law students, the report stated that 17 percent experienced some level of depression, 14 percent experienced severe anxiety, 23 percent had mild or moderate anxiety, and 6 percent reported serious suicidal thoughts in the past year.

To combat those figures, the report establishes discussion topics, including eliminating the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors, emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence, and taking small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced.

Nelson P. Miller, an associate dean at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus, said time management and work complexity are factors that can negatively impact lawyer well-being.

“There are high expectations from clients for precise performance on a frequent basis. Lawyers must be skilled at time and task management, and I think that’s where the greatest stress of law practice is,” Miller said.

The school made a big change when it improved the culture of WMU-Cooley’s academic program to reduce the competitive environment.

“Competition can be a challenging thing, it can be a negative experience. We have a supportive academic environment that promotes team building and teamwork amongst students,” Miller said.

Another change WMU-Cooley made to reduce student stress was increasing the number of assessments to reduce priority placed on final exams.

“That may sound negative, but that’s actually a big issue for law schools, that many courses just have a single final exam. That creates a huge amount of stress for students who don’t know how they’re proceeding through the course,” Miller said. “We found that one significant change in the academic program, increasing the number of formative exams, we have much lower levels of exam stress and anxiety.”

Miller added that WMU-Cooley has also reduced lectures and increased instructional activities and engagement sessions.

Margaret Costello, an associate professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, thought the report was overly ominous, and that compared with other professions, the legal industry is generally a microcosm of society.

“We’re a much more stressed society than we were 100 years ago, particularly with the constant barrage of emails and social media,” Costello said. “When I started practicing law, you waited for the mail to come in, and if nothing showed up, you were safe for the day. Now it’s every second, something might come across your screen or cellphone.”

Costello did point out factors that make lawyers uniquely prone to stress.

“One is the high standard we have because of the public trust, and the responsibility to our clients. The second is the fact that the legal profession in general tends to attract more type-A people, people who tend to be more driven, and have the qualities that maybe some people would associate with anxiety and depression in later years,” Costello said.

One practical cause for added stress, Costello said, is the amount of debt law students accrue before their careers begin.

“After devoting four years of their time to law school and sometimes not even knowing what the expectation is going to be in terms of not having a clear idea of what they can do with a law degree, that I think is very stressful,” Costello said. “I think that is more prevalent in our profession than in most other professions.”

Costello suggested that schools could better educate students on the wide employment options available after graduation.

“I think we need to do a better job of preparing students early for the options of the profession, not everyone has to work at a large law firm,” Costello said. “If you want to work 40 hours a week, there are options for that.”

Miller added that due to the profession’s complex nature, more firms could become more efficient through business modeling.

“You can simplify and modernize many things,” Miller said. “Law firms can be more efficient and the work can be less stressful and more productive. I think we can simplify the work with study, there are very clear business methods for doing that, so I think there’s an opportunity there for all of us to get a little bit better.”

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