Well-Being in the Legal Profession: Past, Present, and Future

As the movement to improve the well-being of the legal profession enters its fifth year, those of us who work with and think about these issues should take a moment to consider where we’ve come from, and to contemplate where to focus our efforts in the future. This assessment must also consider the time in which we find ourselves. With light finally appearing at the end of the year-long, dark, and fear-filled tunnel brought by the pandemic, we now have the chance to assess and plan for reshaping the parts of our profession that no longer serve our interests. Standing here on the cusp of spring, with so much upended, we have a chance to make the well-being of our profession’s members an even greater imperative.

Well-Being in the Profession: Where We Started

Five years ago, motivated by the dismal mental and substance use disorder statistics revealed in two significant national studies, a coalition of representatives from national law-related associations and other stakeholder groups came together under the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. This small group of impassioned lawyers set out to ignite a culture change in how the legal profession impacts the well-being of all its members. By 2017, the committed group published a comprehensive report directed at the profession’s nine key stakeholder groups, setting out 44 recommendations for addressing commonly occurring behavioral health concerns and for providing improved well-being for law students, judges, and lawyers. Within days of publishing the report titled, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, the Conference of Chief Justices passed a resolution, stating their support of “the goals of reducing impairment and addictive behavior, and improving the well-being of lawyers,” and recommending “that each jurisdiction considers the recommendations of the Report.” Almost immediately, the ABA passed a similar resolution at their 2017 Annual Meeting.

Strategically, the report set out a “to-do list” for each state’s chief justice, encouraging her or him to gather leaders of all stakeholder groups to review the report, assessing which recommendations should be implemented for their state, and creating an action plan to do so. Evidencing the effectiveness of this approach, a total of 31 state supreme courts and/or bars have created a multi-stakeholder well-being initiative since 2017. Within these groups lies the power to create—state by state—systemic change to the priorities, policies, and practices that inhibit personal well-being and professional success.

The report also ignited a burgeoning number of articles and programming that explored both the heightened behavioral health problems of some, and the diminished well-being of many. Bar associations and in-house professional development departments began offering an array of services and programming to address the problems highlighted. ABA presidents chose the topic of well-being for one of their signature issues, and as a result, the ABA’s Well-Being Pledge was launched in 2018. The 200 global firms, law schools, bar associations, government agencies, corporate legal departments, and other legal employers that to date have signed the pledge, committed to providing ongoing education regarding the mental health issues disproportionately affecting lawyers, “disrupting the status quo of drinking-based events,” providing confidential access to resources, as well as developing policies and protocols to support the assessment and treatment of behavioral health conditions.

Another status quo-shifting program developed as a result of the report is the annual Well-Being Week in Law, conceived and produced by former chair of the Law Practice Division’s Attorney Well-Being Committee, Anne Brafford. Hundreds participated in the first event in 2020. The second annual virtual event is slated to occur this year on May 3-7, with creative and inspiring tracks for both individuals and organizations that celebrate a different dimension of well-being on each weekday. In addition to this signature program, the writers of the report have continued to provide technical assistance and support of state task well-being task forces, as well as engage in scholarship and research (including a groundbreaking study of stress and resilience in the American judiciary), and other awareness-raising programming, such as The Path to Well-Being in Law podcast.

Where We Find Ourselves in 2021

Then came 2020, and the whole world was thrown upside down. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice reckoning, and environmental disasters have dealt a devastating blow to the sense of normalcy and relative safety experienced by members of our profession. In short, these compounding crises have acted as an accelerant to the behavioral health problems that were already too prevalent. Even for the most hale and hardy, this dreadful season has brought new challenges to maintaining fitness to practice and our basic duty of competence, which includes the capacity to effectively and consistently navigate the challenges and rigors of professional life.

Studies of the pandemic’s impact on members of the legal profession are scant at this time; however, several give us a glimpse into our increasing distress. In June 2020, the Association of Corporate Counsel conducted a flash poll of its members and found that 75% were experiencing moderate to exceedingly high levels of burnout. Half of the respondents were experiencing sleep problems that bring on chronic fatigue, and almost a quarter disclosed an increased use of substances. These findings were echoed by a July 2020 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau, which found that half of all workers were feeling burned out, and that rates of anxiety and depression had more than quadrupled over the prior year.

The effects of the pandemic seem to fall particularly heavy upon the shoulders of women, people of color, and the young adults in law school. The ABA Coordinating Group on Practice Forward’s survey conducted last fall forecast a potential exodus from the profession at just the point in time when clients are demanding diverse talent. Of concern, the survey revealed that women and lawyers of color feel less optimistic about their chances of success and advancement in the profession.

Young adults (ages 18-24), the future of our profession, seem to be suffering the most. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in June 2020 revealed that 62% of young adults were suffering from an anxiety or depressive disorder, and almost half reported suffering from a trauma or stress-related disorder due to the pandemic. A Harvard-led consortium’s October 2020 research showed that the rate of “thoughts of death and suicide” by young adults at that time had increased to 37% from a rate that typically hovers around 3.4%. Clearly, the need for a heightened focus on well-being in the profession is not going away anytime soon.

The Future of Well-Being in our Profession

Given events of the past year, the sense of urgency is renewed for efforts to both stem a second epidemic of mental health problems, and to improve the overall well-being of all members of the legal profession. Building upon the success of the report, founders of the National Task Force determined that there could be no better time than now to create the Institute for Well-Being in Law (IWIL). Established in December 2020, the nonprofit is dedicated to advancing systemic change to improve the well-being of all members of the legal profession throughout all stages of one’s career, so that well-being is a core component of what personal and professional success mean.

The institute’s overarching goal is to shape a profession where all of its members can thrive, and their humanity is honored. To accomplish this significant objective, the IWIL plans to engage in advocacy, research, scholarship, education, technical and resource support of the growing number of state programs, and partnerships with stakeholders (courts, regulators, law schools, bar associations, and legal employers). While educational programming will be produced for individual professionals, the bulk of the work must be focused on the institutions and stakeholders that serve as the driving force behind the culture. Essentially, for systemic change to occur, that change must originate with those who have the authority to bring it about.

As we move towards recovering and rebuilding from the challenges of the last year, we should claim this as an opportunity to bring about shifts that can eliminate unnecessary suffering and alienation among our law students, lawyers, and judges. Every person – at every level – has a role to play in this effort. As stated in the report, “[t]he time is now to use your experience, status, and leadership to construct a profession built on greater well-being, increased competence and greater public trust.” What will you do? Stay in touch and let the IWIL know what you are doing to improve our profession.

About the Author

Bree Buchanan is the board president of the Institute for Well-Being in Law (formerly known as the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being), and co-author of The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change. She served as chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs from 2016-2019. Ms. Buchanan is a senior advisor for Krill Strategies, LLC.

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