By Dr. Rachel Fry
This article was originally published in the November 2019 edition of The Alabama Lawyer, Volume 80, Number 6. It was reprinted with permission in the Chattanooga Bar Association’s March 2020 Newsletter.
Answer these three questions. Do you enjoy your job most days? Would you seek out someone to talk to if you felt like you were struggling at work? Do you feel that you have the appropriate resources available to enable you to perform at your optimal level? Would you encourage your son or daughter to become an attorney? If, like many lawyers I see in my practice, you answered “No” to 3 out of the 4 questions listed above, please keep reading.
I’M NOT OKAY
“I’m so sorry to bother you on the weekend, but I’m not okay.” This was the first sentence of an email I received a few days ago from one of my clients. Since it was very unusual for this client to contact me outside of appointment times, I realized she was reaching out because she truly needed to and her wording got my attention quickly. Although I had no idea what was going on, I knew that a phone call would quickly clarify things. Did a medication need to be changed? Had something stressful happened to her family? Was she having suicidal thoughts? Or did she need to just talk through what she was experiencing?
While I might know the truth about this client’s struggles and successes, most would see only her successes. Others would likely perceive that her life was going very well. All of the right boxes would be checked. She’d be wearing the right clothes, working hard at her high paying job, live in the right neighborhood, and be moving quickly up the corporate ladder. She’d appear to be right on track with everything in her life, and fit quite nicely into our cultural standard for success.
By this point, you might be trying to envision this person. If I told you that this was a superstar lawyer, a mentor, or a close colleague, would it get your attention? Because it very likely could be…
PERFECTION MASKING STRUGGLE
An outsider to the therapy world would be surprised by how many clients look perfect on the outside, but inside they are struggling. They have emotions and yes, because they are human, they sometimes have trouble managing life’s stresses. Generally, we are taught to put on masks, especially at work, and not to show emotion and vulnerability. However, such posturing can make it harder to empathize with others over time. As a result, when emotions start taking control or we have trouble managing them, we start to view ourselves as flawed or weak.
Difficulty managing stress and emotions is usually a warning sign. Often, there is too much going on and we are setting unrealistic expectations about what we can and are supposed to manage. Most of us are adept at putting on a good face, even performing spectacular shows at times. While this is certainly necessary on occasion we can also get too good at it. When this happens, we can find ourselves in situations where we are almost living in the shadows of ourselves. If we live in an emotionless world for too long, the lights can start to dim, or flick on and off, often without warning. At these moments, it doesn’t matter what you have on, where you work, or where you live — an expensive suit or a cool corner office can’t provide an easy, quick fix.
NOTHING IS GOING ON…
In my practice, I have met many people who have not been “okay.” Most people view therapy as an endpoint, as in, “I don’t want to end up there!” Many feel that therapy signifies that they can’t manage situations on their own, and therefore they are weak. When clients call for an initial appointment, it is usually after they have been thinking about it for a long time. Frequently, clients will call and say something along the lines of, “I have no idea why I’m feeling this way, there is nothing going on.” I view this as a red flag. In a psychologist’s mind, “Nothing is going on,” often means there is way too much going on.
The disconnect or lack of awareness doesn’t necessarily mean that clients don’t want to acknowledge stress. Most highly successful, goal-oriented people can accomplish a lot before the cumulative effect of stress presents itself. So, to them, “nothing new is going on.” They have been able to operate at 150% for a long time. Only now, as they are pushed to their limits personally and professionally over time, their mind and body start to say, “Enough is enough, this system is not working anymore.” Their fight or flight response system has timed out — physiological and mood changes are the only indicators that something is not “okay.”
CHALLENGES TO SELF-AWARENESS
“Okay” is a broad word, but at the same time, so simple, direct and clear. Lawyers are often checking in with clients and reassuring them that things will work out. “I’ll get the deal done.” “Don’t worry, we will figure this out.” “I’ve got it covered.” These are all statements that attorneys frequently say to their clients. It is also common for legal professionals to forget that they didn’t cause the very problems they are trying to fix. Several years ago I was conversing with a lawyer at a conference and he shared something that struck me. He said, “I had to get to a place where I reminded myself that I was not in the operating room with the physician I was representing.” The realization that he had viewed himself as both creator and fixer of the problem caused him to pause, and by changing his cognitive framework, weight was lifted from his mind. Lawyers are also expected to deal with discord and conflict on a recurring basis. In the New York Times article, The Lawyer, The Addict, Wil Miller explained the combative nature of being a lawyer this way, “Being a surgeon is stressful, for instance — but not in the same way. It would be like having another surgeon across the table from you trying to undo your operation. In law, you are financially rewarded for being hostile.”
Lawyers also tend to be laser-focused on how many hours they bill – often over 40 a week – or making sure they have on a perfectly dry-cleaned suit or dress, a fresh hairstyle, a new tie or scarf….all things that make them feel like they are put together. And, let’s be honest — these all impact how clients view their attorneys. Clients are looking for someone who exudes confidence and stability because they are in a jam and need someone who can provide quick resolve. But whereas lawyers look the part and are quite good at playing it, they can also be struggling inside. And while they make great efforts to appear successful outwardly, lawyers rarely take the time to pause and ask themselves, “Am I operating at my best level, and if not, what is preventing me from doing so?”
LAWYERS THAT AREN’T “OKAY”
I see their struggles in my practice. It might be a young associate who has been recruited into a firm with the illusion that his or her work would mirror the summer program experience. The fun atmosphere and social outings are quickly replaced by an office without the time to socialize and build connections. This can leave the associate feeling overwhelmed, isolated and lonely. Or a young lawyer could be trying to understand how hard he or she is supposed to work. Does working overtime and moving up the ladder also mean not getting any sleep and taking on every task — or are there other options? It could be a young partner who is obtaining new clients but finds the work taken away by others. Or it could be a middle-aged partner who is going through family struggles and is beginning to lose clients. He or she has been able to manage and even outperform before, so why is it so difficult now? There is often an illusion that law school is the hardest part of becoming a lawyer. However, as anyone reading this article knows, that is not the case. Once a new attorney enters a firm, he or she is expected to do even more: to wear many hats, be available at a moment’s notice, market to new clients, and maintain an active client load all while not showing vulnerability. Attorneys are expected to have it all together, at least at the office.
MY ENCOUNTER WITH LEGAL WELLNESS
My realization that legal wellness is imperative started a few years ago. While I certainly knew there were particular stresses within the legal profession (I am married to a lawyer), I admittedly had not given much thought regarding lawyers and wellness. In 2015, a tragic incident occurred — a brilliant, adventurous, and caring attorney went through a struggle beyond her control and, ultimately, she died by suicide. This talented woman wasn’t just anyone — she was, as others have described her, “a bright light,” who always stood out in every realm of her life — personally, professionally, academically. The ripple effect her death had on our local legal community was huge. No one could believe it. Everyone admired this young woman and many questioned how this could have happened to someone like her, seemingly without any warning.
What started as simple conversations after her death led to questions and statements from other lawyers. Some of those comments are still etched in my memory — “I would never know if I was depressed or burned out.” “We are expected to be different.” “I look down on others, even friends, in other professions because they are weak.” “We are supposed to be strong, we are lawyers.” As I started talking less and listening more, I couldn’t get many of the comments out of my head. I realized that there was a major lack of education regarding stress, depression, anxiety and burnout for lawyers. I started asking, “Where would someone get help if he or she even realized help was needed?” I kept asking myself, “How is it that this huge group of highly educated, bright people haven’t been given this information or at the very least, taught tools to deal with stress, since they are expected to deal with high-stress situations regularly?”
As I learned more, I realized that this young woman’s story was not an anomaly. Talking with other lawyers, I found that most had at least one friend or acquaintance that they knew who had committed suicide. A lawyer friend of mine has had 4 friends die by suicide since graduating from law school. She’s in her mid 30’s. My immediate thought after learning all of this was “This is not acceptable; something needs to change.” I also wondered, “What predisposes lawyers to these conditions and struggles?” and “Do these struggles start before law school, during law school, or after lawyers start their careers?” So, I started researching…
LAWYERS AND MENTAL HEALTH
LAW SCHOOL EFFECT
As I delved into the research I discovered that before law school lawyers have similar rates of anxiety (18.1%) and depression (8%) as compared to the general population. After starting law school, the rates slowly start to climb. According to The Dave Nee Foundation, within the first year of law school nearly one in three students shows signs of depression. By the end of law school around 40% of law students are depressed. In a 2016 report, The National Law Journal published a report in 2014 indicating that 37% of law students screened positive for anxiety while 14% reported symptoms consistent with severe anxiety. Additionally, 22% reported binge drinking during law school. Factors that likely play a role include constant competition, loss of autonomy, and isolation. Additionally, learning through the Socratic method, which some would describe as turning off one part of the brain and utilizing a new one, affects the neural pathways to increase reliance on law and rules, rather than mere logic. Also, receiving only one grade during the semester per course (which can then be curved), further exacerbates the loss of autonomy. Your grades become both a predictor and a determinant of your job opportunities.
HAZELDEN BETTY FORD-AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION REPORT
The first nationwide attempt to collaborate data within the legal profession was conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. This report, which was published in 2016, surveyed approximately 13,000 licensed attorneys practicing across 19 states. Published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, the study reports that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. The study also found that younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice exhibit the highest incidence of mental health problems and binge drinking. Additionally, more than 1 in 3 practicing attorneys (across all ages) are problem drinkers.
LAWYERS’ PERSONALITIES AND STRESS
Lawyers do tend to have certain personality characteristics that can play a role in how they manage stress. Dr. Larry Richard, a lawyer turned psychologist, who is focused on better understanding and helping lawyers, has assessed thousands of attorneys. Through his early research, he found that, compared to the general public, lawyers tend to score higher on skepticism (90% vs. 50%), urgency (71% vs. 50%), autonomy (89% vs. 50%), but lower on sociability (50% vs. 12%) and resiliency (50% vs. 30%).
Skepticism can certainly make one a better lawyer, but if the brain is operating in this mode and it becomes difficult to turn it off, it can lead to dissatisfaction, depression, and anxiety. Urgency is often needed in the legal environment — however, not at all times. Attorneys tend to have difficulty differentiating between urgent and non-urgent tasks, which can lead to being in a constant state of anxiety. Furthermore, it can become difficult to listen and to connect with clients and team members when operating in urgent mode. Autonomy can create issues when one is not able to delegate or even work together with team members to increase productivity. One can also feel depleted, isolated, and overwhelmed due to developing a high sense of autonomy. While lawyers score lower on sociability, most are required not only to attain clients but also to interact well with them. This can create problems for attorneys who are introverted (approximately 60%), have few social skills, or who are focused on the facts rather than interactions. Resiliency is critical to getting feedback, growing and becoming a better lawyer.
MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA
The two biggest reasons lawyers don’t seek help are fear of someone finding out and confidentiality. Most attorneys do not feel safe seeking help. They often feel that they are under a microscope and admitting that they are having a hard time is the last conversation they are likely to have with someone. While I see many different types of professionals in my practice, the mental health stigma among lawyers is the most profound I’ve seen. This is real and needs to be addressed. The current stigma and lack of knowledge about resources available add more stress, further complicating getting help when it is needed. Law firms and other organizations are sensitive to this stigma as well. Sometimes there are concerns about the firm being seen as a place with “problems” as opposed to acknowledging broad concerns in the profession and taking a proactive stance.
ATTORNEY MOTIVATIONS AND MINDSETS
Lawyers are unique — highly educated, bright (and many are quick to remind you of that often), fun, deep thinking, and detail-oriented. Many attorneys chose to go into the profession because they wanted to help others in some way. Others decided to go to law school based on the promise of a stable, financially rewarding career. Lawyers are determined, dedicated, and driven, and throughout communities they constitute a large part of boards, charity organizations, and regularly assume other leadership roles. Attorneys are pillars of our communities.
But these prominent roles present challenges. Practicing law can be stressful, unpredictable, demanding, and of course over time the desire to help others can easily be replaced by the need to be productive and bill more hours. The promise of money can also be deceiving. Many lawyers get knee-deep in their practices and realize that money no longer motivates them, but they have gotten used to their lifestyle and decide that it’s easier to keep plugging along. Also, some of the skills needed to be a good lawyer, such as skeptical thinking and always looking for the loophole, can predispose one to depression. Being detail-oriented and focused on the task at hand can increase the tendency towards perfectionism, and make it difficult to cope when things don’t go right.
LACK OF RESILIENCY COUPLED WITH HIGH EXPECTATIONS
Lawyers are so busy staying strong for their clients that when negative feedback or a bad outcome occurs, their thin-skinned facade can be pierced. Despite the appearance of wearing a shield of armor at all times, attorneys score low in resiliency. This can be seen with legal professionals who think they aren’t good enough, that they are responsible for both the problem and its outcome. Without the skills to sort this out this reasoning often leads to self-sabotaging behavior. The fact is that none of us welcome negative feedback, but we need it to grow. Lawyers tend to operate in a “fixed” mindset. For example: “I messed up this case or didn’t get the result I wanted, so I must not be a good lawyer” as opposed to, “Experiencing bad outcomes can help me learn and become a better attorney.” While it depends on who is offering up the assessment, lawyers tend to have a difficult time with this. Feedback is often viewed as criticizing and personal, and while in some cases it might not lead to growth, the majority of the time it does.
Lawyers are often “okay,” or at least they are expected to be. It is a tall order for a profession that is filled with stress, unpredictability, and brutal competition for clients (both within and outside a firm). The lack of education regarding the acquisition of effective stress management tools, not being able to identify burnout, not knowing how and when to set appropriate boundaries, coupled with being expected to wear a superhero cape, can be difficult to say the least. In a profession where one is paid to be perfect, where any mistake can add up quickly and is certainly noted, stress can ensue. Attorneys are expected to have it together and if they don’t, clients will find another practitioner who does — at least that is the thought. In the current climate where competition is keen and lawyers are competing aggressively for clients, legal professionals must have it together, at least at work.
WHO SEEKS HELP?
Many of the lawyers I see in my practice are superstars at their firms. This is the crux of it all. These are people who by no means are weak, yet no one would ever think they were seeking out help to learn how to live a better, more sane life. Most of these lawyers have gotten so good at “working” that you will not see them struggle. I also see many lawyers who I think could be star performers if they were provided appropriate mentoring and were better able to manage stress in their lives. These are not lawyers who want to quit working or give up, but without the appropriate resources available they sometimes feel that they don’t have a choice. There is a lot of potential to make things better, and law firms and other organizations should be motivated to promote and embrace change.
The research and data speak for themselves; it is past time to make attorney wellness a priority. Despite cultural changes regarding wellness and the ways other professions have adapted, the legal field is one that has remained the same, to the detriment of many lawyers. It is time for a shift in many ways: changing fee structure setup, altering incentives that align with generational shifts such as flexible work settings and more time off (as opposed to financial incentives), and providing opportunities for lawyers to obtain counseling while also practicing law. Firms and Bar Associations can play a critical role in making wellness a priority and decreasing the stigma associated with attending to mental and physical well-being.
WHAT CAN BE DONE NOW?
1) LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT
Lawyers need to learn leadership skills such as emotional intelligence and resiliency. Attorneys tend to score much lower than the general population in both of these measures and both are highly correlated with productivity and becoming a more effective leader. Building emotional intelligence (EI) provides lawyers with the tools needed to identify and perceive emotions in others, become more empathetic, understand others and to be able to regulate their own emotions. Becoming more self-aware helps attorneys improve at getting and keeping clients. High EI skills need to be taught to leaders so they can set the appropriate tone for their team and communicate more effectively, which increases productivity and conflict resolution. Resiliency is also an essential skill for lawyers: it helps them bounce back from challenges, keep perspective, and view situations as growth experiences.
2) STRESS MANAGEMENT
Lawyers need training related to stress management. Learning how to set boundaries, communicate more effectively, separate urgent and non-urgent tasks, and develop new cognitive frameworks (replacing negative or skeptical thoughts with more neutral or positive statements) all play a role in helping a lawyer to be less stressed and, ultimately, more productive. Law firms and other organizations can encourage healthy coping mechanisms by decreasing alcohol-focused events. By promoting exercise and creative outlets such as art, music, or book clubs, attorneys will be exposed to other, better ways to manage stress.
3) TALENT MANAGEMENT AND MENTORING
More time should be spent evaluating a lawyer’s strengths and weaknesses and ought to be devoted to mentoring during the first year. The old model of placing the same expectations on every lawyer — to get clients, write impressive briefs, provide billable hours –is not working well. Identifying and maximizing each lawyer’s particular skill set, assists both attorneys and firms in becoming more productive.
4) MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA
There needs to be a safe place where lawyers can seek out help — whether it is a consultant to the firm, a friend, or therapist. Noticing when a colleague’s behavior changes is important. Firms and other organizations might also want to consider hiring an outside wellness consultant who would serve as a safe, confidential resource when needed. Having other assistance programs in place and a wellness consultant would serve to destigmatize further the seeking of help for mental well-being.
5) ACCESS TO RESOURCES
While most firms and organizations provide Employee Assistance Programs or a Behavioral Health Line, most lawyers do not use these or understand how each of these resources could help them. Despite having these programs, many attorneys have shared with me that access to care has been the biggest barrier in seeking help. There needs to be a better system in place, and having an in-house wellness consultant could be very beneficial.
6) STARTING POINTS
While I believe every lawyer would benefit from personal assessment and wellness training, this is not a practical step due to financial concerns and the current viewpoint many law firms hold that these activities don’t add value to the firm or organization. Advising new associates who are beginning their careers and need tools to survive and thrive would be an effective place to begin. Additionally, working with leadership teams could also create significant change within the firm and help other lawyers see the value of this type of training.
Law firms and other organizations have a unique opportunity to reduce the stigma of seeking counseling and to provide resources, tools and support to create happier, more productive lawyers. Adding wellness programs does cost money, but I believe it is well worth the investment. We should be able to answer all of the questions at the beginning of this article with a resounding “Yes!” There is no reason why things can’t improve for current and future lawyers. It is past time. Big shifts in a profession are daunting, but taking small steps to effect much-needed change would be a good beginning.