Unfortunately, the words lawyer and wellness are not grouped together enough. In fact, according to a Bloomberg Law survey taken in the last quarter of 2021, surveyed lawyers said they experienced burnout in their jobs 52% of the time. It doesn’t stop with burnout, either. Lawyers also experience high substance abuse, depression, and anxiety. Read on to learn about the issues surrounding lawyer wellness, why attorney mental health matters, and scenarios you can apply to your life now.
What Are The Problems Lawyers Face?
In order to understand how to help lawyers suffering from these debilitating symptoms, we have to understand the common problems that are contributing to them.
If you asked almost any lawyer about what causes them to feel overwhelmed, almost all would say not having enough time and feeling tied to every billable hour. Their thoughts are consumed worrying about billable hours, and their inability to think outside of that framework causes distress. They’re always hustling to get the next project done or to make sure they’re preparing themselves appropriately so that they will be able to get a choice project. Not to mention having to figure out how to practice law on top of other elements like business development.
The balancing act eventually takes over which absolutely contributes to mental health and wellness decline. Fortunately, there is hope.
Why Attorney Wellness and Mental Health Matters
A lot of people suffer from burnout, anxiety, and depression, so what makes lawyers different? Why does it matter? Well, the stats speak for themselves.
In the article, “Lawyer Burnout: Stopping it Before it Starts,” Sharon Miki highlights several studies that provide insight into lawyer burnout.
- In a 2016 study conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA)/Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, researchers found that 21% of working lawyers struggle with problem drinking, 28% suffer from depression, and 19% struggle with anxiety.
- In a 2014 Yale Law School Survey, 70% of law students reported that they struggled with mental health issues during their time in law school.
- In a 2020 ALM Survey completed by 3,800 lawyers and legal professionals, researchers found that 31.2% of respondents felt they were depressed, 64% felt that they were experiencing anxiety, 10.1% felt that they had an alcohol problem, and 2.8% felt they had a drug problem.
Discussing wellness and mental health matters because it could be the very thing that a struggling lawyer needs to see in order to ask for support before they’ve gotten to a point that is difficult to return from. Oftentimes, people that ask for help are already at the end of their rope, and by the time they actually make that phone call, they’re not producing like they should or able to stay on top of things. They’re slipping and feeling the stress of trying to build. Production is nearly impossible and stagnancy takes over. All of these emotions create “crisis periods,” and they’re having to navigate how to create motivation for their next project and how they’re going to develop their clients while in a panicked state.
Lawyer Well-being Is Possible
Trying to integrate wellness into your life as a struggling lawyer may seem impossible, especially when you feel like you’ve reached the end of the ride, but IT IS possible, which is why I am so dedicated to coaching. My mission is to try to help lawyers on the front end and to assist them in developing foundational skills necessary to avoid burnout. Instead of being in such a dire strait and calling for help as a last resort, I help lawyers to be able to see the signs along the way and realize they aren’t going down a good trajectory. Most importantly, I help them realize they don’t have to live in an autopilot hamster wheel world where there’s not time to pause.
How Do You Know You’re Experiencing Well-being?
Lawyer well-being can and will look different for everyone, but in general, it should incorporate managing your stress, improving your work-life balance, developing a positive mindset, and promoting self-care.
Maybe well-being looks like being able to have a consistent set of tools that you’re able to pull from so that when you’re in a “What do I do?” moment, you can take a step back and remember what you’ve learned. Or, maybe it’s figuring out how to communicate with someone that’s difficult, whether it’s a client mentor or even another lawyer in your office, or not letting the competitiveness of seeing everybody else’s hours all the time damage your psyche, mindset, and motivation.
To summarize, lawyer well-being can look like these (and many other things!):
- Managing your mindset
- Communicating effectively
- Building strong relationships
- Understanding that not every day will be perfect
- Not letting feeling stuck send you downhill
What Lawyer Well-being ISN’T
When you’re struggling, it can be easy to get caught in the commonly pushed “quick fixes.” Whether that’s quitting alcohol, only eating fruits and vegetables and drinking water, meditating, or practicing gratitude.
Let’s break down gratitude. We all know that practicing gratitude is important, but if you start writing down two or three things a day that you’re grateful for without any other tools, you’re not going to start seeing a lot of transformation change in your practice.
In fact, if you say you’re going to start doing that every day and then you don’t do it, you’re really just creating another obstacle and mindset trap for yourself, when the focus should be trying to figure out how to navigate your mindset and getting to the core of your triggers. Thoughts like “If I can’t even write down three things that I’m grateful for, how can I do anything?” will begin to circulate and impede your progress.
All of this isn’t to say these things can’t be beneficial, but at the end of the day, well-being isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and copying what someone else is doing won’t solve your specific problem.
Actively Practicing Lawyer Wellness
If you need some examples of how to actively practice lawyer wellness, consider these scenarios:
1. You’re Having a Slow Month and It’s Making You Panic
Here is my challenge for you: Don’t immediately fall into a scarcity mindset. Just because there isn’t work here and right now doesn’t mean the year is going to be really slow. Your thinking doesn’t have to be so black or white. Instead, try shifting your perspective:
“Hey, oh my gosh, I’ve got a slow period. How can I use this to my benefit? Maybe this actually is a really good thing that I have a slow March because I’ve just billed 2,500 hours last year, and If I’m going to try to work even remotely at that level this year, then I do need a period of downtime.” It’s about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, wrapping your head around new obstacles, and understanding that this type of shift comes with time, practice, trusting, and moving more towards an abundance mindset.
2. You’re Experiencing Tension at Work
If there’s a conflict with somebody at work, you can easily feel overwhelmed because you know you’ve got work to do, but there’s also this very noticeable tension that you can’t deal with right now.
Be sure to prioritize a time to come back to that moment and figure out how to deal with it instead of just letting it sit and fester and get bigger. A lot of lawyers are naturally conflict-avoidant and this creates a loss of productivity because the feeling becomes nagging.
3. You’re Fighting Perfectionism
As a lawyer, it’s common to feel like you’re expected to be perfect, and If you’re not, then clients aren’t gonna want to work with you. Of course, this usually isn’t the case, so figuring out a balance and where you can give yourself grace is crucial. I encourage people to have honest conversations with their clients about their goals and how they want you to show up as their lawyer because without having a clear path and understanding your clients’ needs, you can over-perform and actually provide more than necessary.
When you’re focusing on perfectionism, there are usually underlying reasons like outdoing your peers and proving yourself right. This mindset inevitably takes away from your client and can cause a variety of other issues if managed improperly. Clients really just want you to understand them, be empathetic, and show up. They really value soft skills more than whether a document has a reasonable period.
Rachel Fry Consulting is dedicated to helping lawyers live their best lives (both in and out of the office) and provides training and coaching for associates, partners, and legal teams. For more information services, contact me today!