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Let’s talk about high rates of mental health and substance abuse issues among new attorneys

By Chris McConkey

Jessica BustosRates of anxiety, depression, harmful drinking and related health concerns are high in the legal profession, especially among its new generation.

These issues deplete the well-being of attorneys and stifle the availability of affordable, high quality legal services. The legal profession has the opportunity and perhaps the responsibility to intervene in certain situations – for example in law school and legal work environments – when health is at risk.

Attorneys experience unusually high rates of stress, anxiety, depression and harmful drinking. Last winter, the Journal of Addiction Medicine published findings from a national study of about 13,000 attorneys working in the legal field. The researchers found that more than one in four (28 percent) of respondents exhibited signs of depression, more than one in five (23 percent) exhibited signs of stress, and slightly fewer (19 percent) exhibited signs of anxiety. The rates were even higher among new and young attorneys.

The study also detected high rates (21 percent) of problem drinking. Again, the rate was even higher (about 28 percent) for attorneys in their first 10 years of practice. Among those who self-identified their alcohol use as a problem, the most common response (44 percent) was that the issue began in the first 15 years of practice. Consequently, the researchers recommended that interventions target newly admitted attorneys.

Law schools, legal employers and even courts may have an ethical reason to help prevent and treat avoidable stress, anxiety and depression. These institutions may be teaching practices and creating environments that wear unnecessarily on the health of law students and attorneys. Fostering an environment in which law students and attorneys can thrive is also of benefit to the public. Low- to moderate-income Californians desperately need, and all Californians rely on, effective representation.

Let us expand the conversation about law student and attorney well-being. Is the legal profession’s current approach to lowering rates of mental health problems and substance abuse sufficiently proactive? Does prevention start early enough? Other disciplines, such as psychology and education, may offer crucial insight. Perhaps law schools should slightly adjust the traditional curriculum, and faculty could alter their teaching methods with mental health and substance issues in mind. With different training, students and attorneys might achieve the profession’s demanding standards in a way that is healthier and more sustainable.

In the meantime, practitioners, HR professionals, law school administrators, educators and others should frequently and widely promote resources that mitigate mental health and substance issues. The State Bar of California’s Lawyer Assistance Program (“LAP”), for example, offers free and confidential screenings to attorneys who experience stress, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. The American Bar Association offers resources for students, including a Substance Abuse & Mental Health Toolkit.

The California Young Lawyers Association (CYLA) Board of Directors will continue raising awareness about and pushing for solutions to issues that threaten the well-being of new attorneys. The State Bar Board of Trustees liaison to CYLA, Brandon Stallings, strongly encourages all new attorneys to seek support as soon as they need it:

“Research has shown that addiction can be linked to the lack of relationships in a person's life. This isolation can occur due to stressful environments created by increased workloads, under-employment and increasing debt levels. If a young attorney feels these pressures, the time to reach out to others should be early on, before substances are used to numb the sensation of drowning under the growing sense of futility. CYLA offers a point of personal contact for the young attorneys in California, which is essential to the healthy and competent practice of law. Our ability to protect our clients’ rights and interests as well as the public goes only as far as our ability to be mindful of our own health and well-being.”

Enhancing the health of law students and attorneys – for their own sake – is the right thing to do. Furthermore, it serves the public by increasing the supply of effective legal services and empathy for others.

Chris McConkey is a staff attorney at OneJustice and a member of the California Young Lawyers Association (CYLA) Board of Directors.