Let’s talk about high rates of mental health and substance
abuse issues among new attorneys
By Chris McConkey
Rates of anxiety, depression, harmful drinking and related
health concerns are high in the legal profession, especially among its new
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.