Shane Richards, Class of 2023, Belmont Law
It’s no secret that the legal profession has a mental health issue, with rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse steadily becoming more dire issues. Putting numbers to this phenomenon makes it far more real. A 2016 study by the American Bar Association found that attorneys are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed compared to other careers. The study further found that 28% of licensed, employed attorneys have depression and a further 21% can be characterized as problem drinkers. These stats have only worsened over the past seven years. A mental health survey of attorneys in 2022 showed that 35% of respondents were depressed. About 75% of respondents stated that the legal profession has had a negative impact on their mental health. 19% of respondents reported that they contemplated suicide. The problem with burn out, depression, and suicide is such an issue in the legal profession that every single page on the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program website is accompanied by a suicide prevention message.
These issues seem to start early on as well, before law students even get set foot in their first law office. According to a study by the Dave Nee Foundation, rates of depression among law students spikes drastically after the first semester, going from 10% to 27%. After three years of law school, the study found that 40% of law students experience depression. Another study found that 21% of surveyed law students reported serious thoughts of suicide in their lifetime. A more alarming survey from 2021 reported that nearly 69% of law students said they needed help for emotional or mental health problems in the past year. That number went up from 42% in 2014, which is still a horrific number to consider.
So, what causes all of these problems? It depends on who you ask. There are countless reasons that are bandied about. Some blame it on COVID-19 and the increased remoteness and isolation, despite these problems being prevalent well before COVID-19. Others believe, almost fatalistically, that this is just what happens when you mix type-A perfectionists with very demanding work—although attorneys are not unique in this regard when compared to other professions. Even others still would lay the blame at the feet of technology, which has doubtlessly increased the pace at which attorneys must practice.
Perhaps the best people to ask would be the attorneys themselves, and ABA Journal did just that in 2018, incorporating the two cents of various attorneys into its article. Eric J. Trabin, an attorney in Florida, stated plainly that it’s a combination of stress, solving the problems of others, and a toxic bar that deters lawyers from seeking help, saying “It’s why I sadly know numerous attorneys who have committed suicide in the past 11 years of my practice.” James Gray Robinson, a former family law attorney, shed some light on exactly why law students and new attorneys have some of the worst rates of depression:
Lawyers wear a bullseye on their back. Many Lawyers start their legal careers with crushing debt, zero clients and uncertainty about their future. Law Students face insurmountable odds and can be depressed even before they step foot out of law school.
Other contributions also indicate how most law students are totally blindsided by the level of debt they will accrue and how long it will take to pay down—the financial prospects not being as good as one might have hoped. So, they have made all of these sacrifices for a better life just to be dropped into a career that is incredibly stressful, is uniquely adverse toward fellow colleagues, takes on the problems of everyone else, requires constantly taking work home, and it may not even pay as well as originally hoped. Even when the financial award may be nice, somehow paying off that debt in a timely fashion, there are so many other burdens that one may not have bargained for. For instance, it could all be lost in an instant because of a momentary lapse in judgment.
Regardless of the many causes, and the accompanying speculation, what is to be done? The awareness of these issues has been increasing and more law firms are providing mental health programs to help struggling attorneys. Most recently, several law schools have employed an “Early Alert” system which sends out text messages to students which ask them to rate how they feel about certain topics. The system allows for students to report how they feel directly to faculty and then the faculty can refer these students to the appropriate resources. At Pepperdine, 89% of its 1L class use the system and are reportedly more proactive about seeking out the school’s wellness programs. Many law schools have a myriad of wellness resources for its students that have already existed for some time. General calls for the creation of a wellness culture, both in law school and the legal profession, are not new. CLE courses and activities focused on wellness also is not new. As well meaning as these programs might be, they do not fix the core issues, which is evidenced by the statistics only getting worse.
The problem with these wellness programs is that they do not address the bigger structural problems. Perhaps they need more time to develop and something like the “Early Alert” system will point aspiring attorneys to these activities. Maybe then a statistical impact will be felt. They certainly are important and should exist to prevent worst case scenarios. At the end of the day, however, a wellness retreat does not take any of the pressure off. An attorney who takes some time off for a wellness retreat is only going to come back to an office with the exact same conditions—it might even be worse because work has stacked up. For a law student transitioning into their legal career, it certainly does little more than distract from reality for a short time. Perhaps a counselor will help one learn how to better deal with the stress, but the source of the stress still exists. The stress remains. The debt, the workload, the hostility between peers, the necessity of tearing others down to elevate oneself, the elevating of only a select few, the pitiful financial compensation awaiting some, the prospect of working every single day to meet required billable hours, the culture of soulless networking to get ahead, all of it still remains. The idea of a firm’s wellness program for a struggling attorney comes down to trying to make them feel better just to throw them back into the meat grinder. The conditions are no better. The pay is no better. The stress is no better. Please, just feel better about these conditions that have driven you to despair and get back to the same work. No, the conditions will not change.
This attitude and strategy might make people feel better for a while, but it is not a comprehensive solution. Something more than just counseling, prescribing medications, and directing people to other resources needs to be done. Although these things are helpful when it fits the situation, something about the structure and the regular daily conduct of the legal profession needs to change to actually reduce stress among attorneys. Perhaps a more congenial culture between attorneys might help. Maybe more limits could be placed on discovery to reduce one of the most time-consuming aspects of litigation. Another idea may lie is creating a culture of setting boundaries between firms, clients, and attorneys. It could even help if more scholarships, weighted based on need and ability, were created to relieve some of the debt burden that falls on so many law students. There are surely many ideas that could be dreamed up to help, but they also need to be partly focused on relieving the actual sources of stress and not just dedicated to teaching people how to cope with it. Until the actual sources of pressure are relaxed, it is skeptical as to whether the mental health of attorneys and law students will truly improve.