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Report highlights lawyer well-being

By Thomas Franz
BridgeTower Media Newswires

depositphotos_49899095_xl-2015-cmykIn an effort to improve well-being in the legal profession, the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs has released a report detailing ways to help lawyers lead healthier, more-fulfilling lives.

The report, titled “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” brings attention to a myriad of recommendations on preventing addiction and mental-health disorders while suggesting resources for help when necessary.

It provides an overview of a ABA study of 13,000 lawyers that, when released in 2016, found that between 21 and 36 percent of them qualify as problem drinkers and that approximately 28 percent are struggling with some level of depression, 19 percent with anxiety and 23 percent with stress.

For law students, the report stated that 17 percent had experienced some level of depression in the past year, 14 percent severe anxiety, 23 percent mild or moderate anxiety, and 6 percent serious suicidal thoughts.

To combat those figures, the report recommends various discussion topics. These could include the perceived need to eliminate the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors, to emphasize that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence and to take small, incremental steps toward changing how law is practiced.

Nelson P. Miller, an associate dean at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus, said time management and work complexity can harm a lawyer’s well-being.

“There are high expectations from clients for precise performance on a frequent basis. Lawyers must be skilled at time and task management, and I think that’s where the greatest stress of law practice is,” Miller said.

“Competition can be a challenging thing, it can be a negative experience,” Miller added. “We have a supportive academic environment that promotes team building and teamwork amongst students.

One step WMU-Cooley took to eliminate some of students’ stress was to increase the number of assessments, a change that reduced the importance of final exams.

“That may sound negative, but that’s actually a big issue for law schools, that many courses just have a single final exam. That creates a huge amount of stress for students who don’t know how they’re proceeding through the course,” Miller said. “We found that one significant change in the academic program, increasing the number of formative exams, we have much lower levels of exam stress and anxiety.”

Miller added that WMU-Cooley has also reduced lectures and increased instructional activities and engagement sessions.

Margaret Costello, an associate professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, thought the report was overly ominous, and that compared with other professions, the legal industry is generally a microcosm of society.

“We’re a much more stressed society than we were 100 years ago, particularly with the constant barrage of emails and social media,” Costello said. “When I started practicing law, you waited for the mail to come in, and if nothing showed up, you were safe for the day. Now it’s every second, something might come across your screen or cellphone.”

Costello pointed out reasons for why lawyers might be more susceptible to stress than others.

“One is the high standard we have because of the public trust, and the responsibility to our clients. The second is the fact that the legal profession in general tends to attract more type-A people, people who tend to be more driven, and have the qualities that maybe some people would associate with anxiety and depression in later years,” Costello said.

One cause of added stress, Costello said, is the amount of debt law students accrue before their careers begin.

“After devoting four years of their time to law school and sometimes not even knowing what the expectation is going to be in terms of not having a clear idea of what they can do with a law degree, that I think is very stressful,” Costello said. “I think that is more prevalent in our profession than in most other professions.”

Suggestions for change

Costello and Miller each suggested ways their schools could try to help students avoid unnecessary stress. They included stress-release days, workshops and journaling.

Costello suggested that schools could do more to tell students about the wide array of employment options they will have after graduation.

“I think we need to do a better job of preparing students early for the options of the profession, not everyone has to work at a large law firm,” Costello said. “If you want to work 40 hours a week, there are options for that.”

Miller added that because of the profession’s complex nature, more firms could gain efficiency through the use of business modeling.

“You can simplify and modernize many things,” Miller said. “Law firms can be more efficient and the work can be less stressful and more productive. I think we can simplify the work with study, there are very clear business methods for doing that, so I think there’s an opportunity there for all of us to get a little bit better.”

If you would like to comment on this story, email Thomas Franz at tfranz@mi.lawyersweekly.com.

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