In an industry with great expectations for success and resiliency in high-stakes scenarios, the legal industry perhaps not surprisingly produces staggering statistics when it comes to mental health and well-being.
According to the American Psychological Association, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than their non-lawyer counterparts. The profession also has the 11th-highest incident of suicide rate among industries.
The ramifications extend beyond lawyers themselves. The mental well-being of lawyers can affect not only their clients but also the judicial system as a whole. The National Judicial Stress and Resiliency Survey, a poll conducted in 2020, found that the third-highest source of stress for 67.6% of judges was unprepared lawyers.
The stigma surrounding mental health is found at all levels of the profession, stretching all the way from law school to the executive offices at big firms. As Mental Health Awareness month wraps up in May, firms and schools are drawing attention to the subject while putting policies in place to keep it at the forefront of discussion.
Cura Personalis, a Latin term that means care for the whole person, is a priority in Marquette University’s law school, said Anna Fodor, adjunct associate professor of law and assistant dean of students at Marquette Law. This evinced in part by the services that go beyond the counseling services and other resources that the university offers to all students.
“Mental health in the law is an issue and it will continue to be,” Foder said. “We are going to continue to try and chip away at it.”
The school works to improve mental-health statistics by doing everything from offering required courses like Law Governing Lawyers, workshops like Lawyers in Life and small-scale initiatives like a weekly yoga class and subscriptions to the meditation app Headspace. It all begins from the moment first-year law students arrive at orientation.
“In my experiences, mental health is not top of mind,” Fodor said. “We acknowledge that and we think about how to effectively incorporate and plant seeds so that if, and sometimes when, a student experiences a mental health issue or mental health crisis, it’s “I remember there was that one thing I was told” that can kind of open a door.”
The school works to dispel the stigma that lawyers who have sought or want to seek therapy won’t be admitted to the bar. A financial resource workshop is also offered to help students with loan repayments and management.
Having earned a Well-Being Star from the Institute for Well-Being In Law, Husch Blackwell offers a program called Total Health that helps attorneys, paralegals and business professionals with their health goals.
Kim Lepera, Wellness Program Manager for Husch Blackwell, said in an email, “In addition to offering robust programming during the Well-Being Week in Law, in 2021, Husch Blackwell hosted a two-week initiative on mental health in October with a variety of presentations on anxiety, depression and substance use disorders. One-on-one opportunities to connect to a clinician were also available during this initiative. This year, the firm will again host a mental health initiative that will bring in speakers and resources for all.”
The firm’s plans, Lepera said, call for “mental health awareness training for leaders to learn strategies on how to help anyone needing mental health assistance so they can be pointed to the right contacts and/or find resources in a timely manner.”
Large firms like Husch Blackwell and Quarles & Brady have an even deeper pool of resources to draw from to support their legal teams. Quarles & Brady stated in an email that, along with participating in Well Being in the Law Week and related programs, “firm personnel receive a partial reimbursement for health club memberships and healthy living costs, including wellness app subscription costs.”
Heather Nelson, president of Green Bay-based The Everson Law Firm, understands how hard it is for lawyers to strike a work-life balance.
“I have to force myself to say I’m not looking at my email after X time of day,” she said. “Accessibility makes me not truly cut off and that affects my mental health.”
Firm size does not make attorneys or staff immune to the pressures of the profession. Nelson’s leadership role at the firm and close relationship with the human resource department place her on the frontlines of the 12-attorney firm’s work to support attorneys’ mental health.
“Because I’m in that role or because of I’m really supportive of mental health, I know a couple attorneys and staff that sought therapy,” Nelson said. “We make it 100% clear that we will be flexible with scheduling for what you need with appointments while keeping it confidential. You have a safe place to say that and we support that.”
Amid the pandemic and its resulting lack of social occasions, the firm organized parking-lot parties that allowed members to keep their distance from each other while enjoying food and drinks. Everson said the events led to a noticeable release of tension and stress. The firm continues to work on providing more options to allow employees opportunities for hybrid work in addition to flexible scheduling.
Tying it all in together, Nelson said, “We know we need to take care of our employees.”