In 2016, the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published the results of its national study on behavioral health in the legal profession in the Journal of Addiction Medicine. Researchers of the landmark study studied 13,000 lawyers and found that 28% of licensed, employed lawyers suffer from depression, 1 in 5 struggle with anxiety, and more than 1 in 3 are problem drinkers. The first study of its kind in 25 years, its empirical data confirmed what was until then a widely-held but rather hushed view that a disproportionately high number of attorneys struggle with depression, anxiety, and alcoholism.
Indeed, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-legal professionals, and the legal profession ranks fifth among occupations with respect to the incidence of suicide. Lawyers are consistently at high risk of burnout — a state characterized by chronic emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion declared by the World Health Organization earlier this year to be an “occupational phenomenon” and a legitimate psychological diagnosis.
Staple ingredients of modern life and lawyering — long hours, a competitive market, (competing) demands from partners and clients to produce higher quality work in a shorter timeframe and meet higher billing requirements, the increasing frequency of real-time communications (such as text messaging), and 24/7 expectations that have eroded the line between work and home — have made it all but inevitable that lawyers will face burnout and high levels of stress.
On a daily basis, lawyers are expected to do more, bill more, manage communications across multiple channels, and handle all the administrative tasks attendant upon these — filing information spread across devices and applications, scheduling meetings, correctly billing and keeping track of these increasingly frenetic tasks. More micro-decisions to make, and the pressure to respond immediately and multi-task results in context-switching costs, fatigue, reduced productivity, chronic stress, higher levels of burnout, increased likelihood of conflict or misunderstanding, dissatisfaction, and low morale.
Even though the expectations and demands of lawyers have become more onerous, lawyers’ access to sufficient resources and support is lower than ever. Firms have been cutting back on administrative support staff to reduce overhead costs since the recession. And roughly a third of mid-level associates report that they do not have a mentor — and considering the pressures of today’s competitive legal market and clients’ increasing demands for discounts and alternative billing models, it’s no surprise that partners have less time to provide associates with more hands-on guidance.
Lawyers feel shame, guilt, and anxiety about their inability to get through everything on their to-do list and fulfill the expectation that they produce higher quality work. The pressure to bill more has even led many associates to come to view family events, hobbies, and exercise as “costing” them precious time that could have been spent billing, at further cost to their wellbeing. And because they are afraid of being perceived as weak and unworthy of promotion, most of the time, lawyers “suck it up” and try to “get over it” by working more and sleeping less.
In this environment, everyone is losing. This mental health crisis is causing law firms to suffer from high rates of attorney attrition, low morale, and reduced productivity. And this directly impacts bottom lines. According to the National Association for Law Placement, losing just one associate can cost between $200,000 and $500,000. And as law firms are increasingly being put under pressure to lower fees, the reported 70% decrease in productivity caused by chronic burnout necessarily results in a loss in efficiency that can have a tangible financial impact.
For many law firms, the focus has traditionally been on fees, growth, and productivity. In this context, wellbeing has been less of a priority, something nice-to-have; work-life balance a fun, but ultimately optional, perk. But given the very real financial impact that law firms are facing today, it is in everyone’s best interest to prioritize attorney wellbeing, implement meaningful workflow change, and reconfigure office practices aimed at preserving and improving their employees’ health.
Firms that prioritize and support their employees’ wellbeing enjoy higher morale, employee retention, productivity, and profitability. And employees that rise to the occasion, practice self-care, set boundaries, seek balance and take steps to control their mental workspace, may find themselves working smarter, not harder, and leading healthier, more fulfilling lives. Some suggestions for firms looking to make a meaningful change in 2020 are listed below.