Many attorneys suffer from poor mental health, research suggests.
Bar associations in Washington D.C., California, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey report poor lawyer mental health including elevated rates of burnout, depression, and anxiety. Sixty-eight percent of lawyers responding to a New Jersey State Bar Association survey said they experienced anxiety within the last two weeks; 56 percent reported a high prevalence of misuse of alcohol, and ten percent reported having suicidal thoughts.
New Jersey is among a cohort of states examining lawyer mental health and seeking ways to improve attorneys’ well-being. This week, the state bar released a report from a November 2022 survey with 1643 attorneys participating.
It concluded lawyers suffer significantly higher rates of anxiety, substance abuse disorders, suicidal thoughts, depression, and burnout than the working population. The New Jersey State Bar asked the state’s Supreme Court to eliminate a mental health condition question on the fitness and character questionnaire those seeking admission submit.
The grounds for the ask are based on the belief such disclosures will discourage lawyers and law students from seeking help. Forty-nine percent of survey respondents reported moderate to high burnout levels, almost twice the general working population.
Attorneys aged 35 to 50 were more likely to report burnout than lawyers over 65. The expectation of availability outside regular business hours, isolation, and weekend hours correlate to higher burnout rates.
Attorneys seldom put themselves first. The court, clients, firm, and their families are higher priorities. Twenty-three percent reported high symptoms of depression, 49 percent reported feeling isolated, and 29 percent considered leaving the profession.
Recommendations in the report include the establishment of a task force on attorney and judicial well-being, further study of attorney mental health, and permitting attorneys to receive continuing education credit for wellness-focused programs.
A lawyer mental health study released last week adds to the body of research that documents legal profession mental health problems. Lawyers responding to the survey are burned out and experience depression and anxiety. The Nonpartisan and Objective Research Organization from the University of Chicago and the Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers organization surveyed 4450 Massachusetts lawyers last year.
Seventy-seven percent reported feeling burned out, 26 percent reported depression, and seven percent had suicidal thoughts. Each of these is higher than the average adult in the U.S. Alcohol consumption also was highly rated, with 42 percent reporting hazardous or unhealthy use.
Nearly 50 percent considered leaving their firm, and 40 percent considered leaving the profession entirely due to stress or burnout. The Massachusetts study found depression, anxiety, and burnout were exceptionally high among minority groups.
Attorneys reported a supportive work environment where they were treated with respect and kindness, had access to mentorship and were given flexibility, had lower rates of depression, anxiety, and burnout, and had higher satisfaction with life.
In general, research has found the stigma or fear of the stigma often prevents lawyers from seeking help. Yet we know getting needed help leads to better long-term outcomes. Practicing law is stressful. It entails maintaining high professional standards, satisfying billing goals, managing conflicting priorities, responding to client demands, and meeting deadlines.
Avoiding stress is impractical and nearly impossible in the legal field. Stress is sometimes good; it can be valuable. With simple self-care practices and stress-relief tools, we can channel stress effectively, reduce the negative impact, and benefit from its positive aspects.