Aug. 16, 2017 – Last month, the New York Times published an article, “The Lawyer, The Addict,” in which the ex-wife of a high-powered Silicon Valley attorney tells the story of her former husband Peter’s downward spiral and eventual death from drug abuse.
“Of all the heartbreaking details of his story, the one that continues to haunt me is this: The history on his cellphone shows the last call he ever made was for work,” wrote Eilene Zimmerman. “Peter, vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness, had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call.”
Zimmerman unravels the last year of Peter’s life, tries to make sense of how she and other people around him did not see what was happening, and sheds more light on the substance and mental health problems that lawyers are facing in America.
She notes the critical signs she missed – his appearance and strange behavior– coupled with the perception that a man of Peter’s intelligence and success could not possibly be a drug abuser. “That’s impossible,” she told medical workers who responded after Zimmerman found Peter dead at his home. “He was so smart.”
But Zimmerman also questions whether enough is being done, at higher levels, to combat the substance abuse and mental health problems in the legal profession.
“Real change, experts and recovering addicts say, needs to happen at the law firm level, but that is complicated by an entrenched culture of privacy combined with an allegiance to billable hours,” Zimmerman wrote.
“I firmly believe that law firm culture, particularly at big firms, has to become more compassionate and more aware of the signs that one of their own is struggling.”
New Report Provides Steps for Legal Employers
A new report, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,” published Aug. 14 by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, provides 40 recommendations on how to address the current state of lawyer well-being, including substance abuse and mental health.
The task force is a coalition of groups initiated by the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP).
org jforward wisbar Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by org jforward wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
The recommendations are designed to improve attorney well-being, which addresses emotional, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual aspects of one’s life.
Judges, regulators, legal employers, law schools, lawyer assistance programs, and bar associations are the target stakeholders of the report.
For instance, it recommends that bar associations sponsor high-quality CLE programming on well-being-related topics. It says law schools should train faculty on student mental health. It says regulators should expand CLE requirements to include well-being topics, which is something the Wisconsin Board of Bar Examiners (BBE) has already done. Lawyers can get credit for courses on substance abuse awareness.
The report recommends that legal employers establish organizational infrastructure to promote well-being, establish policies and practices to support lawyer well-being, and provide training and education on well-being, including new lawyer orientation.
For instance, law firms could assess the firm’s well-being-related culture through anonymous surveys that gauge staff attitudes about well-being, and the organizational climate for support for mental health or substance use disorders.
One of Zimmerman’s major questions was how Peter could slip through the cracks and start spiraling so out of control without anyone noticing. Another question: did co-workers at the law firm notice something was wrong with Peter and choose not to intervene?
“Probably, they didn’t know how to intervene,” said Mary Spranger, who manages the Wisconsin Lawyer Assistance Program (WisLAP) through the State Bar of Wisconsin. WisLAP staff and volunteers can spot the problems and help intervene.
“We train our volunteers to do this. Intervening takes vulnerability and this is not a comfortable place for most lawyers to stand.”
WisLAP Can Help
If you are concerned about a colleague, family member, or yourself, contact WisLAP for a free, confidential consultation at (800) 543-2625.
What if the law firm had a confidential reporting procedure to report concerns about colleagues? A law firm procedure for Peter to seek confidential help, without being penalized or stigmatized? What if Peter felt the law firm would treat him like a wounded soldier, instead of a pariah, and actively help him on the path towards recovery?
“With procedures in place, it is more likely that someone would have raised concerns about Peter, and more likely that Peter would have obtained the help he needed,” said Spranger. “It will take a major culture shift over time. Legal work is inherently stressful, and the legal profession needs built-in safety nets to catch those who fall. But lawyers will continue to hide problems if they don’t feel that disclosing them is an option.”
Spranger says the ABA report gives practical guidance on how law firms can implement the built-in safety net through well-being strategies.
Spranger also says the report effectively and non-judgmentally shines a light on the real-life concerns that are actually affecting today’s lawyers – this story and others like it happen more than we like to think about.
It offers guidance on the training and responsibility to help identify lawyers and implement the safety net strategy. Lawyers won’t walk into the net willingly – they need more guidance and more permission about access, Spranger said.
Reasons to Take Action
The ABA report draws on a 2016 study, from the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, showing high rates of substance abuse and mental health problems in the legal profession, which the State Bar of Wisconsin highlighted in Wisconsin Lawyer. Former WisLAP manager Linda Albert was one of the study’s authors.
The Hazelden/ABA study, the first comprehensive empirical study since 1990, reveals the alarming statistics. For instance, 31 percent of private law firm lawyers who identified as junior associates also identified as problem drinkers. The newest report reiterates the high rates of substance abuse and mental health problems among lawyers and law students.
But it also notes that many lawyers are simply unsatisfied with or ambivalent about their work, without any underlying mental or substance abuse issues. Spranger says that WisLAP can help lawyers who may feel the “law firm blues” without a diagnosed problem, helping them to develop strategies before other problems arise.
Law firms and other employers should act to promote the health and well-being of attorneys for various reasons, the report notes. For one, healthy lawyers will contribute to organizational success: happier and healthier lawyers are more productive.
“For business organizations like law firms and corporate counsel, attorney health is an important form of human capital that can provide a competitive advantage,” the report states. “For example, job satisfaction predicts retention and performance.”
Attorney well-being makes business sense.
Guess what? Lawyers who are unhappy will leave, and larger firms lose an estimated $25 million per year because of turnover. Attorney well-being makes business sense, and not just for larger firms. Spranger says solo and small-firm lawyers often struggle alone for extended periods because they have even less ability to access resources.
Well-being is also linked to ethics and professionalism. Rules that require lawyers to provide competent representation, strive to attain the highest level of skill, and improve the law and the legal profession cannot be achieved if lawyers are impaired or unhappy. Again, happy and healthy lawyers are more likely to meet their ethical obligations.
“All told, the benefits of increased lawyer well-being are compelling, the cost of lawyer impairment is too great to ignore, and there has never been a better or more important time for all sectors of the profession to get serious about the substance use and mental health of ourselves and those around us,” the report explains.
Finally, the report notes, ensuring the well-being of lawyers is the right thing to do. In a self-regulated profession, the legal community should be vested in helping each other.
“While professional norms reinforce an individualistic focus and self-sufficiency, the reality is that we all contribute to, and are affected by, the professional culture that can harm or sustain our own and others’ well-being. [A]voidable obstacles erected by the profession that prevent lawyers from living up to their potential are indefensible.”
Spranger says the legal profession must continue pushing to destigmatize the mental health and substance abuse problems that many lawyers are clearly experiencing. “The more we talk, the easier it is to change the culture surrounding these issues,” she said.
As Eilene Zimmerman’s story notes, we may not understand what drives a lawyer to drugs or alcohol, but the legal profession should not pretend it isn’t happening.
“Human beings are physically and emotionally complex, so there is no simple answer as to why Peter began abusing drugs,” she wrote. “But as a picture of his struggle took shape before my eyes, so did another one: The further I probed, the more apparent it became that drug abuse among America’s lawyers is on the rise and deeply hidden.”