I have never been big on resolutions. That is about to change. January is a good time for the legal profession as a whole to reexamine its relationship with self-care and well-being in terms of work-life balance and preventing lawyer impairment.
In 2015, the American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford collaborated on research, based on a survey of 12,825 licensed, employed attorneys, that was published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine in 2016 as “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys.” The Wisconsin Lawyer also covered the survey in “Landmark Study: U.S. Lawyers Face Higher Rates of Problem Drinking and Mental Health Issues” (Feb. 2016).
Among the survey findings:
21 percent of respondents scored at a level consistent with problematic drinking. The national average is 6.4 percent.
Using a smaller sample size, 24 percent reported drug use in the intermediate-to-severe range.
28 percent of respondents reported experiencing depression, 19 percent reported anxiety, and 23 percent reported stress. The national average of people who experienced a major depressive disorder is 6.67 percent.
11.5 percent reported suicidal thoughts during their career.
In addition to these alarming findings, a majority (63%) of lawyers in need went without mental health services, and the vast majority of lawyers (93%) in need of drug or alcohol treatment went without. Respondents noted they had problems asking for help, including because of concerns about privacy and confidentiality.
Lawyers, family members, employers, clients, and the legal system as a whole are all negatively affected when lawyers are struggling with untreated health issues. The legal workplace likely contributes to the circumstances fostering these impairment issues.
Many lawyers focus on advocating for other people and entities, doing their best to solve clients’ problems and attain the outcomes clients deserve. The data suggest that being a good lawyer depends not only on winning cases and accumulating billable hours but also on lawyer self-care. Like members of helping professions generally, to most effectively help other people, lawyers first must help themselves.
WisLAP is not only for
problems with alcohol
or drugs; WisLAP is
also there for help
with stress, anxiety,
depression, and for
general support about
ways to improve health,
outlook, and functioning.
Accessible support and education tailored to the legal profession make a difference. Lawyer assistance programs such as the State Bar’s Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) have expertise with the complicated issues lawyers face and with helping find the way to recovery and better management of mental health and other conditions and stressors. WisLAP is not only for problems with alcohol or drugs; WisLAP is also there for help with stress, anxiety, depression, and for general support about ways to improve health, outlook, and functioning. Ideally, the time to reach out for help is before the problem becomes so overwhelming that it seems insurmountable.
Additionally, as the new year begins, take stock of your workplace. Healthy workplaces produce healthy and productive employees, contribute to organizational success, and positively influence ethics and professionalism. The State Bar, through WisLAP, will commit increased time and attention to outreach to law firms. While some firms offer formal employee assistance programs, employees may be unaware of them or hesitate to use these services due to concerns about stigma and confidentiality. WisLAP staff and volunteers understand the particular stresses faced by lawyers and provide services and solutions tailored to the lawyers they serve.
So, as we usher in 2019, I wish you a happy and healthy New Year, and I urge you to resolve to advocate for yourself and find balance and support in your life. I resolve to try and do the same for myself. A good place to start is by reading “What the Army Can Teach Us About Resilience” in this issue.
WisLAP Can Help
Helpline (800) 543-2625
If you need help with alcohol or drug problems, stress, and other personal issues, call the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) helpline at (800) 543-2625. Volunteers are available 24/7 for confidential assistance. Volunteers do not answer the helpline. WisLAP staff answer the helpline during the day; after-hours callers are connected to our contracted assistance provider.