The lawyer well-being movement has been many years in the making, but as we all know, change can be slow. Initial studies and writings about lawyer and law student distress were first published in the 1980s and early 1990s. These studies revealed alarming rates of anxiety and depression in otherwise healthy individuals, with as many as 20-40 percent of law students being clinically depressed and lawyers suffering from a rate of depression 3.6 times higher than people in dozens of other professions.1
Famed psychologist Martin Seligman wrote about low lawyer well-being in his book Authentic Happiness, explaining it as the confluence of three factors – pessimism, low decision latitude in high-stress situations, and that law is often a zero-sum game.2 The profession, he rightly pointed out, had become less about collegiality, fairness, and justice and more about big business, the bottom line, and billable hours.3
Paula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is the founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, a training and consulting firm focused on enhancing resilience, well-being, and engagement in the legal profession. She is the author of the e-book, Addicted to Busy: Your Blueprint for Burnout Prevention.
Law professors and researchers built upon these initial findings by looking to social science for clues to explain the cause of the distress, with a particular focus on the law school and law student experience.4 In 2004, Seligman launched a formal masters’ level program at the University of Pennsylvania to teach the science of positive psychology and well-being, and the first class graduated in 2005. Since then, a handful of lawyers, including myself, have completed the program, excited to bring research-based tools back into the profession.
It is important to acknowledge the long-standing work of the Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) and lawyer assistance program professionals nationwide. These dedicated individuals have sounded the message about lawyer well-being and the need for prevention, early intervention, and education for decades. Their work opened doors for those of us who would follow.
My colleagues and I spent those early years teaching, talking, and writing about well-being topics, building on and working alongside WisLAP and lawyer assistance program professionals and volunteers. While many in the profession found our message interesting, it was the calm before the calm so to speak. We were missing a “spark.”
That changed when a large-scale study, published in 2016, found much higher than average rates of problem drinking, depression, anxiety, and stress among current practicing attorneys in the United States.5 At the same time, a survey of more than 3,300 law students found that they were also experiencing higher than average rates of depression, anxiety, and binge drinking.6
Given this data, lawyer well-being no longer can be ignored, and a movement is afoot. This is a summary of different initiatives currently taking place at both the state and the national levels.
Incorporate Well-being Into Your Daily Life
There are things lawyers and firm leaders can do right now to promote well-being in the profession. Here are some from the Task Force Report:
Build relationships with lawyer well-being experts.
Personally model a commitment to well-being. (This is especially important for firm leaders.)
Foster collegiality and respectful engagement in the profession by reducing incivility, promoting diversity and inclusion, and creating meaningful mentoring and sponsorship programs.
Offer high-quality educational programs about lawyer mental health and well-being.
Guide the support and transition of older lawyers.
National Support for Lawyer Wellness
A National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being was convened after the 2016 studies were published. Since then, here is how the American Bar Association has expanded its work in this area.
August 2017. The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being issued a report, “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change” (the “Task Force Report”). The report’s recommendations focus on five themes:7
Identifying stakeholders and the role each of us can play to increase well-being in the profession;
Eliminating the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors;
Emphasizing that well-being is a critical part of a lawyer’s duty of competence;
Educating all constituents within the profession about well-being issues; and
Taking small steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to create greater well-being in the profession.
September 2017. ABA immediate past president Hilarie Bass created the Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession and it continues under the ABA’s current president, Bob Carlson.8
August 2018. The “Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers” was published, along with a shorter version summarizing 80 of the toolkit’s key items.9 Individuals and firms can use the toolkit to find information and resources to get started on the path to well-being.
While most lawyers won’t experience circumstances this severe, the stress, complexity, and pace of the profession often undercut lawyers’ ability to thrive.
January/February 2018. At the ABA Midyear Meeting, the House of Delegates passed Resolution 105, which made it ABA policy to support the goal of reducing mental health disorders and substance use disorders.10
September 2018. The Well-Being Pledge for Legal Employers was launched, and to date, more than 50 law firms and one corporate legal department have signed the pledge. The pledge requires that signatories adhere to the following seven points:11
Provide enhanced and robust educational opportunities to lawyers and staff on well-being, substance use disorders, and mental health distress;
Reduce the emphasis on drinking-based events;
Develop visible partnerships with outside entities committed to reducing problematic substance use disorders and mental health distress in the profession;
Provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources to all employees, including free, in-house self-assessment tools;
Create a proactive, written protocol and leave policy that covers the assessment and treatment of substance abuse and mental health problems;
Actively promote and encourage help-seeking and self-care as organizational core values; and
Highlight the adoption of this framework to attract and retain the best lawyers and staff.
WisLAP: How to Give and Get Help
Hundreds of State Bar of Wisconsin members have served as Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) volunteers over the decades since the State Bar’s program first came into existence as Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers in the 1980s.
According to Mary Spranger, WisLAP manager, “It is everyone’s responsibility to pay attention to their own well-being and the well-being of others. This problem is so significant it requires all hands on deck.”
Would you like to help? WisLAP, a peer-support program with about 150 trained volunteer lawyers and judges, always needs more volunteers. These volunteers provide peer assistance to lawyers and judges and speak about lawyer health and well-being topics at local bar meetings and conferences.
Participation requires one full-day training, with follow-up training every other year. The commitment varies based on needs and volume of calls.
You can also volunteer to be a part of the WisLAP Committee to help oversee the program. Committee members meet regularly throughout the year.
Do you know someone who needs confidential help? Interested in a presentation on a wellness issue? Contact us at:
To better understand well-being trends in Wisconsin, I talked to Mary Spranger, manager of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP). She said that while attorneys are using WisLAP services more frequently, there are still misperceptions about the services WisLAP offers. Many in the legal profession think of it as a place of last resort for lawyers with serious substance abuse and mental health issues, but it’s much more than that. WisLAP offers resources for attorneys facing a variety of issues, including a serious health-related diagnosis, eating disorders, and marital or other family concerns. (See sidebar “WisLAP: How to Give and Get Help.”)
In addition, lawyers in Wisconsin can earn continuing legal education credits (limited to six credits per reporting period) for workplace practice and well-being related topics. These are called, respectively, law practice management credits and lawyer awareness and understanding credits.12
Both Wisconsin law schools are on the cutting edge of adopting well-being related concepts into segments of their curriculum. Several years ago, I worked with Sarah Davis, Mitch, and U.W. Law School clinic students in a day-long workshop to teach them burnout prevention and resilience tools.13 Spranger keeps periodic office hours at the U.W. Law School to assist students with mental health concerns. In addition, I teach stress management, burnout prevention, and resilience skills workshops every year in Peter Rofes’ class, “Lawyers and Life,” at Marquette University Law School.
Lawyer well-being influences ethics and professionalism, and troubled lawyers can struggle with even minimum levels of competence.14 Spranger also noted that WisLAP fields an increasing number of calls directly from clients who report impairment concerns with their lawyers. She reports that there is a greater expectation from the general public to prioritize well-being, and the profession has a responsibility to take its ethical integrity with the utmost seriousness.
Untreated mental health and substance abuse disorders ruin lives and careers.15 While most lawyers won’t experience circumstances this severe, the stress, complexity, and pace of the profession often undercut lawyers’ ability to thrive. The Task Force Report states, “We all contribute to, and are affected by, the collective legal culture. Whether that culture is toxic or sustaining is up to us. Our interdependence creates a joint responsibility for solutions.”16
Will you join us? The time is now.
1 G. Andrew H. Benjamin et al., The Role of Legal Education in Producing Psychological Distress among Law Students and Lawyers, 11(2) Law & Social Inquiry 225-52 (1986); William W. Eaton et al., Occupations and the Prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder, 32(11) J. Occupational Med. 1079-87 (1990).
2 Martin E.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment 177-84 (New York, NY: Free Press 2002).
3 Id. at 180.
4 Lawrence S. Krieger, Institutional Denial about the Dark Side of Law School, and Fresh Empirical Guidance for Constructively Breaking the Silence, 52 J. Legal Educ. 112-29 (2002); see also Kennon M. Sheldon & Lawrence S. Krieger, Does Legal Education Have Undermining Effects on Law Students? Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values and Well-Being, 22 Behav. Sci. Law 261-86 (2004); Todd David Peterson & Elizabeth Waters Peterson, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology, 9 Yale J. Health Pol’y L. & Ethics 357-434 (2009).
5 Patrick R. Krill, Ryan Johnson & Linda Albert, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 J. Addiction Med. 46 (2016); see also Joe Forward, Landmark Study: U.S. Lawyers Face Higher Rates of Problem Drinking and Mental Health Issues, 89 Wis. Law. 2 (Feb. 2016).
6 Jerome M. Organ, David B. Jaffe & Katherine M. Bender, Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Concerns, 66 J. Legal Educ. 116 (2016).
7 You can download a copy of the Task Force Report here: https://tinyurl.com/ybno5kzs.
8 The Working Group has its own dedicated page on the ABA website.
9 You can download a copy of the full Toolkit; and a copy of the shorter “Nutshell.” I was honored to contribute to the Toolkit.
10 Bob Carlson, It’s Time to Promote Our Health: ABA Mobilizes on Multiple Fronts to Address Well-Being in the Legal Profession, ABA J., Dec. 2018.
11 Here is a downloadable copy of the Pledge form.
12 See SCR 31.02 (3) and (4) for more information.
13 Nicole Sweeney Etter, The Art of Bouncing Back, 38(1) Gargoyle (Spring 2015). The Gargoyle is the U.W. Law School’s alumni magazine.
14 Supra note 7 at page 8.
15 Eilene Zimmerman and Joanna Litt have each humanized the lawyer well-being movement, and they speak to the urgency with which we must work. Zimmerman wrote about her ex-husband’s struggle with drug addiction in a brilliant piece for the New York Times called “The Lawyer, The Addict.” Litt recently wrote about her husband, Gabe MacConaill, a law partner who committed suicide in October.
16 Supra note 7 at page 9.