It’s no surprise that the state of the (already precarious) collective mental health in the United States has taken a massive hit because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of the more alarming statistics of the 2023 Mental Health in America report include the following:
In 2019-2020, 20.78% of adults were experiencing a mental illness. That is equivalent to over 50 million Americans.
The vast majority of individuals with a substance use disorder in the U.S. are not receiving treatment. In the past year, 15.35% of adults had a substance use disorder. Of them, 93.5% did not receive any form of treatment.
Millions of adults in the U.S. have serious thoughts of suicide, with the highest rate among multiracial individuals. The percentage of adults reporting serious thoughts of suicide is 4.84%, totaling over 12.1 million individuals. Eleven percent of adults who identified as being of two or more races reported serious thoughts of suicide in 2020 – 6% higher than the average among all adults.1
Additionally, when it comes specifically to the work environment, Gallup’s annual State of the Global Workplace report found that “about 60% of employees are emotionally detached from their jobs and 19% are miserable.”2
These reports are illustrative of what’s happening on the global and national stages. I asked several thought leaders on the front lines of the lawyer well-being movement what they are seeing on a day-to-day basis.
Wisconsin Lawyers’ Health and Well-being
In December 2021, the Wisconsin Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being published Lawyer Well-Being: Changing the Climate of Wisconsin’s Legal Profession (hereinafter Wisconsin report).3 Lindsey Draper, a task force member and long-time advocate for lawyer well-being, said that since the release of the report, a major challenge has been “defining well-being and maintaining the momentum of the movement.”4 Draper stated that additional issues include “how to implement the culture change many believe to be important. Making or finding the time to incorporate wellness practices often seems to be an additional demand on limited attorney time. Helping attorneys identify not just the importance of, but also the way to, make changes is both a challenge and goal.”
Draper believes that now, more than ever, it is crucial for solo practitioners and members of the judiciary, law firm employees, and law school students and faculty to recognize the importance of self-care.
Law School Messages Are Changing. Sara Ellis, a former litigator who is currently working on a Master of Science in social work, has observed one of the positive trends. She noted that there is an overall awareness that law schools and the profession itself are finally acknowledging that lawyers are not immune to common experiences of the human condition.
To illustrate this development, Ellis pointed out that on her first day in law school in 2008, a speaker told her class about the alarmingly high rates of substance misuse and mental health issues among lawyers. The students’ takeaway: They were destined to be miserable.
Then, while Ellis and her class were preparing for the bar as 3Ls in 2011, another speaker told them that the state’s lawyer assistance program was there to help but any diagnosis might have to be disclosed and disclosure could affect whether they were admitted to the bar. The implication was that if students had concerns about substance misuse or mental health, they should keep it to themselves.
In her work, Ellis is noticing that law schools are working hard to send a different message to law students: It is okay to need and get help. Bar organizations are starting to do the same by providing more mental health services to attorneys. Ellis said “there is still a long way to go to normalize what is nothing more than just part of being human.”5
Julie Bonasso, Temple 1995, is a consultant and coach specializing in lawyer well-being. An experienced corporate lawyer and Master Certified Coach, she helps clients reinvent their practices to achieve more balance and more profit. She is the founder and COO of Julie Bonasso Coaching, and a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being.
In-house Lawyer Well-being Staff. Laura Mahr, founder of Conscious Legal Minds, pointed out “an exciting innovation in the legal field that grew out of the pandemic-related mental health crisis was an increasing number of law firms hired a director of well-being entrusted with providing in-house resources and training for attorneys and staff to grow resilience and prevent chronic stress and burnout.” According to Mahr, one potential challenge for 2023 is that law firms “may be tempted to cut director of well-being positions or pause resources flowing into well-being programming as the financial markets” continue to be uncertain.
Mahr said that 2023 is “actually a great year to continue to grow well-being programming as mental health stressors generally exacerbate during financial unpredictability.” A theme she predicted will persist is that people will “continue to experience a lot of residual, unprocessed loss and trauma from the pandemic that gets played out in the workplace.”6
Taking Time Off Is an Option. One of the most inspiring developments, according to Elena Deutsch of WILL (Women Interested in Leaving Law), is that “talking [more] about mental health will carry into 2023 and shame is dissipating. Attorneys [at all ages] no longer care so much about stigma. They care about not losing their minds.” Deutsch noted that more attorneys are taking leaves of absence, even with fears about the economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many people to wonder, “What just happened? Is this really how I want to spend my life?”
Deutsch has helped over a dozen women take leaves of absence, and here’s what she witnessed: “At first, they don’t think it’s possible. Then they investigate [and] see it is. Get a note from their doctor or therapist. Go on FMLA. Often get paid during a 90-day leave.” And firms granting leaves create a win-win, according to Deutsch. “It’s a solid strategy to retain talent and cultivate more genuine and caring employee and client relationships.”7
2023 is “actually a great year to continue to grow well-being programming
as mental health stressors generally exacerbate during financial
I speak from personal experience when I say that the legal profession has improved tremendously in terms of lawyer well-being. In 2003, when I reached my tipping point of burnout, there was no option for me other than to stop practicing law. There was no one to talk to, there were no forums; the term “lawyer well-being” did not exist.
Even though it has taken 20 years, change is here. Energy is present. It’s a movement, not a moment.8 My prediction is that radical transformation will be swift, and technology will be a driver. A revolution is already underway, and members of Generation Z will demand that the legal profession operate in accordance with a new economy and modern workforce by consciously leading from a place of people first.
WisLAP Can Help
The Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP) offers confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, law students, and their families who are suffering from alcoholism, substance abuse, anxiety, and other issues that affect their well-being and law practice.
WisLAP Confidential Helpline: (800) 543-2625
National Suicide Prevention & Crisis Lifeline: Dial 988; suicidepreventionlifeline.org
» Cite this article: 96 Wis. Law. 37-39 (February 2023).