What would you do if you suspected that one of your colleagues was chronically depressed or was abusing alcohol or drugs?
Unfortunately, most small and midsize law firms can't answer this question.
Some don't even want to think about it.
Small and midsize law firms are especially vulnerable to cultural and business risks posed by deteriorating mental health in lawyers. In these firms every person is a “key person” in one way or another. The loss of one person can be more disruptive – both emotionally and financially – than in a large firm. An entire practice group might be built on the reputation and the performance of one lawyer, usually a partner.
Some small and midsize firms may not have knowingly experienced a mental health crisis in one of their key people. For that reason, they may be reluctant to inquire into what appear to be obvious signs of underperformance, depression, or substance abuse.
stress in a stressful profession
There are factors that contribute to lawyers, as individuals, being vulnerable to stress. These include: heavy workloads and long hours; self-imposed perfectionism and anxieties about loss of control; ever-increasing client expectations for low-cost, high quality service; lack of personal or family time; social isolation, and competition, internally, for economic self interest.
When lawyers are stressed out, they start to shut down mentally, even without realizing it. As they shut down, they find it harder to focus, concentrate and evaluate options – all essential ingredients of performing well in their jobs and careers. As their performance drops, so does their self confidence and self-esteem. They may try to keep up a “brave front” but actually feel quite overwhelmed and unequipped to handle increasing pressures. It becomes a vicious circle.
lawyers in crisis but reluctant to ask for help
This is compounded by the fact that lawyers are often reluctant to talk about problems and ask for help. Since the law is an intellectual discipline, based on logic and analysis, lawyers are not used to “self disclosure” about personal matters. They may feel that an admission of a mental health problem would be viewed as an impairment of the basic tool of their trade, their minds. They may be in denial themselves, about their own problems. Often they don’t realize that their colleagues and clients are already noticing evidence of underperformance or an “imbalance” based on signs of irritability, defensiveness, anxiety, social withdrawal, depression, and possible addictions.
In August 2017, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being of the American Bar Association published their report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change. The Task Force summarized their report in terms that are cause for concern for lawyers in all areas of the profession:
To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being. ...[T]oo many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance use. These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence. This research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.
What does this mean in practical terms? The Florida Bar Association pulled together research from the ABA and other sources into this portrait of a profession in crisis.
law firm awareness and action
If more law firms knew how to take action in response to their concerns about a lawyer’s substandard performance, strained relationships, signs of a mental health crisis or apparent addictions – would they be more alert and proactive?
If more law firms were aware of the full impact and costs of lawyer burnout, depression, emotional and physical fatigue, and mental disengagement from work, clients and colleagues – would they respond to these conditions as the serious business risks that they are?
We have sound information on optional ways to respond to mental health related concerns. We have an abundance of evidence about what the consequences are for waiting until substandard performance, depression, substance abuse and related disorders take their toll on your firm’s performance.
We know that the biggest risk for denial is to the individual lawyer.
Please don’t wait until a crisis or tragedy occur. Act now, for yourself or someone else.
Please read the references at the end of this article.
Please email Lisa Walker Johnson to discuss concerns you might have in dealing with mental health issues in your law firm.
Lisa M. Walker Johnson
important references to help small and midsize law firms manage mental health risks
Lisa Walker Johnson and Robert Sharpe, Protecting the Most Valuable Asset: The Business Case for Mental Health Action and Awareness in Law Firms.