Lawyer Well-Being: A Call to Action

“The benefits of increased lawyer well-being are compelling and the costs of lawyer impairment are too great to ignore.  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.”

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I’ve blogged often on the alarming number of lawyers who struggle with substance abuse and mental health disorders.   My most recent post on the topic was one month ago today:  Lawyers Helping Lawyers: Keep it on the Front Burner.

Monday, the National Task Force On Lawyer Well-Being released its report The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.  The report puts the issue of lawyer well-being on the front burner in each of our kitchens.

And it turns up the heat.

Here’s an excerpt from the Task Force’s introductory note:

  • “To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer.  Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being.  The two studies referenced above reveal that too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance abuse.  These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence.”

Let me re-emphasize:  “These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence.

The note goes on:

  • “The legal profession is already struggling.  Our profession confronts a dwindling market share as the public turns to more accessible, affordable alternative legal service providers.  We are at a crossroads.  To maintain public confidence in the profession, to meet the need for innovation in how we deliver legal services, to increase access to justice, and to reduce the level of toxicity that has allowed mental health and substance use disorders to fester among our colleagues, we have to act now.  Change will require a wide-eyed and candid assessment of our members’ state of being, accompanied by a courageous commitment to re-envisioning what it means to live the life of a lawyer.”

Per the report, there are 3 reasons to improve attorney well-being:

  1. Good for business
  2. Good for clients
  3. The right thing to do

#3 should sound familiar to readers of this blog.

The report is 73 pages long and makes recommendations for judges, legal employers, law schools, bar associations, professional liability carriers, and lawyers assistance programs. Most relevant to this blog, the report makes recommendations for regulators. They begin on page 25 and, per the table of contents, can be summarized as follows:

  • Take Actions to Meaningfully Communicate That Lawyer Well-Being is a Priority
    • Adopt Regulatory Objectives That Prioritize Well-Being
    • Modify the Rules of Professional Responsibility to Endorse Well-Being as Part of a Lawyer’s Basic Duty of Competence
    • Expand Continuing Education Requirements to Include Well-Being Topics
    • Require Law Schools to Create Well-Being Educations for Students as an Accreditation Requirement
  • Adjust the Admissions Process to Support Law Student Well-Being
    • Reevaluate Bar Application Inquiries About Mental Health History
    • Adopt a Rule for Conditional Admission to Practice Law
    • Publish Data Reflecting Low Rate of Denied Admissions Due to Mental Health Disorders and Substance Use
  • Adjust Lawyer Regulations to Support Well-Being
    • Implement Proactive Management-Based Programs That Include Lawyer Well-Being Components
    • Adopt a Centralized Grievance Intake System to Promptly Identify Well-Being Concerns

I will do my part to review each recommendation for regulators with the appropriate body, whether the Professional Responsiblity Board, the Board of Bar Examiners, the Character & Fitness Committee, or the Continuing Legal Eduction Board.  But, as I mentioned, the report makes recommendations for many other groups.  Nearly each and every one of us fits into it at least one of those groups.

Turn up the heat on your front burner. The time to act is now.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the Vermont Lawyers Assistance Program.

Wellness

 

 

 

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Lawyers Helping Lawyers – Keep it on the Front Burner

Since I started this blog, I’ve not received more e-mails, texts, or DMs suggesting that I post about a particular topic than I have this week.  The suggestions flowed from an article that ran in Saturday’s New York Times: The Lawyer, The Addict.

Read it.

I first blogged on this topic in March 2016 with the post Lawyers Helping Lawyers.  The post referred to a study done by the ABA and the Hazeldon Betty Ford Clinic.  The study found “substantial and widespread levels of problem drinking and other behavioral health problems in the U.S. legal profession.”

In my post, I noted that “[e]xtrapolating from the ABA/Hazeldon study, approximately:

  • 500 active Vermont attorneys are problem drinkers
  • 500 active Vermont attorneys exhibit signs of problem anxiety
  • 720 active Vermont attorneys struggle with some level of depression.”

I added “[h]ere’s a real number, not an extrapolation: over the past 14 months, three        Vermont attorneys took their own lives.”

Pointing out that, in my experience, lawyers are often the first to know that another lawyer is struggling to cope with addiction or mental health issues, I urged lawyers not to come at this problem from the perspective of “when do I have a duty to report another lawyer?”  Instead, I argued:

  • “How about this? How about coming it at from the perspective of helping another human being instead of analyzing whether another’s struggles trigger your duty to report? If a colleague, co-worker, or opposing counsel needs help, why not help them?”

The beat goes on.

Since my post 16 months ago, 5 Vermont lawyers have been transferred to disability inactive status or placed on interim suspension as a result of substance abuse and/or mental health issues.  For those 5 lawyers, help came too late not to involve the disciplinary process.

Whatever we do to address this problem, we need to make sure it includes spreading the word that it is no longer sufficient to wait to refer someone to help until he’s hospitalized or her practice has cratered.  Refer early.  Not to save clients from harm, but to help a fellow human being get into recovery or treatment.

After the NYT article ran this weekend, some wonderful, caring lawyers engaged me in social media conversations on the need to do better as a profession on this issue. I love that they were involved and I thank each and every one of them.

We need to do more.  The fact that “talking about it on social media” is a positive step shows how far we have to go.

My original post includes links to resources:

  • “Help is available.”Contact the Vermont Lawyers Assistance Program. It’s confidential and the volunteers are exempt from the reporting requirement in Rule 8.3.  Josh Simonds is the Director and is an excellent resource. A referral to Josh’s program will not result in a referral to the disciplinary prosecutors.

    “Or, call me.  It’s confidential. I can refer an attorney to the LAP program or to one of the PRB’s assistance panels. The panels, in turn, have the authority to refer a lawyer to LAP or to any type of counseling.  I CANNOT refer the attorney to the disciplinary office.

    Or, visit the website for the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.”

Beyond encouraging you to refer lawyers in need to help, other things I think we need to do:

  • Figure out how to fund the Vermont Lawyers Assistance Program
  • Decouple discipline/reporting from treatment/referrals
  • Seminars on how to help, where to turn
  • CLE in recognizing the signs & symptoms of alcohol/drug abuse & mental health conditions
  • Understanding that, if help arrives early, the lawyer will not lose his or her law license

There’s probably a lot more to do.  These would just be a start.

We cannot let the topic fade into the background.  The numbers prove that lawyers need help now.  We must provide it.

As a profession, we’ve gone on & on for years about “access to justice” and haven’t come close to solving that problem.  In my book, “access to justice” necessarily includes “access to legal services.”   Not to just any legal services, but to competent legal services.   In that sense, this is an access issue.

Help another lawyer.  The one you help might someday return the favor.

Here are some resources:

Road to Recovery