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Concerns about serious mental health issues within the legal profession prompted the American Bar Association to look for practical ways to address the problem.

In response to growing concerns about the wellbeing of American lawyers, the American Bar Association (ABA) recently commissioned a task force to assess the mental health and substance use disorders of lawyers and law students. The task force released its findings in August, along with some suggested remedies.

The Path to Lawyer Wellbeing: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change is based on research showing that many American lawyers and students are experiencing chronic stress, high rates of depression and substance abuse, which the ABA and other legal organisations feel is “incompatible with a sustainable legal profession and raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence”. These include findings that may sound familiar to Australian lawyers, including:

  • between 21 and 36 per cent of practising lawyers are problem drinkers
  • 28 per cent struggle with depression
  • 23 per cent struggle with stress
  • lawyers in the first 10 years of practice and those in private firms experience the highest rates of problem drinking and depression.

Improving lawyers’ wellbeing is important to retain public confidence, the report’s authors say. This can be achieved, they say, through a number of ways, including:

Eliminating the stigma associated with seeking help, including overcoming concerns about privacy and confidentiality.

Educating lawyers, judges and law students about wellbeing issues, including training to help all stakeholders involved to be better able to identify and support fellow professionals with mental health and substance abuse disorders.

Making wellbeing an intrinsic part of a lawyer’s duty of competence by creating links between competence and wellbeing.

Taking small, incremental steps to change how law is practised and how lawyers are regulated, such as allowing lawyers to earn continuing education credits for wellbeing workshops and de-emphasising alcohol consumption at social events.

Taking action

According to the report, the American legal profession historically has turned a blind eye to these health problems and helped perpetuate the belief that they are solely due to an individual’s personal failings. The authors say that to overcome this problem, leaders will need to demonstrate their personal commitment by creating and supporting core values and wellbeing within their own lives as examples. It also blames an “overall decline of civility” across the profession for many of the problems, and recommends developing and enforcing standards of collegiality and respect.

“Work cultures that constantly emphasise competitive, self-serving goals will continually trigger competitive, selfish behaviours from lawyers that harm organisations and individual wellbeing,” the authors note.

As for high job demands, they recommend addressing tight and often unnecessary deadlines and moving away from expectations of 24/7 work.

An Australian perspective

Many Australian law firms have already identified and are making inroads into many of the issues raised in the report, according to DANIELLE KELLY, Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Australia and Asia at Herbert Smith Freehills.

These include the recent “Look Deeper” campaign commissioned by the Resilience@Law group and executed by R U OK?

Australian firms appear to be ahead of our American cousins in some areas. For example, Kelly says that the report notes a need to begin a dialogue about suicide prevention. “The large law firms started having this dialogue a number of years ago,” she says.

The report also recommends establishing organisational infrastructure to promote wellbeing and assess wellbeing across key areas.

“Many large firms here have done audits of their workplace culture vis a vis the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation guidelines and are continuing to work on initiatives to improve wellbeing,” Kelly says.

Danielle Kelly

is Head of Diversity and Inclusion for Australia and Asia, Herbert Smith Freehills