“How many feathers can you carry?” The question came as I walked into a partner’s corner office, behind on getting him an answer to a research question. The partner was a legendary trial attorney, and I was a third-year associate at an AmLaw 100 firm. At first I thought he was joking, but then I realized he was serious and was trying to make a point.
I’ll let you ponder the answer just as I did so many years ago, as we explore ways to combat the many challenges to well-being lawyers face in their practices.
The Sad Truth
First, let’s begin with what we know. The legal profession is a high-pressure industry, even starting in law school. There are long hours and tight deadlines. Moreover, certain cases expose lawyers and judges to tragic situations, violence, and other evils. It is no wonder that lawyer well-being is an ever-present issue. That makes it imperative that lawyers and law firms recognize the issue in an effort to normalize lawyers’ and judges’ experiences. It’s also why I have spoken often about the issue, using my platform as a former judge and current Butler Snow attorney.
Recent studies have demonstrated the serious impacts of the profession on lawyer mental health. A significant number of lawyers—28%—struggle with depression. Even more concerning, 11.5% report having suicidal ideations. Coping with the pressures of the profession is difficult. The lawyer burnout rate is high and COVID-19 has only added to the stress that legal professionals face. A Bloomberg Law report found that even lawyers who were satisfied in their roles experienced burnout 28% of the time.
How Lawyers Attempt to Cope
As is unfortunately often the case, significant work-related stress can be accompanied by unhealthy coping mechanisms. According to ABA’s 2020 profile of the profession, lawyers have been and still are more susceptible to addiction as compared to the general population.
Nearly a quarter (21%) of lawyers could be considered problem drinkers. According to the study on lawyer well-being, “That’s more than triple the rate for the general population (6%) and nearly double the rate for other highly educated professionals (12%).” The sad irony of all this is that around a quarter to 30% of lawyers facing disciplinary charges suffer from some type of addiction or mental illness.
When it comes to healthy coping mechanisms, lawyers and the legal profession are falling short in some areas. However, the data here is somewhat conflicting, and it’s possible that some lawyers are used to the long hours and stress and may be underestimating the toll on their mental health.
Over a third of lawyers surveyed by ABA (38%) report they often work long hours and a full 9% note they “never stop working.” Furthermore, 32% of lawyers say they feel pressure not to take vacation time.
On the positive side, other data shows that over half of lawyers say they “take adequate breaks during the workday,” versus a quarter that say they do not. Likewise, 66% of lawyers agree that their jobs allow them to spend time with their families. Overall, 68% of lawyers agree with the statement “I make time for myself.”
We’re Only Human
While I have no doubt that the legal profession attracts extremely driven, hardworking individuals, we are all still human. I felt this very acutely when serving as a judge and continue to feel it now that I am back in private practice. Every person needs time for themselves, their families, and their friends, as well as space for rest and relaxation. Be it family, a hobby, volunteerism or another outlet—it is imperative that lawyers have something in their lives other than law.
Those in the legal profession need to continue driving conversations around lawyer mental health. As cliché as it is to say, acknowledging the problem is the very first step. But then, once a problem is identified, treatment is often needed. Unfortunately, there still seems to be a stigma around therapy for lawyers. This is particularly true for those hoping for judicial appointments or other government roles where applications may ask whether you have sought psychological counseling. Those applications may be a matter of public record. However, many industry leaders and states are pushing for greater acceptance. For example, the Texas Bar Association pushes the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) heavily, which offers confidential counseling services. There are also other ways we can support lawyer well-being. Many firms, including Butler Snow, are stepping up to the plate, offering confidential support services.
Outside of seeking professional psychological support, there are other healthy coping mechanisms and behaviors lawyers can and should embrace.
For me, the key to lawyer well-being is setting boundaries. The reality is that a tech-driven workforce has made it much easier to fall prey to the “always on” mentality. For instance, electronic filing, while seen largely as a positive, means that legal teams can file a motion or response at midnight instead of having to file it physically at the courthouse by 5 p.m. Many lawyers may not see filing after business hours as a negative, but it keeps lawyers in a work headspace and therefore interrupts personal time.
In addition, many courts are also starting to issue their opinions in the evening. Many lawyers admit they fall prey to checking their email before bed. Sound familiar? What if you’ve lost the case? Or what if your opponent files a response late in the evening? It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to “turn off” and get adequate rest after reading your email. To combat this, I’ve employed one helpful strategy; I set a limit on the hours I will check emails or take calls. By setting a time after which I will not check or respond to emails, work does not interfere with personal plans or my sleep patterns. And let’s be honest—it probably makes me a more pleasant person in the evening, which I’m sure my wife appreciates.
Of course, boundaries are personal, and every individual has to decide for themselves what those boundaries are and how they’re implemented. What’s important is that you set them and enforce them as best you can. Just like the evening hours are key to unwinding, the breakfast hour is an important time to fuel physically and mentally. Without the appropriate amount of time to recharge, are we really able to perform at our peak capacity during the workday, or are we placing undue physical and emotional stress on ourselves?
It is also important to take vacations. Some years it is impossible to take an adequate amount of time off, but ideally, I take a vacation where I am unplugged enough to forget what day it is. In my out of office message I tell recipients to expect a delay in my response and provide the name of a colleague to reach out to if the matter is urgent. I check emails only once a day while on vacation, and I make no plans to work while I am out, unless it is a true emergency.
Lawyers need to master the arts of “no” and delegation. If you cannot take on a task, let your clients or colleagues know that while you cannot personally handle it, you’ll ensure it is handled– then delegate. When I was a young attorney, my ability to delegate garnered me respect and, I believe, even helped identify me as partner material. Not only is delegation an important skill to master as lawyers take on more leadership, but other colleagues also appreciate having a peer as a source for opportunities to work on different projects and gain valuable experience.
Finally, those in the profession need to take time to step back and evaluate. Law is fast-paced. There will be times when work/life balance is less possible. Work ebbs and flows, and while it’s flowing sometimes it can feel more like drowning. However, it is truly temporary and if it feels like the flow has not ceased, it may be that you’ve actually just fallen into “workaholic” tendencies.
No one can operate successfully when completely overloaded – things will begin to slip. In a profession with significant consequences, such as law, it is critical to be high functioning. I find I can provide the best possible service and counsel to my clients and colleagues when I am in touch with my mental, emotional, and physical well-being. So, as we close out Mental Health Awareness Month in May, my hope is that my colleagues and peers will embrace the importance of lawyer well-being.
So how many feathers can you carry? My first answer was, “Feathers are light, so I can carry as many feathers as I want.” Wrong. What happens when you carry too many feathers? They start falling and flying away.