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Mental Health Matters: Key Takeaways in the Legal Field

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and during this significant month, it’s imperative to direct our focus toward raising awareness around the unseen, and often unspoken, challenges that professionals face across industries. The legal field is particularly well-known for cultivating high-pressure environments with an emphasis on overachievement. This kind of pressure can foster burnout and poor mental health in attorneys at any level as the need to succeed only increases with career progression.

To honor Mental Health Awareness month, Butler Snow is dedicating this post to elevating the conversation around key issues facing attorneys and their mental health. To shed light on the topic, Butler Snow attorney D. Todd Smith shared his insights around expectations within the legal field, mental health challenges facing attorneys at all levels, and takeaways to incorporate mindfulness practices.

Todd is an award-winning appellate attorney with extensive experience working with and representing clients as lead appellate counsel in all phases of litigation. He has briefed and argued multiple cases before the Texas Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Todd is also a co-founder and co-host of the Texas Appellate Law Podcast, a podcast presented by Butler Snow that covers topics of interest to lawyers handling appellate matters in Texas courts and beyond, from addressing burnout in the legal profession to the importance of developing a niche within a law practice. Alongside his legal work, Todd is a dedicated advocate for mental health and has prioritized raising awareness around mental health as this important topic often goes unaddressed in the legal profession. When serving as President of the Austin Bar Association, Todd oversaw the creation of the Lawyer Well-Being Committee to facilitate a space for attorneys to feel comfortable engaging with peers on mental health issues. The committee aims to educate, support, and connect the Austin legal community to achieve more balanced, mindful, and joyful lives and practices.

Mental Health & the Legal Landscape

With demanding hours, stressful work and a consistent focus on going above and beyond, the legal field is the perfect landscape for mental health to suffer. Attorneys often note that mental health awareness can take a backseat no matter their age or experience level. In fact, one study revealed that nearly half of the lawyers surveyed had struggled at some point with depression. The same study found that 21% grappled with a serious drinking problem. For young attorneys, it’s even worse – almost a third. “If 46% of lawyers report experiencing depression related to job stress,” Todd says, “then it’s no surprise, unfortunately, that a significant number are also self-medicating with alcohol or other substances. This is a cycle we’ve got to break.”

Another challenge lawyers face is a heightened sense of perfectionism. Attorneys are notorious for shorting themselves on basic self-care needs including sleep, exercise, and nutrition. These areas may sound like obvious factors when assessing mental health and that’s because they are just that – foundational pillars to maintaining a balanced mindset. We know that when all three areas are being neglected, professional performance, physical stamina, and mental health will almost certainly see a decline. Todd notes that it’s extremely difficult to be a good lawyer if you’re not in a balanced, healthy mental space. He goes on to say that sleeping well and taking care of yourself will also make you more productive at work.

Todd reflects on his growth early in his career noting that attorneys need to establish boundaries to combat falling into a detrimental cycle or even burnout. “It’s important to remember that you’re not superhuman,” Todd said. “You have to get comfortable dropping the shield of invulnerability sometimes.”

Fighting Stigma & Raising Awareness

Whether an attorney is just out of law school or is experienced and reaching peak career success, there is an underlying pressure to out-perform at all times. There can be a stigma attached to “slowing down” or “taking time for oneself.” Every part of the job requires a sense of self-monitoring and it can feel as though the only way to be successful is to maintain this sense of elevated performance. It is well-known that clients need to have confidence in an attorney’s abilities to perform. This means that the personal brand each attorney presents (at work, in the courtroom, networking with peers, in client meetings, etc.) operates as either establishing trust or detracting from it. While this dynamic is a facet of the job, Todd notes that it’s easy to get pulled into a vicious cycle of overworking, internalizing, or being self-critical. To relieve these stresses, it is not uncommon for attorneys to turn to coping mechanisms like drinking alcohol, another factor in the increased rates of depression we see in the field.

There is also a stigma attached to mental health in the legal field – attorneys assume their work or even their license could be affected if they raise a hand for help. Todd notes that the state bar is not informed when a lawyer experiencing mental health issues or struggling with substance abuse seeks support through the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, but some still hesitate to reach out due to a fear of disciplinary action. The need to raise awareness is imperative so attorneys can feel more comfortable expressing needs and to break down this stigma within the industry. It is impossible to maintain a reputation for machine-like efficiency at all times.

When considering the reality that attorneys feel constant pressure to project an image of perfect diligence and competence, Todd says there are some key takeaways he’s learned to combat this systemic issue. He notes, “Authenticity is a huge part of building that personal brand. No one is bulletproof all the time. The downside is that there is also a strong contingent of the population that inherently distrusts lawyers. We, as legal teams and individuals, need to humanize ourselves a little.” Todd notes it’s extremely important to take care of oneself if any attorney expects to take care of their clients.

Best Practices for Wellbeing

When reflecting on the importance of mental health awareness, it’s important to not only elevate the conversation but also to share key takeaways and best practices to help reshape the legal landscape around mental health. A few best practices for wellbeing include being intentional about your health on all levels, finding mentors both in and out of the profession, building a support network, implementing healthy routines, and practicing different strategies to see what works best.

For Todd, he has tried several different tactics over the years to shape his mindfulness practice. During the pandemic, Todd explored a social media sabbatical, giving up all social media for an entire month. He found it to be a detoxifying experience and one that resulted in lower stress levels. “One of the biggest challenges we face in the working world today is attention management. It’s harder and harder to truly focus on what we’re doing when the phone is ringing, people are coming by your office, and your devices are constantly pulling your attention,” says Todd. He goes on to say, “This constant barrage of distractions then detracts from what we accomplish in a day, resulting in higher stress levels.”

Another best practice Todd uses in his day-to-day routine to minimize stress is meditation and mindfulness strategies. “I’ve started doing some of the Peloton meditation classes, particularly in the evening around bedtime, and find them helpful. There are a ton of apps to get someone started and this can be an effective break from a stressful day, even if it’s just 5 minutes.” He goes on to say that gratitude practices are another useful tool and emphasized the importance of being intentional with your time – whether that is journaling, spending time with loved ones, or implementing a mindfulness tactic – every small effort helps.

The Focus

Ultimately, the legal field can be a difficult profession to navigate when it comes to prioritizing mental health but there is a clear need for awareness. Awareness also creates spaces for understanding and breaking down barriers like stigmas that negatively impact personal health. “There are so many ways you can fail in this profession if you’re not careful, and that can look like overworking, not sleeping properly, and not taking care of your physical and mental health,” said Todd. “Diet, exercise, and sleep are key to creating a healthier lifestyle amid an intense career path. Focus on these things and don’t waver. It’s all connected to your professional performance.”