This week marked a historic milestone for the U.S. legal profession — one that many will observe is long overdue. Seeking to address the significant and enduring problems of addiction and mental health disorders among lawyers and law students — problems whose magnitude was brought into sharp relief by recent studies — the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being published its report on how the profession can and must take meaningful action towards much-needed improvement. While similar efforts have previously been undertaken in Canada and elsewhere, this is the American legal system’s first attempt to create such a vitally important and useful document.
Broad in scope and ambitious in aim, the report is not confined, however, to a narrow or exclusive focus on addiction and mental health disorders — it also tackles the larger, penumbral and insidious lack of general well-being that has plagued legal practitioners and law students for decades. Calling the formidable problems what they are, and offering thoughtful, informed and tangible recommendations for change, the report is intended to both light a fire and to serve as launchpad for subsequent and profession-wide action. Key word? Action.
As a Task Force member and a co-author of the report, as well as lead author of the 2016 study which underpinned the Task Force formation, I am gratified and encouraged that the profession’s substantial challenges are now being met with much greater resolve and openness. We’re making important strides. But now, as the report clearly states, it is time for all stakeholders in the profession to get serious about problems that have been ignored for too long. It’s time to use your experience, status, and leadership to construct a profession built on greater well-being, increased competence and greater public trust.
Broad in scope and ambitious in aim, the report is not confined, however, to a narrow or exclusive focus on addiction and mental health disorders — it also tackles the larger, penumbral and insidious lack of general well-being that has plagued legal practitioners and law students for decades.
Recognizing that change is hard, and motivation sometimes lacking, we identified and articulated three compelling reasons for those in the legal profession to become far more proactive around substance use, mental health and general well-being:
First, lawyer well-being contributes to organizational success. Put another way, it’s good for business. Second, lawyer well-being influences ethics and professionalism, and is therefore good for the client. Third, and perhaps most important, promoting lawyer well-being is just the right thing to do. A month does not go by without at least one headline about a lawyer or judge who either committed suicide, was felled by an addiction, or otherwise faced serious and awful consequences because of their excessive substance use or poor mental health. As someone whose exclusive professional focus is addiction and mental health in the legal profession, I can attest to the fact that there are far more tragedies — happening weekly — that you don’t read about.
The report’s recommendations focus on five central themes, which should make the broad objectives of the document clear in an executive summary sort of way. The themes are:
- identifying stakeholders and the role each of us can play in reducing the level of toxicity in our profession;
- eliminating the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors;
- emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence;
- educating lawyers, judges and law students on lawyer well-being issues; and
- taking small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession.
Pretty straightforward, right? If only affecting systemic change were that easy.
In the coming weeks and months you will likely see an increasing volume of articles related to both the Task Force report, and to attorney well-being in general. If you or your firm are among the many in the legal profession who have historically under-prioritized health and well-being, I urge you to pause and reflect on whether your lack of focus on those areas has honestly and truly served you well. As a movement towards greater well-being in the legal profession continues to grow, there has never been an easier or more mainstream time for you to begin tackling these issues within your own firm or legal department head-on. Six months or a year from now, you won’t be sorry you did.