Lawyers Reveal True Causes of Mental Health Struggles Beyond COVID-19
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While most of the country is grappling with “COVID-19 anxiety,” lawyers and other legal professionals are not immune to the stress caused by the pandemic. 

Given that anxiety​, addiction, and depression are pre-existing issues in the legal world, the current climate of uncertainty, loneliness, and economic despair create a perfect storm for a mental health crisis in the legal profession.

“It has a little bit of a snow day feel to it,” Will Meyerhofer’ a former Sullivan & Cromwell associate who is now a therapist treating lawyers told Bloomberg Law. “The crisis feel is kind of familiar, at least in Big Law.”


Meyerhofer’s New York City patients tell their therapist on Skype that they’re billing hours from home in sweatpants

“The tone that law firm management needs to set right now related to mental health and emotional well-being during this time needs to be explicit and direct,” Patrick Krill, a lawyer and leading expert on addiction and mental health in the legal profession told Bloomberg Law.

“This is an anxiety-inducing time that the country is in, that the legal profession is in, that all of us are in,” he said. Firms would be well-served to acknowledge that and to make it OK for people to speak about that and ask for resources.”

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Several studies show lawyers struggle with substance abuse, anxiety, and depression more often than other professionals. ALM’s latest Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey shows that 64% of the more than 3,800 respondents feel they have anxiety, 31.2% are depressed, 10.1% feel they have an alcohol problem, and 2.8% have a drug problem. A worrying 17.9% of respondents said they have contemplated suicide during their professional legal career.

The survey data released last month was collected in late 2019 before the invisible to the eye virus reared its head in the U.S and caused a snowball effect in the country. The outbreak has forced many law firms to swiftly modify their perspectives on issues that often come up in the ‘legal profession’s mental health conversation, such as work-life balance, remote work flexibility, and isolation.

However, in discussing the roots of their struggles, the survey respondents pointed to the dynamics of the law firm’s business model beyond the external factors that have quickly changed because of the disease.

The survey shows that billable hours, unrealistic deadlines, unused vacations, and clients are among the main causes of the mental health crisis in the legal profession. 

“Law firms realize the problem mental health issues present, and are making progress towards tackling the consequences, but are completely failing to take preventative action to stop the issues arising in the first place,” one survey respondent said. “Big Law firms will continue happily running associates into the ground, and then offering them a therapy.”

Billable hours: one of the most damaging influences on an attorney’s mental health

A quarter of the 1,882 written responses mentioned the billable hour as a major stress-inducing factor. “Billable hours are a nightmare and make life sheer misery.” one respondent wrote.

“The billable hour requirement needs to go. It is unreasonable to expect people to bill 2,000 hours a year if there is any chance of them developing and maintaining relationships and outside interests and taking care of their children. I love the law, but the billable hour is the sword dangling over your exposed neck at all times,” another respondent said.

According to many respondents, the billable hour turns eight-hour workdays into 12-hour marathons. The scrutiny is not exactly news in the legal world, as lawyers from all corners of the legal field have condemned the billable hour as one of the most impairing influences on attorney mental health.

The “always-on” mentality exacerbates stress

On the heels of the billable hour, another common refrain for many respondents is the ‘always-on” mentality and inability to take vacations.  Respondents pointed to the big law workaholic mindset that overtly encourages ‘ad nauseam work’—meaning late into the night on weekdays, and all day on weekends and holidays.

“A 2,000-plus-hour year presumes you’re billing eight hours a day every day except for the calendar holidays and the weekends. If you don’t meet that quota on a given day then you have to make it up elsewhere; so if I take a week off for vacation, that’s 40 hours I have to cram into the year somewhere else,” said one respondent.

Many respondents said they felt guilty when they were not billing hours or their career was at risk anytime they turned off their phone or ignored their email inbox, even when on vacation.

“I think firms need to stop requiring associates to be on 24/7 and stop punishing associates who try to carve out time for family,” said a respondent. “We can be responsive to client demands without all ruining our personal relationships.”

Some even said that they would take a pay cut to work fewer hours and disconnect more:

“We need a real sabbatical and flex-time opportunities—I would be so happy to do my job four days a week if I could really be considered for a partner in 20% more years, but that’s not a realistic option at all.”

Clients are the second-most frequently cited factor in mental health

Clients were mentioned in 392 responses. Respondents mostly took issue with the client’s expectations, unreasonable deadlines, and pressure.

“We need to change the expectation regarding our response time to clients, both internal and external. We need to slow it down a little bit or take time to pause and think. Nobody should be on 24 hours per day,” said a respondent.

“Transactional attorneys are constantly at the mercy of their clients and the business timelines,” said another respondent. “Often, it seems the business timelines are arbitrary. The message the attorneys hear is, ‘this deal needs to close in 10 days. Get it done.’ Despite whatever else may be going on in our lives, all of that must be put on hold to get the job done. This often involves sacrificing meals, time to exercise, and sleep.”

Law firm wellness programs, therapists, and bar groups are promoting activities that can help maintain well-being. (The American Bar Association has a resource page here.)




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