Improving Mental Health in the Legal Industry

Lawyers and legal professionals tend to be competitive, highly motivated individuals. It takes tremendous work ethic to make it through law school and it’s even more of a grind once you start practicing.

Unfortunately, stress is pretty much ingrained in the legal industry. That’s why there are such high rates of burnout. In many cases, stress manifests itself through mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and addiction.

In this post, we take a deeper look at the biggest mental health issues facing legal professionals. Then Gayle Damiano, Founder of Legal Ease Wellness, LLC, provides a roadmap for coping and succeeding in this high-pressure environment.

Lawyer well-being continues to plummet

According to a 165-page report from a New York State Bar Association panel, overall lawyer well-being has been on a steady decline and has gotten even worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel recommended that firms consider capping annual billable hours at 1,800 and urge attorneys to take their full allotment of vacation and parental leave time.

The legal industry is notorious for work-inspired stress, so much so that it is often referred to as the burnout profession, so it should come as no surprise that many attorneys end up slamming into a wall when it comes to managing stress.

Rates of substance abuse are extremely high in the legal industry

A 2016 report in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found “hazardous” levels of problem drinking among lawyers at a higher rate than other professional populations. According to the report, the research “reveals a concerning amount of behavioral health problems among attorneys in the United States.” Additionally, the study discovered attorneys have high rates of depression and anxiety symptoms, although whether that is a precursor to substance abuse issues, or a result of those problems is unclear.

Although previous research suggested a positive association between problem drinking and the number of years spent in the profession, the results of this study suggest higher rates of alcohol abuse in the beginning stages of attorneys’ careers.

What seems clear is that heavy drinking appears to be firmly embedded in the culture of many law firms and that has dire consequences.

Lawyers are less inclined to seek help

Perhaps most alarming is the fact that many in the legal industry tend to be the least inclined to seek mental health assistance. Lawyers rank fifth in cases of suicide by profession with one study showing 11.5% of attorneys having lingering suicidal ideations.

The reasons for the hesitancy in asking for help are complex, but practicing law requires a degree of emotional detachment. While that is necessary in the court room, it can be an extremely destructive tendency in an attorney’s personal life. This appears to be an issue that manifests itself early as many law students report that they decline to seek treatment out of fear that it will prevent them from becoming lawyers.

Is there a light at the end of this tunnel?

Yes.  According to Gayle Damiano, Founder of Legal Ease Wellness, LLC, these are all symptoms of deeper root causes.

Ms. Damiano is a sought-after coach and motivational speaker, as well as a business owner. She has coached individuals for over nine years, has spoken to thousands of paralegals around the country, and is currently working to create custom wellness events and programs within law firms and legal organizations to help address the individuals as part of the whole.

“The substance abuse, not asking for help, and overall stress and anxiety all stem from highly personal truths that need to be addressed at an individual level,” she said. “The fact that many attorneys – and paralegals – do not reach out for help is because of one reason: fear.”

Ms. Damiano says legal professionals are afraid of what others will say about their mental status, or their ability to work, or especially what they might make it mean about themselves as human beings in this unique workplace.

“The “Suck it up!” mentality has been around for a long time and has truly colored the legal industry landscape,” she said. “So much so that many times paralegals and attorneys will keep a seemingly insurmountable caseload on their calendar to show that they can handle it, they won’t ask for help, and yes, they will burn out.

“Not everyone is excited about talking about this stuff with me, but the ones who are ready to talk about it, are seeing monumental shifts in their lives, how they deal with their own stress and mind-chatter, how they manage their days, and more.  What is the most interesting and fulfilling is to hear from my clients about how the training and coaching we did together even years ago is still a part of their lives, and they are showing up more focused, relaxed, and excited for the future.”

Here are some tips from Ms. Damiano for lowering your stress levels:

  1. Drop the judgement. When someone else makes a mistake, practice forgiveness and empathy then move forward. Making that person wrong is only showing you how much you, yourself, still must grow around “being wrong” and beating yourself up about it.
  1. Eat less junk. YES! Less fried food and sugar. Seriously. Take these things out of our diet and replace them with baked goods and naturally sweet alternatives (sweet potatoes, in-season fruit, etc). Your body won’t be in a sluggish or hyperactive mode all the time because of sugar crashes and/or potential high blood pressure.
  1. Talk to others. Not about work. About anything else. Your pets, your goals, your dreams. And LISTEN to theirs! Remember phone calls? You are allowed to pick up the phone and call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. High school and college friends frequently fall into this category.

“Most importantly, take it one moment at a time”, she said. “Habits do not change overnight and as you input new information and ideas, you will need time to process and learn from them. Go easy on yourself and give yourself some grace.”