Updates and advice for attorneys and law departments.

Lawyer Burnout Is Unacceptably High. Here’s What to Know and How to Improve Your Team’s Mental Health

Long hours, exhausting caseloads, eroding personal boundaries, and high workplace burnout. Many corporate attorneys cite these and other stress-inducing factors as their reasons for leaving law firm environments for in-house life. Now studies show that their assumptions about pressure within corporate law departments, especially in the wake of COVID-19, don’t mesh with their lived experience.

According to a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Minnesota and Krill Strategies, a legal-industry behavioral health consulting firm, at least half of lawyers surveyed regularly experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. In fact, 20% are regularly overwhelmed with moderate to severe depression and anxiety. Notably, there is less difference between law firms and law departments than one might expect.

Patrick Krill, JD, an expert on attorney addiction and mental health and the Founder of Krill Strategies, had this to say, “One of the takeaways from our study is that there is not as much of a gap between the mental health issues reported in law firms compared to in-house positions as people historically thought. Both environments are high stress and present attorneys with lots of pressure, so it’s no surprise that the differences we found between the two were not highly significant.”

Whether you are remote or in-the-office, law firm or corporate law, it’s important that you identify the challenges in your organization and take a proactive stake in the overall mental health of your attorneys.

A Mental Health Epidemic

The above study, which specifically focused on gender-specific risk factors for mental health problems among licensed attorneys, compiled the survey responses of 2,863 licensed and currently practicing attorneys from the California Lawyers Association and D.C. Bar. Additionally, the study evaluated alcohol use in the legal profession, but did not ask questions about wider substance abuse. The sum of these insights suggest a worsening mental health epidemic in the legal profession:

  • Roughly half of lawyers are experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, with approximately 30% of those falling in the mild range and just under 20% falling in the moderate-severe range
  • Over half of the lawyers screened positive for risky drinking, and 30% screened for high-risk hazardous drinking (which is interpreted as alcohol abuse or possible dependence).
  • 58% of attorneys reported stress in the moderate to severe range

With the pervasiveness and severity of these mental health issues, a worrying number of attorneys have given thought to leaving the profession due specifically to mental health, burnout, or stress. The survey found that 17% of men are contemplating leaving the industry for those reasons and one in four female attorneys are considering the same. The reasons often range from work over-commitment and work-family conflict to permissive attitudes about workplace drinking and barriers to promotion.

“Retaining women has been an elusive goal for the entire legal profession,” said Patrick Krill. “In the past, it was thought that in-house or corporate positions tended to offer more career opportunities that are consistent with what women are looking for. But even now, stress levels are high across the board.”

Taking Steps in the Right Direction

With all of the meaningful concerns presented by this study, it’s clear that the industry has a lot of work to do to address escalating mental health and substance abuse issues. Though not comprehensive, the following resources and suggestions can help law departments to create a healthy work environment, whether it’s in-the-office or remote:

1.) Watch for Signs of Burnout

Part of the reason mental health issues are so pervasive in the legal profession is that the signs go overlooked. Historically, unwieldy workloads and heavy drinking have been normalized, making healthy forms of self-care (rather than unhealthy self-medicating) seem abnormal. So, problems go unaddressed and unspoken.

General Counsel has an opportunity to reverse some of these trends by staying aware of their people’s mental state and watching for signs that attorneys are overburdened. Most won’t come right out and say they’re struggling, but there are clear signs and extenuating factors (unrealistic standards, chronic fatigue, heavy family responsibilities, etc.) to help you detect negative shifts in their stress levels.

2.) Conduct Regular Check-ins

Providing your people with the support they need requires regular communication. If you’re only checking in once in a blue moon, then you cannot establish a solid baseline of attorneys’ stress levels and well-being, nor can you build any reliable level of trust.

In a physical workplace, you can gauge the state of mind of your attorneys and intervene when chronic stress rears its head. In a remote work setting, there needs to be greater intentionality about checking up on each attorney’s well-being. A weekly appointment to catch up – whether via video conferencing tools, email, or phone call – can help you determine how you can help lighten on-the-job pressure as well as evaluate their bandwidth.

3.) Encourage Lawyer Assistance Program Utilization

When problems are bubbling under the surface, there is only so much you as an individual can do. However, there are plenty of trained professionals ready to address addiction and mental health issues, helping attorneys to bring their issues to the light of day.

One unbeatable resource is the network of Lawyer Assistance Programs (LAPs) across the United States. These non-profit organizations can help your attorneys and their families to deal with alcohol abuse, stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, and other issues in a 100% confidential way. There’s no stigmatization and anything disclosed is protected by attorney client privilege. If you’re looking to help a struggling attorney on his or her journey to wellness, there is a directory of LAP resources by state that can send them in the right direction.

4.) Support Self-Care

Attorneys shouldn’t always have to sacrifice their personal lives to complete work. Yes, the legal industry is a demanding one, but normalized stress, mental health problems, or alcohol abuse can diminish the executive functions or capabilities of your team. Plus, if problems go on for too long, neglected mental well-being can lead to unwanted attorney turnover.

Working with your team to create flexible work schedules that align with their biorhythms, give them more free time, or cause fewer work-family conflicts can go a long way to curtailing stress. Additionally, you can make sure that your attorneys take PTO days and your department meets deadlines by engaging temporary attorneys. When you work with the right person, it can ensure that you leverage comparable practice area expertise for a fraction of the cost of in-house resources.

5.) Fight for Mental Health Budgets

Patrick Krill puts it this way, “There’s an importance to advocating for a mental health budget. Doing so sends the message that mental health is taken seriously. If there is an issue with physical health, there is a budget for that. There’s parity with mental health and there should be money for those programs as well.”

Your people are the cornerstone of your business. If you are not creating an atmosphere where they are empowered to do their best work and live their best lives, then you are sabotaging your own abilities in the long run. It’s a tough conversation, but it’s worth it to be an advocate for your workforce.

6.) Do More with Less

With the budget constraints and pressure on most law departments over the last year, balancing your team’s workload with their mental well-being can be a challenge. One way to help prevent their workload from exceeding their capacity is to work with legal staffing agencies.

Temporary attorneys can provide cost-effective expertise when your team is pushed to their limit or they can even handle workloads when your attorneys take a much-deserved break. If engaging temporary attorneys is part of your solution, be sure that you pick a partner that is committed to offering mental health help as much as you are.

Want more insight into supporting the well-being of your attorneys? Download our eBook, “Mental Health and Corporate Counsel: Your Guide to Encouraging a Healthy Environment for Attorneys”,an excellent resource for legal leaders.

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