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ABA releases report on improving lawyer well-being

August 14, 2017

In an effort to reverse a trend toward increasing mental health and addiction issues among legal professionals, several national lawyer well-being groups have partnered together to release a new report, which offers recommendations for both preventing and treating lapses in attorneys’ mental health.

The American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, together with the National Task Force of Lawyer Well-Being and other organizations, has released “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.” The report draws on nationwide data that shows an elevated risk for addictions, depression and other mental health issues among members of the legal profession.

The report, released Monday, provides recommendations for a variety of stakeholders within the practice of law, including judges, legal employers, law schools, lawyer assistance programs and bar associations, among others. The recommendations are two-fold, providing guidance on preventative measures to decrease a lawyer’s risk for mental health disorders and addiction, and pointing to available resources for when a legal professional has a mental illness or already gone down the road of addiction.

“Every sector of the legal profession must support lawyer well-being,” the reports says. “Each of us can take a leadership role within our own spheres to change the profession’s mindset from passive denial of problems to proactive support for change. We have the capacity to make a difference.”

Within each identified stakeholder group, the report offers guidance on how those stakeholders can support lawyer well-being. For example, a section addressing all stakeholders encourages those in the legal profession to promote collegiality. Incivility is on the rise within the profession, the report says, an issue that, if left unresolved, can could lead to increased feelings of anxiety and stress.

Further, the report urges judges to pay close attention to attorneys’ behavior in court. If a certain attorney repeatedly arrives late to hearings or offers arguments that are not cogent, that could be a sign of underlying, stress-related mental health issues which a judge would be in a unique position to spot.

But the report also expresses concerns about judges’ well-being, and noted that minimal data is available on the mental health issues – such as feelings of isolation – that can occur as a result of being public, often elected, figures. The well-being organizations advocated for judicial well-being surveys to identify the stressors that can afflict members of the bench.

Law schools were also targeted in the report, with the organizations suggesting professors utilize attendance policies meant to identify when students miss an excessive number of classes. Though an occasional missed class is not uncommon for most law students, an increasing number of missed sessions could indicate underlying mental health issues that are keeping students at home. Law school deans were also called on to provide support to student affairs offices, which often directly handle students’ mental health issues.

Finally, lawyer assistance programs, such as the Indiana Supreme Court’s Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, were urged to expand their resources and view themselves not as organizations that address dysfunction, but rather as organizations that promote well-being.

“By providing extensive resources and sponsoring numerous programs, among other ways, we work to educate the legal profession concerning substance abuse and other emotional health issues,” ABA President Linda Klein said in a Monday statement. “Despite these efforts, sadly prior research clearly demonstrates problems persist for too many in the legal profession. These task force recommendations represent renewed efforts by us and others to create additional policies and programs that will lead lawyers to a healthier and more satisfying life style, better representation of our clients and an improved system of justice.”

The full report, which includes 35 pages of stakeholder recommendations, can be read here.

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