By: Jamie Mathis, Editor-in-Chief, J.D. Candidate, May 2019, St. Thomas University School of Law.

“The legal profession is at a crossroads. Our members, our colleagues, our friends are suffering. It is our duty as lawyers and human beings to help.” These words, spoken by Bob Carlson, the 2018-2019 President of the American Bar Association (“ABA”), could not be more true as they are becoming increasingly more of a reality in the legal profession. This is shown by a 2016 study that was sponsored by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. The study, which was comprised of a survey of nearly 13,000 practicing attorneys found that: “21 to 36 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers; approximately 28 percent of lawyers are struggling with some level of depression; approximately 19 percent are struggling with anxiety; and younger lawyers in their first 10 years of practice and those working in private firms experience the highest rates of problem drinking and depression.” Based on this study, the evidence shows that attorneys even experience increased levels of suicide, work addiction, and sleep deprivation.

An additional survey was taken in 2016, the Survey of Law Student Well-Being, in which fifteen law schools and more than 3,300 law students were surveyed, which echoed the same results. This survey indicated that “17 percent of law students experienced some level of depression; 14 percent experienced severe anxiety; and 43 percent reported binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks.” As a result of both 2016 studies, a “National Task Force on Attorney Well-Being” was assembled by the ABA to make recommendations on what law firms, law schools, bar associations, and other people can do about these serious problems.

This campaign to improve mental health and substance abuse issues within the legal profession hinges on a “pledge” that calls legal employers, which include law firms, legal aid organizations, and corporate and government entities, to (1) “recognize that substance use and mental health problems represent a significant challenge for the legal profession and acknowledge that more can and should be done to improve the health and well-being of lawyers”; and (2) “pledge to support the Campaign and work to adopt and prioritize its seven-point framework for building a better future.”

This “pledge” is a step in the right direction, but the ABA should not, and hopefully will not, stop there. As indicated by the studies, mental health issues are not solely an attorney problem; it is a profession problem. This means that getting everyone talking about the importance of mental health and providing resources for law students, attorneys, and judges to get help or treatment is great progress, but not the end game. Florida Bar member, Brian L. Tannebaum, vividly explains that “[w]e as a profession continue to eat our own.” He supports that notion by explaining that the profession itself contributes to mental health problems by requiring attorneys to virtually be a servant to “the gods of technology” by remaining available 24/7 and never having the ability to “unplug” from the daily grind and take a break. Although this seems to be the norm for the legal profession, it should not come at the price of a person’s mental health and well-being. Mental health is a vital part of every person’s life; and for an attorney, it is paramount that mental health be a priority in order to remain competent and ethical within the profession.