Chair-Elect, BAMSL Young Lawyers Division, 2019-20
Corporate and Tax Attorney, Prudent Counsel, LLC
Originally published in the August 2019 issue of the St. Louis Lawyer magazine. View in the archives.
In my third year of law school, our classmate Rob took his own life. His birthday was always two days before mine and we miss him. I am not speculating on the cause of his suicide. Yet we know that he was not the first member of the legal community to struggle with mental health or suicide.
In a September 2018 letter to National Bar Association members, President Joe Drayton shared the following: Depression among law students is 8-9 percent prior to matriculation, 27 percent after one semester, 34 percent after two semesters, and 40 percent after three years; lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers; and 15 percent of people with clinical depression commit suicide.
These days, mental health, substance abuse, and other challenges to wellness are familiar themes in our profession. What are the causes?
Is the outdated reliance on and obsession with class rank and GPA a factor? In classes comprising great talent, are tiny differences in GPA actually informative or predictive of later competence as lawyers? Is the pressure-cooker of stress worth it?
Are unrealistic expectations a factor? Ninety percent of students will not be in the top 10 percent of GPAs. Are students' aspirations, pinned on limited law firm recruiting, productive? Students have told me how they sadly start to value their sense of worth based on these expectations.
Do law firms play a role? Do law schools and their career offices shoulder too much burden to help firms differentiate among their potential hires?
Is abuse of alcohol a factor? Among law students and lawyers, is there an unhealthy reliance on alcohol and other drugs to "blow off steam," "relax," "unwind," or "have fun"? Students at our area law schools have recounted to me how, while some students survive law school well, others are in crisis. Some in crisis describe environments where they feel that they have to either drink to excess or be excluded from the social community that can be so important in law school. Some students under stress seek counseling, while others do not for several reasons.
Fortunately, I also hear from students how exercise is increasingly used to manage stress.
The culture of drunkenness is a problem beyond law school. One senior associate from a large firm recounted to me how she ordered water at a function, but asked the bartender to give it the appearance of an alcoholic cocktail so that she would not draw attention to her non-alcoholic choice. Another senior associate tells of being so intoxicated that the lawyer could not recall important events from the night before. These are not unique. The solution is not prohibition; the catastrophe that prohibition creates is well-documented and well-settled. But lawyers’ relationship to alcohol may nevertheless be occasionally problematic.
Is character and fitness scrutiny a factor? I know at least one attorney who tells of heightened scrutiny by bar examiners due in part to that attorney's truthful answer to a bar application question about conditions reduced or ameliorated by receipt of ongoing treatment or participation in a support program. This dissuades some students from seeking vital help. If we are concerned about lawyer impairment and protecting the public, should not the fact that a law student seeks appropriate professional help actually raise a presumption that such a lawyer will be less likely to be unfit?
Is law debt a factor? Could tuition increases be causing perverse incentives within law schools and distorting career decisions of law students and young lawyers?
Are structural flaws in the economics of some law firms a factor? Are one-size-fits-all high compensation, high billable hour requirements, and consequential internal frictions resulting in toxic stress in some firms?
Can bar association programming be innovated to incentivize healthier choices?
I do not know. But I do have some good news. Our profession is at an inflection point. The American Bar Association's (ABA) August 2017 report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being contains actionable recommendations for law schools, state bar admissions boards, employers, judges, bar associations, insurers, and lawyer assistance programs. (Please visit https://lawyerwellbeing.net.)
In September 2017, ABA President Hilarie Bass requested the convening of a Presidential Working Group of relevant stakeholders.
This June, ABA President Bob Carlson met with us at BAMSL and shared his commitment to the endeavor. I serve on BAMSL's Well-Being Committee, which includes the vice president of the Missouri Bar, law school deans of students of both St. Louis University and Washington University, and many other key colleagues. The deans have recounted how they have increased counseling opportunities, including MOLAP resources, for students.
We have a good start. Mitigating the risks of lawyer impairment and seeking lawyer wellness will require courageous, creative, clear-eyed and consistent commitment. Over time. All of us in the legal community have the opportunity to usher in a healthier era. This young lawyer is hopeful.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call 1-800-273-8255
or text "Hello" to 741741.
Missouri Lawyers' Assistance Program (MOLAP): 1-800-688-7859
Illinois Lawyers' Assistance Program: 312-726-6607