Concern over lawyer well-being prompts new recommendations

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From the Amercan Bar Association
with additional information
By Cynthia Price
Legal News

A coalition of groups, including the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, has released a comprehensive report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, aimed at addressing the problem of substance use and mental health disorders of lawyers.
The report, by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, can be viewed at www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeingReportFINAL.pdf. It includes several dozen recommendations and represents the most ambitious roadmap yet related to the well-being of lawyers. The report is intended to spark a broader conversation in the legal profession regarding reasons behind substance use disorders as well as the effects of impairment to guide policy changes and to lead to a cultural shift within the profession.

Last week, the Conference of Chief Justices, which participated in the development of the report, gave the recommendations its endorsement. Other groups involved in the drafting of the task force report were the National Organization of Bar Counsel, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers and the National Conference of Bar Examiners. Patrick Krill, the co-author of the groundbreaking 2016 study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine regarding mental health and substance use disorders among lawyers, also played a key role in its development.

Krill, himself a lawyer, sampled 12,825 licensed, employed attorneys for the article, which was a joint undertaking of the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

He and co-authors Ryan Johnson and Linda Albert found “[s]ubstantial rates of behavioral health problems... with 20.6% screening positive for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking. Men had a higher proportion of positive screens, and also younger participants and those working in the field for a shorter duration... Levels of depression, anxiety, and stress among attorneys were significant, with 28%, 19%, and 23% experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.”

Their study reached the following conclusion: “Attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations. Mental health distress is also significant. These data underscore the need for greater resources for lawyer assistance programs, and also the expansion of available attorney-specific prevention and treatment interventions.”

The survey went on to ask about seeking treatment. Just under 7 percent of participants reported past treatment for alcohol or drug abuse, and of those just under 22 percent said they utilized a treatment program specifically tailored to legal professionals. (Participants who reported prior treatment tailored to legal professionals had significantly lower mean  scores on the tool used in the methodology than those who had attended a treatment program not tailored for legal professionals.)
The survey asked both those who had received treatment and those who had not about “barriers that impacted their ability to obtain treatment services.” Both groups said they saw the same two most common barriers:  not wanting others to find out they needed help, and concerns regarding privacy or confidentiality.

The recommendations of The Path to Lawyer Well-Being report, released Monday, focus on five central themes:

• Identifying stakeholders and the role each can play in reducing the level of toxicity in the legal profession.Eliminating the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors.
• Emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence.
• Educating lawyers, judges and law students on lawyer well-being issues.
• Taking small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession.

The recommendations included both support for expanded lawyer assistance programs (for example, from insurance companies) and some suggestions about how to improve those programs.

In addition to urging lawyer assistance programs to advocate for better funding, the recommendations suggest highlighting the confidential nature of such programs, and under the recommendation to “Develop High-Quality Well-Being Programming,” the report adds:

“Lawyer assistance programs should collaborate with other organizations to develop and deliver programs on the topics of lawyer well-being, identifying and treating substance use and mental health disorders, suicide prevention, cognitive impairment, and the like ... They should ensure that all training and other education efforts emphasize the availability of resources and the confidentiality of the process.”

That recommendation adds, “Increasingly, lawyer assistance programs are expanding their services to affirmatively promote well-being (rather than seeking only to address dysfunction) as a means of preventing prevalent impairments.”

Says ABA President Linda A. Klein, “For more than a quarter of a century, the ABA has encouraged development and strongly supported state-based lawyer-assistance programs, which serve as front-line fighters to combat substance abuse. 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.

“Despite these efforts, sadly, prior research clearly demonstrates problems persist for too many in the legal profession,” Klein continued. “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.”

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