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Lawyer Mental Health Is Facing Its Greatest Challenge, But Increased Empathy May Be the Byproduct

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the mental health of lawyers and law firm staff—an already precarious thing—and placed it in a more fragile state.

Professionals on the front lines of the legal industry’s mental health crisis say they’re seeing even more people struggling now. But they’ve also seen a greater sense of understanding within the industry that could help propel progress toward improved mental health beyond the duration of the pandemic.

“Anecdotally, there’s definitely been a major spike in everything from anxiety, overwhelm, fear, overall unwellness,” consultant Jarrett Green said. “This is the most mentally and emotionally challenged the legal industry has been that we’ve seen.”

Green, a former litigator who practiced at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and Rebecca Simon, a former law professor for Southwestern Law School, have a consultancy that works with law firms and corporations to improve well-being among their lawyers and other professionals. They have worked with over 5,000 attorneys this year through their work for more than 25 Big Law firms, as well as various bar associations and other lawyer organizations.

Simon said the coronavirus crisis has particular impact on the types of people who lawyers tend to be—people who like data, control and predictability.

“They’re used to outcomes based on their input,” Simon said. “One of the features of the pandemic is this absolutely unknown, lack of control.”

Issues such as concentration, workflow and productivity, which they had figured out in their daily lives before, have been thrown off, she said. ”Lawyers, their default mind is to push through the emotions and do the work. And that doesn’t work in the pandemic,” Simon said.

Tyger Latham, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., who has worked with a number of lawyers over the years, said these problems are not unique to the legal profession.

“The combination of remote working, social isolation, and ongoing financial insecurity (with little end in sight) is causing everyone to feel levels of stress that are palpable and in some cases contributes to elevated levels of anxiety and depression,” Latham said. But “lawyers can be especially vulnerable to anxiety and depression (as well as substance abuse) so it would not surprise me if mental health issues are not widespread throughout the industry.”

A recent study from staffing firm Robert Half found that concerns over retention, burnout and morale are occupying the minds of senior managers across multiple industries. Jamy Sullivan, executive director for Robert Half Legal, recently told The American Lawyer that the same trends emerged specifically in the legal industry as well. The morale and burnout issues have been building for a few years, Sullivan said, and even more so due to the pandemic.

Recent findings in The American Lawyer’s midlevel associates and summer associates surveys also showed heightened levels of concern. More than 40% of midlevel associates said they have anxiety, with three-in-four saying that their firms had a negative impact on their mental health, while about 48% of summer associates said they’re concerned about their mental health, up from 39% last year.

Latham said he has seen a slight uptick in the number of lawyers who have reached out since the pandemic started. But he said that may be attributable to something positive: they are now working from home and feel more comfortable taking the time to have an appointment.

“Whereas before they might have felt self-conscious about leaving work in the middle of the day to come to my office, they can now do so from the comfort of their home and worry less about management looking over their shoulders,” Latham said.

Green and Simon have been giving workshops for attorneys and staff, giving them tangible tools and techniques for managing their stress and mental health during the pandemic.

“Lawyers are used to constant acute stress. But this is existential stress,” Green said. “Powering through to success and bypassing their emotional state, that cannot work in a global pandemic.”

Firms need to create space for that stress, so lawyers and staff can “feel those feelings instead of pushing them away,” Simon said.

And it seems like they’re starting to do that. Green and Simon said they’ve noticed more vulnerability among lawyers, including those in Big Law.

“The horrific challenge is causing a big shift that will actually continue post-pandemic,” Green said.

Empathy is increasing too, because everyone is challenged by the current state of life and work in the U.S. and around the globe. Simon noted that parents who had been projecting an image of having it “together” are letting their guard down because they have to. Their colleagues are getting a truer understanding for how hard it is.

“The raising of our empathy consciousness in the industry is a wonderful thing and will have a lasting effect,” Simon said.

By Lizzy McLellan | October 02, 2020 for The American Lawyer