COVID-19 Burnout? Bar Groups Can Help

Lawyer well-being is a fuzzy term for a distinct condition that determines a lawyer’s ability to effectively serve clients and thrive in the practice of law.

Well-being, like health or happiness, describes a state of being: lawyers who are mentally sound, engaged, and physically able to meet the demands of their profession.

Lawyers who lack these traits often have brief and unsatisfying careers. But more importantly, lawyers struggling with depression or substance abuse are apt to be shortchanging clients and putting their law firm’s reputation and bottom line at risk.

COVID-19 isn’t making lawyers’ lives any easier.

A Profession Under Pressure

Lawyers struggled with mental health and substance abuse challenges even before the COVID-19 epidemic struck. Alcohol and drug abuse, depression, anxiety, poor physical health, and plain old burnout were pervasive problems among lawyers during the best of times. 

Somewhere between 21% and 36% of lawyers are problem drinkers, while 28% suffer from an appreciable level of depression, according to a study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. New lawyers and lawyers working in private law firms exhibited the highest incidence of drinking and depression in that survey.

Law students are not doing much better. Forty-four percent of law students exhibited significant levels of psychological distress in one survey. Another survey indicated that 17% of law students tested suffered from depression, while 14% exhibited indications of severe anxiety. Alcohol abuse? Yes, indeed. Forty-three percent of law students reported binge drinking during the two-week period prior to the survey.

Before COVID-19 complicated their professional lives, several studies indicated that lawyers suffer from depression and substance abuse disorders to a significantly greater extent than the general public. Today, the irregular rhythms and disconnected nature of remote work, coupled with the stress of practicing law during COVID-19, have almost certainly increased the incidence of destructive personal behaviors among lawyers.

Bree Buchanan, former co-chair of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being and co-author of its 2017 report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, believes it’s fair to assume that COVID-19 is contributing to declining mental health among lawyers. 

“Since COVID-19, studies of the general population show that rates of anxiety and depression have quadrupled since this time last year,” said Buchanan, who advises law firms on well-being issues at Krill Strategies in Minneapolis. “We can assume that rates among lawyers have also gone even higher than before.”

Promoting Wellness Within Law Firms

Lawyer well-being concerns can be divided into three main categories: 

  1. mental health issues, such as substance abuse, anxiety, and depression
  2. physical health
  3. work-life balance 

COVID-19 — which increases stress, creates isolation, and extends the workday for some into every waking hour — is a risk factor for all of these lawyer well-being categories.

The inherently disconnected nature of remote work makes it difficult for law firm managers to gauge how lawyers are faring while working at home. Depression and alcohol problems are tricky enough to identify during regular face-to-face interactions at the office. Once meetings move online, these issues are almost impossible to detect until disaster strikes.

What can law firms do to promote wellness during COVID-19? Buchanan suggested several steps law firm managers can take to promote lawyer well-being in their firms:

  • Communicate often: Frequent and open communication is imperative because uncertainty and fear of the future can be a tremendous driver of unhealthy stress.
  • Build team spirit: Create opportunities to bring lawyers and staff together to promote connection, accountability, and preservation of firm culture.
  • Check in regularly: Set up regular calls with individual team members, always allowing time in the conversation for checking in on how they are coping in this unprecedented time.
  • Publicize wellness resources: Brush up on their employee assistance program offerings, highlight them for staff, and encourage their use.
  • Foster two-way communication: Through their candid conversations and a willingness to promote help-seeking among those in distress, law firm managers can help dispel the stigma that goes with admitting a mental health problem. 

On an individual level, lawyers should seek professional help if they are wrestling with mental health issues. Buchanan advises lawyers to put in place a self-care program to prevent the onset of mental health disorders. Regular exercise, meditation, or any relaxing activity can form the basis of an effective self-care program. It’s a good idea to build accountability into the program by telling co-workers or supervisors about the program, Buchanan said.

For lawyers interested in an approximate, but non-scientific, evaluation, online self-assessments are available for alcohol-related problems and depression. Although not a formal assessment, Mind Garden Inc. publishes a layman’s summary of the Maslach Burnout Toolkit that lists symptoms of burnout due to overwork, loss of control, and separation from former professional and personal communities. 

Bar Associations Are Ready to Help

Fortunately, bar leadership groups are aware of the problems that substance abuse, depression, and burnout are causing within the ranks of the profession. The ABA, along with state bar associations and mental health organizations, have been working hard lately to reach out to at-risk lawyers and get them the help they need to overcome mental health problems.

The ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs has an extensive list of resources on mental health issues, many geared toward COVID-19 specifically, as well as a directory of lawyer assistance programs offered by state bar associations across the country.

The Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers is an ABA-commissioned document that offers guidance for creating a well-being culture within law firms.

At the state level, nearly every bar association publishes resources and offers assistance for members struggling with lawyer well-being issues during COVID-19.

For example:

Maintaining Well-Being in These Times

This year has presented a period of unprecedented change for the legal profession. Lawyers have had to re-engineer their practices to offer new ways of serving clients and to develop solutions for legal problems that didn’t exist when the year began — all while working at a distance from their former offices. Heightened attention to lawyer well-being issues could very well be a key contributor to professional success as the legal community continues to work through the COVID-19 epidemic.  

“I tell lawyers that life in the law is a marathon,” said Buchanan. “Now, that marathon has turned into an Ironman Triathlon. We won’t make it to the finish line without a plan and the discipline to abide by it.”