May 12, 2022

Law and Mental Health – Changing The Culture Of Unhealthy Work-Life Balance

The state of mental health in law is concerning.

In 2016, the  American Bar Association conducted a study where they surveyed around 13,000 attorneys and found that 28% of them struggled with depression while 19% had experienced symptoms of anxiety. An even more alarming finding of this study was that 21% of the surveyed lawyers qualified as problem drinkers which is three times the 6% rate of alcohol abuse in general population and twice that of highly educated professionals.

It starts at school.

Attending law school is both an honor and a privilege but there is another side to the law school experience. Often for lawyers, substance abuse begins or becomes worse during law school. A 2014 academic survey of 15 US law schools reported that apart from other mental health concerns, 53% of law students had been intoxicated in the prior 30 days and 43% binge drank at least once in the preceding two weeks.

Law students tend to be highly motivated and hardworking individuals who have made a dedicated effort to study law and become a lawyer. For any law student it is a dream come true when they finally find themselves in their first law class as it is the culmination of years of studying hard to get the right grades and an impressive LSAT score. Then why do they find themselves struggling with mental health concerns when they finally make it to law school? There are a few reasons I can think of:

A. The financial burden of law school

When I say that attending law school is a privilege, I mean that literally as well. Legal education in the US can cost somewhere between $100,000-150,000, a number that has been rising steadily over the last decade. That is a substantial financial burden and while having a degree from a prestigious law school may help land one’s first job, there's no guarantee that you'll find work that can cover those costs once you're out in the field.

For many recent graduates, finding employment post graduation isn't easy—and even if they do manage to get hired at an established firm or office, entry-level salaries aren't high enough to pay off their loans immediately. While it is true that some law graduates who are hired into large law firms can make up to or more than $190,000, that is not the norm. The median income for attorneys stands at $80,000 for private sector and much lower at $60,000 for public sector.

B. Beating the curve - Cold calls, the Socratic method of teaching, imposter syndrome

Law is a highly competitive field and getting into law school which is already extremely competitive is just the beginning. The nature of law school can give students a warped conception of success that solely depends on the number of gold stars or academic honors they earn. The curved grading system also leads to students constantly comparing themselves to other accomplished individuals and doubt their own abilities. Additionally, one of the common ways of teaching used in law schools is the Socratic method which involves picking a student at random and asking them questions about a course topic. The purpose of this teaching style is to create a cooperative argumentative dialogue and encourage students to think critically through the themes covered in a class. However, it also makes up for a very anxiety inducing situation as you are being quizzed on the readings in front of your entire class. This creates additional pressure on students to always be prepared with the right answer when a professor randomly cold calls you, or you risk a very embarrassing situation.

That said, many Professors have recently been taking a slightly different approach by assigning student discussion panels for each class meaning that if you are not on a panel, you do not need to worry about being called on randomly for that day.

C. Normalizing unhealthy habits

There is a shared sense of camaraderie and self-deprecating humor amongst lawyers that begins from law school about working too much and not prioritizing health. Studying into the wee hours of the night, treating coffee as a complete breakfast, and an unhealthy drinking culture are all things that are considered normal amongst law students.

Culture of unhealthy work-life balance

So now you are done with LSAT prep, you got the right GPA, you got into the right law school and you also managed to get through it with decent grades, got a job, and even wrote the bar exam. Things should be less stressful from here, right? Well not yet. Not yet is a term that many lawyers are quite familiar with. While meticulous, prompt and organized in our academic and professional lives we often miss the more important deadlines to get into better health, cultivate healthier habits and reduce stress because it is “not yet” time for that. There is always something higher priority, like sending out that red-lined draft or that one last client email. In this culture, sleep deprivation, working long hours, and excessive alcohol consumption are treated as the mark of a hard-working law student or attorney.

There is no dearth of anecdotal accounts that speak to the bad work-life balance amongst lawyers. One of my law school colleagues once related to me that in her first year as a law firm associate, she was involved in a very high stakes acquisition and got the opportunity to work with a partner she looked up to. For the first month of this project, she worked such hours that she barely went home. Instead, every morning she would simply walk up to the nearest store to buy a new outfit and survive on take-out. Her story is not entirely uncommon, and it is really time to stop normalizing stress and unhealthy work-life balance.

Time to stop incentivizing unhealthy work-life balance.

We need to stop taking pride in working long hours, not prioritizing health, and take stock of what really matters. Clio’s 2018 report found that 75% of lawyers tend to work beyond work hours. This makes sense given the billable hour nature of our profession. Most law firms’ business models are primarily based on billable hours which inevitably adds an incentive to working too much because time is quite literally money – revenue. This however does no favors for mental wellness.

Law firms today understand the importance of mental health. A 2019 ABA Report found that more than 56% of the lawyers surveyed felt that their law firms were supportive of their mental wellbeing. Law schools also now provide mental health resources for students. We still have to cover a lot of ground until we can get to an ideal place where lawyers and law students no longer have to prioritize work over mental wellbeing but the fact that these conversations are being taken seriously is a significant step in the right direction.

Automating tedious tasks.

Lawyers spend about 48% of their time doing administrative tasks. When we speak of creating better work-life balance it is also important to leverage available technology to automate tedious tasks. Legaltech can be an important ally for lawyers in reducing the stress around the more mundane time-consuming tasks, freeing up time to focus on things that really matter. In our previous blogs we have written in more detail about these legaltech tools.

What really matters.

In our fast-paced lives, we need to stop for a second and ask ourselves what really matters. It is important for businesses to run smoothly, tasks to get done on time, emails to be sent promptly, and ideas to be implemented. But, in all of this, we forget the most important resource that is indispensable to accomplish all of the above – people. Let’s create a culture for lawyers to take pride in working lesser hours, taking mental health breaks, and relying on technology to reduce effort.