I commend The Young Lawyer Editorial Board at The American Lawyer for their powerful piece on the debilitating and even life-threatening risks of working in the legal profession – a profession that, they point out, “[tops] the league tables for loneliness, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, stress and suicide.”

Although they acknowledge that mental health problems can present at any age, of particular relevance to the group that wrote the editorial: “Data suggests that lawyers in the earlier stages of their careers are at greater risk than lawyers who have been in the profession for 15 years or more.”

Why, the group wondered, was such a pervasive fact of legal life not receiving greater attention from the profession in general, and at the firm level in particular? Why wasn’t everyone talking about this?

They developed a questionnaire to try to help answer their questions, and learned that while half of the lawyers surveyed felt that practising law had affected their mental health in a negative way, few would consider seeking help through their own firms. They felt they might be seen as weak, or that admitting to problems might impede their career advancement. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, they felt they would not judge others as harshly as they expected to be judged themselves.

With straightforward wisdom, the editorial group concluded: “Shaking the stigma attached to mental health concerns will require an ideological shift within the legal profession. This requires the full engagement of law firms and lawyers.”

Break the Silence

The Young Lawyers Editorial Board presents a well-thought series of initiatives that law firms and individual lawyers can undertake to address mental-health problems among their colleagues, from providing resources and support programs at the firm level to increasing lawyers’ awareness of mental-health danger signs. Far more difficult, but also far more important, is tackling the underlying issues that lead to the erosion of mental health.

Reading this article is not going to solve any mental-health problems in individual law firms, but it will be a good start… especially by those who subsequently take up the challenge thrown down by the Board:

In order to minimize the damage done by mental illness, we call on law firms to implement necessary changes and to break the silence on mental health. We call on lawyers to support their firms in doing so and to show compassion to any colleagues who they suspect may be suffering from a mental health concern. – Young Lawyer Editorial Board, American Lawyer

As always, I welcome your thoughts on this or any other matter related to the law, either in the comments below or directly via email.