Under Pressure

Why do attorneys struggle more than other professionals with mental health issues?

Published in 2020 Southern California Super Lawyers Magazine — February 2020

The pressures of litigating personal injury cases while serving as a managing partner were silently taking their toll on Daniel Lukasik, but it wasn’t until 2000 that he noticed the first symptoms: fragmented sleep, trouble concentrating, and a deep sadness that brought tears at the most unexpected moments. 

“At that time, there was no one who talked about this topic,” says Lukasik, special projects coordinator at the New York State Office of Court Administration in Buffalo. “So I kept it to myself. I felt ashamed.”

Lukasik, who was eventually diagnosed with depression and takes medication to treat it, has practiced at Bernhardi & Lukasik, as well as at Maxwell Murphy, and served as director of workplace wellbeing at the Mental Health Advocates of Western New York. But he’s right: Until relatively recently, the topic of unchecked stress among lawyers was to a large extent swept under the rug, along with its consequences of depression, addiction and other mental health concerns. 

That’s beginning to change. A study of nearly 13,000 practicing attorneys by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, released in 2016, found that 21% qualified as problem drinkers, while 28% struggled with depression, 19% with anxiety, 23% with stress; and 11.5% had experienced suicidal thoughts. The ABA Journal noted in a 2016 article that legal professionals experience alcohol overuse and mental health problems at a higher rate than others. And a Journal of Addiction Medicine article that same year—citing a study reported in that journal in 2003—said that just 11.8% of the overall highly educated workforce was found to have problematic drinking.

The statistics on the next generation of lawyers are even more alarming. “Students are currently entering law school with about the national rate of depression and dependency, about 10 to 11 percent, and by graduation it has increased to 40 percent,” partly because of difficulties finding a job and heavy student debt, says Hilarie Bass, immediate past president of the ABA and founder of the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Miami. “And that’s before they try their first case, send out their first bill, handle their first significant client matter. That’s a big, big concern, because this is the future of our profession.”

Why lawyers?

Why do these potentially devastating disorders affect so many attorneys? For one thing, the vocation tends to attract perfectionist, Type-A personalities whose work is extremely competitive, adversarial and based on demanding deadlines. “A friend of mine is a neurosurgeon, and he said he has a lot of stress,” Lukasik says. “I said, ‘Yeah, but you don’t have somebody on the other side of the operating table trying to undo your sutures.’”

Many lawyers face intense pressure for billable hours. To make matters worse, cellphones and other technology have usurped the camaraderie of face-to-face conversation with peers, making many lawyers feel isolated. 

Even overcoming substance abuse can present challenges. Scott Tillett had been drinking and using drugs for almost a decade when his mother and stepfather, both attorneys who now work with him at the appellate firm Pine Tillett Pine in Sherman Oaks, California, orchestrated a rehab intervention when he was 24. By the time he applied for law school, he had been sober for six years. But after scoring in the top 98th percentile on the LSAT, he received rejection letters from most of the top 20 schools.

He attributes the deluge of “no’s” to telling the truth on his entrance essay. “If somebody talks about having cancer as a young person and overcoming it, it’s a story that makes your eyes well up,” says Tillett, who controls his addiction with Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and has spoken about addiction issues at LA Bar Association events and the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles’ annual convention.

“You’re rooting for that person and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we’d like to extend you an offer to become a student at our institution because you’ve demonstrated character.’ Whereas if you say the same thing about drug and alcohol addiction, it’s like, ‘You did that to yourself.’ … Not everybody sees it as an illness. A lot of people see it as a moral failing.”

Stigma is a common blog topic on Lukasik’s website, lawyerswithdepression.com. “I can’t tell you how many lawyers I’ve heard that from,” he says. “It’s almost like a #MeToo movement. … All these kinds of moral pronouncements are like an anvil falling out of a building and onto their head. It’s very, very painful, and another sort of brick on the back of someone struggling with depression, because they already feel horrible about the condition.”

All of which can greatly reduce cognitive skills and energy, and affect work. “You can’t give good client service if you’re not mentally or physically healthy,” says Bass.

Not long after marrying her first husband, Danny, Terry Bentley Hill became aware that he had a drinking problem. For 11 years, she kept the secret for fear it would ruin his reputation as a district attorney. One Sunday in 1995, he took his own life at home while their four little girls were asleep. “He was suffering from a fatal illness, because if you don’t treat it, it can kill you,” says Hill, a criminal defense attorney in Dallas. 

These days, Hill devotes much time to promoting attorney wellness. “We have to stop minding our own business and reach out and ask, ‘Are you OK?’” she says. Hill has volunteered with the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program and chairs the Dallas Bar Association’s Peer Assistance Committee—which provide awareness and referrals. She also serves on an attorney-wellness roundtable convened by the Texas Supreme Court. “We go every year for a physical health checkup,” she says. “We need to encourage people to go for a mental health checkup, and also provide them with some support before it gets to a critical mass.”

Taking Action

To address the issues raised in its eye-opening 2016 report, the ABA commission formed a taskforce that created an online toolkit of recommendations, and a pledge challenging legal employers to take such actions as de-emphasizing alcohol at events and providing mental health resources. More than 65 major firms have signed on. Law schools are beginning to offer in-house counseling, and bar associations are holding educational sessions. 

The best place to start, say attorneys who have learned how to improve their mental health, is to take care of yourself. Coping strategies include counseling, journaling, meditating, improving work/life balance, reading self-help books and attending support groups. But what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. Laurin Schweet, a creditor’s rights lawyer at Schweet Linde & Coulson in Seattle, tried strategies including counseling to cope with anxiety and depression. She then challenged herself to squeeze in some aerobic activity every day for 50 days. And she kept going.

Figuring out what works best is up to each individual. “It’s wonderful if you have the benefit of being at a firm that is focused on providing these resources,” says Bass, citing policies that encourage physical and mental health. “That being said, every attorney needs to take personal responsibility for their own well-being and making it a priority.”

Schweet, who is self-publishing a book on her experience due out in late 2019, says, “When I say that exercise has saved my life, I really do mean that. Find a way to build a little bit of [exercise] into your life and start small. If you can’t do half an hour, just do five or 10 minutes.”

Her message goes beyond her own circumstances. “I can’t tell you the number of lawyers who have been burned out, depressed, or had chemical dependencies. This is a tough gig,” she says. “We thought it would be engrossing, not that we’d be out there battling, day after day, with opponents. So it catches people off guard.”

“Law is one of the few professions where we’re not rewarded for collaboration. Lawyers need to know that they’re in this really emotional minefield of a career.”


Advice From Those Who’ve Been There

Daniel Lukasik: “You have to find a way to dump that stress out of your body on a regular basis.” He recommends mindfulness meditation and support groups.

Terry Bentley Hill: “You can get help and it will not destroy your legal career.” To co-workers and friends: “We have to stop minding our own business and reach out and ask, ‘Are you okay?’”

Laurin Schweet: “Find a way to build a little bit of [exercise] into your life and start small. If you can’t do half an hour, just do five or 10 minutes.”

Scott Tillett: For family members/friends: “One good resource is Al-Anon, because then people can learn that they’re not responsible for the other person’s disease and learn ways to not enable.”

Hilarie Bass: “It’s great if you’re with a supportive firm that brings in yoga classes and insists everybody takes vacation. That being said, every attorney needs to take personal responsibility for their own wellbeing and making it a priority.”

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