the health problems lawyers face

... and a path towards optimal health

For generations, members of the legal profession have accepted that their careers are taking a heavy toll on their physical and mental health. Conflicting demands on time and energy in combination with fast-paced high-stakes working environments in many law firms result in high levels of chronic stress, self-neglect, addiction, and substance abuse. However, change is underway as the benefits of "legal wellness" and investing in health education and programming are gaining acceptance.

An All-Too-Common Scenario

A career in law can be incredibly rewarding. It can bring exciting intellectual challenges and the opportunity to help others. However, those driven to a legal career - often determined, focused, perfectionists - have an increased likelihood to become consumed with their careers which can lead to less attention on health and wellness.

If you are a lawyer, problems likely began during law school and in the early career years with intense pressure to succeed, rigorous exams, tough competition to land the high-profile jobs, and the pressure to load the resume with accomplishments. Long hours, unreasonable demands (suffering was part of the training), disheartening criticism, and a crisis driven, dog-eat-dog culture was considered “normal,” and you were likely willing to sacrifice relationships, hobbies, and even your health in order to climb to the top.

Years into your legal career, the long hours, demanding clients, and competitive culture remain. Work encroaches into personal and family life: working late, over the weekend, and during vacations. You may just have to drop everything when the next crisis hits. There are unspoken pressures of always feeling that you must be right and win, or at the minimum that you always have to be incredibly busy. You may also have to entertain or travel, making healthy habits more difficult to attain and allowing for even less time for relationships and hobbies. You struggle sleeping, often need sleep aids or other substances to get you through the night—sleeping 7-9 hours seems unattainable. 

Of course, there are rewards to being a lawyer: prestige, significance, possible financial abundance, gourmet business dinners, and luxury travel. But you may wonder if the hard work and sacrifice are sensible if you rarely have time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. While you know you are not alone in feeling pressure, it's rare to hear other lawyers share these concerns, and you may fear that if you do, you will be judged as being weak or not up to the job.

Does any of this sound familiar?

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Mental Health trends for lawyers

All this pressure can cause a multitude of health problems that often start small but grow insidiously and become severe. I'm sure you've heard of colleagues you thought were healthy having a breakdown, heart attack, or other significant health problems. Work-life balance, self-care, and stress management are luxuries afforded to people in other professions, and you rarely make time for a check-up with your doctor. Recent research supports the hearsay about the health issues experienced by lawyers.

A groundbreaking 2020 study of 2,863 lawyers commissioned by the California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar revealed alarming mental health trends in practicing attorneys:

  • 30% reported mild anxiety and depression, with nearly 20% reporting moderate/severe symptoms. 58% reported moderate to severe stress. 
  • More than 50% screened positive for risky drinking, and 30% screened for high-risk hazardous drinking (alcohol abuse or possible dependence). Women were significantly more at risk for poor mental health and hazardous drinking, while men were at higher risk of substance abuse
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were considering leaving the profession due to mental health issues or stress.
  • Sources of stress: included work-family conflict, effort-reward imbalance, work overcommitment, worries about promotion opportunities, and alcohol permissiveness in the workplace.

In the worst-case scenario, mental health issues lead to suicide. Research from the Dave Nee Foundation reports that lawyers rank as the occupation with the 5th highest incidence of suicide. Another of their studies found that 25% of lawyers reported physical symptoms of extreme anxiety at least three times per month, 37% reported depression, and 11% admitted to suicidal ideation (thoughts or plans to commit suicide).

It is not yet widely accepted as a sign of strength within the industry to ask for help – lawyers don’t want to be viewed as weak or unable “fix it.” They might not want their peers to find out about their struggles for fear it will risk their career or reputation. Many lawyers may not know where to start or how to make time for healthier habits. This can cause stress, depression, and anxiety to escalate, trapping them in a never-ending cycle of pain.

The Costs to Law Firms

There are steep personal costs to law firms who ignore physical and mental health including poor performance, high attrition rates (23% of associates left in 2021), and struggles in attracting quality talent. These challenges impact the clients by affecting communication and the quality of legal work, the firm's reputation, retention of clients, and, ultimately, the bottom line.

Good Health Is Possible

Despite these alarming statistics, there has been a gradual but promising change in the profession over the past few years. People are starting to pay attention to stress, burnout and health problems, and the effects of a lack of work-life balance. Several state bar associations acknowledge the mental health crisis and suicide risk and are beginning to make efforts to offer support and education.

For many people, the Covid pandemic was a driving force to examine how they live their lives. It brought into sharp focus how precious and precarious our health is and that life can change in an instant. For most, it was the first time they experienced working from home, and there were aspects of this way of working that they found surprisingly appealing.

How to Protect and Prioritize Your Health

Being a lawyer does not need to involve sacrificing physical and mental health, relationships, and quality of life. The sooner you start to invest in your health, the better. The chronic diseases that present often in middle age and beyond begin with unhealthy habits in early adulthood. Lifestyle changes and personalized medicine can dramatically decrease your risk of burnout, chronic illness, and premature death.

Lawyers are oftentimes the experts; people go to lawyers in times of need and desperation, seeking guidance and an actionable plan. But who is that person when it comes to their health? Where is that safe, supportive environment providing a path to optimal health for those in the legal field?

At SHIFT, we have seen growing numbers of lawyers making their health a priority and law firms offering their leaders Executive-level physicals, better primary care options, and resources and benefits beyond those available through traditional health insurance. Investing in expert and trusted support, direct access to doctors and health professionals, and tactical guidance allows lawyers more time and energy to bring meaning and fulfillment to their lives. Law firms stepping in and normalizing the conversation around asking for help create a better culture of lawyers who can better “metabolize” stress and ultimately be more productive, efficient, healthy, and satisfied members of the team.

While smart, well-educated, and industrious, lawyers are human beings susceptible to physical and mental health problems, especially in adverse professional conditions. Wellness requires personal responsibility and changes in culture in law firms and in the profession as a whole. We hope to see a future where career success and health go hand in hand and where leaders in the profession show their strength and leadership with honesty and vulnerability.

If you are a lawyer or an HR professional at a law firm and want more information on how SHIFT works specifically with the legal community, please contact us for a discovery call.

learn more about shift

and how we support legal professionals

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

learn more about shift

and how we support legal professionals

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.