Lauren Henderson & Bill Henderson, What Needs to Change to Improve Mental Health in the Legal Profession?:
The title of this article is based on an open-ended question presented to more than 3,800 professionals who responded to ALM Intelligence’s recent Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey (ALM Survey).
Granted, this is a population of very busy people, so not everyone took the time to fill out the text box with their proposed solutions or suggestions to the serious challenge of mental health. That said, 1,882 lawyers and allied professionals shared their views, with responses that ran the gamut for hilarious to blunt to deeply pessimistic. One of us (Lauren) just graduated with a degree in Anthropology, and thus had the time, skill, and curiosity to read every response, looking for patterns and themes. The other (Bill) is skilled in quantitative research and has a strong grasp of the legal marketplace. The open-ended question at the end of the ALM Survey gave us a perfect opportunity to leverage our respective skills.
What did we learn? Here are a few findings presented in more detail below:
- In both volume and substance, women professionals had a lot more to say than their male counterparts. If holding on to this talent is important, we wonder, “Is anyone listening?”
- Within law firms, allied professionals appear to be the most tuned in to the mental health challenges, though all professionals are in broad agreement the law firm business model and related cultural factors are significant drivers of unhappiness, anxiety, and stress.
- Cutting against stereotypes, older legal professions tended to be most in tune with mental health awareness and stigma issues, yet cutting in the opposite direction, they were also less likely–often by relatively wide margins–to cite specific causes, such as high billable hour quotas, unrealistic expectations, lean staffing, or inability to disconnect from work.
The careful reading of the lawyers and allied professionals in their own words is highly informative and, at times, somewhat heartbreaking. Yet, it is possible that we are observing the true “market” conditions, driven by demanding judges, ambitious partners, and the business needs of clients with no shortage of choices.
This post is organized into three sections. In Section I, we briefly summarize the composition and findings of the ALM Survey, as its multiple-choice format provides a useful backdrop to the open-ended question on mental health in the legal profession. In Section II, we discuss the characteristics of the professionals who answered the open-ended question and the coding system we developed, providing specific examples of each category. In Section III, we presented a mix and quantitative and quantitative findings and our collaborative interpretations. ...
On the one hand, we can conclude that the current state of mental health in law firms is the result of choices and tradeoffs freely made by smart, talented professionals. On the other hand, what we could be witnessing is a deplorable lack of leadership, courage, and professional responsibility.
In part, this may be due to law firm leaders with no formal business training who have been socialized into an antiquated business model that, despite its flaws, still reliably produces large profits. It may also be due to a swing in the marketplace where in-house lawyers have become drunk with their own power and enjoy being treated as the smartest and most important person in the room.
Regardless, rather than speeches, tweets, and op-eds, now is time for building institutions that solve industry-wide problems. This requires real sacrifice and real resources. Thus, the true catalyst for change is more lawyers willing to have the courage of their convictions. Meaningful change comes at a price. For legal professionals, this means risking our careers to fight for things that matter.