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Avoiding “Super Lawyer” Burnout (Hint: Pro Bono Can Help)
Picture this: It’s 8:00 pm. One professional, after another stressful day, reaches down into a leather briefcase and pulls out a camouflaged flask filled with top-shelf bourbon and takes a drink. Meanwhile, at an office down the street, a partner unscrews the lid to her pill bottle and pops two to take the edge off. It’s their way of unwinding after another very intense day. This could be anyone, really, but the chances of them being lawyers is very high. Substance abuse has been coping mechanism in the legal profession for decades: 36 percent of lawyers self-identify as having a drinking problem compared with just 6.4 percent of the general population. Recent research into the mental health and wellness of lawyers has shown these scenes are a slippery slope to self-harm. In 2016, the Hazelden/Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs on substance abuse released a joint study of nearly 13,000 attorneys regarding mental health concerns within the legal profession. Among the findings, 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys qualify as having an addiction, and 28 percent struggle with some level of depression—a rate more than four times that of the general population. Additionally, 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety, which can lead to addictive behavior.
Enter Claudette W. Patton who identifies as a wife, mother, friend, and volunteer who happens to be a lawyer. However, one afternoon, her life was turned on its head when she learned one of her closest friends had attempted suicide. This friend, a leader at a large Fortune 500 company, had fallen down a deep hole of addiction and mental health problems, culminating in a suicide attempt that left her unresponsive in the hospital. Patton’s friend managed to recover, but lost everything in the process: her family, her home, her job, and most of her friends.
As the harrowing experience of her friend’s suicide attempt was unfolding for Patton, she also attended a seminar that included legal professionals speaking on their own battles with addiction, struggles with recovery, and the results of the Hazleden/Betty Ford Foundation survey. The real-life stories she heard that day and the data on alcoholism, substance abuse, and mental health she learned through the seminar coupled with the reality of her friend shocked her into deciding to make a difference. She decided to be a voice advocating for lawyer assistance pro grams and got to work developing a seminar called Super Lawyers: Ethical Implications of Stress, Burnout & Substance Abuse. This program is designed to reach as many corporate and practicing attorneys as possible and to spread the message of mental health awareness and offer solutions within the legal community. This includes things like a better work/life balance and giving back through pro bono work.
Last month, PBI’s President and CEO Eve Runyon traveled to Kentucky to present at the ACC Kentucky Chapter’s Annual Ethics Seminar, alongside Patton. While Runyon shared with in-house attendees the ethics of pro bono legal services, including the benefits of giving back to the community, Patton discussed the responsibilities lawyers have to avoid burnout and address substance abuse that may limit effective counsel. Substance abuse, depression, and suicide are serious problems and the recent high-profile deaths by suicide have shined a light on mental health and wellness. Striking a work-life balance can be difficult, but it is crucial to avoiding stress overloads and burnout. We wanted to learn more about this growing issue and caught up with Patton after the seminar to find out what is being done in the legal community.
PBI: What is going on right now to improve lawyer wellness, both nationally and locally?
Lawyer wellness is a national mission. The American Bar Association has dedicated three divisions within the association to collaborate on the message of wellness:
- The Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (COLAP) seeks to assure that every lawyer, judge, and law student has access to support for alcoholism, substance abuse, and mental health. The mission is carried out by the work of the state lawyer assistance programs that exist in all every state in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and internationally.
- The National Task Force on Lawyer Wellness is chargedwith creating a movement to improve the health and wellness of the legal profession.
- The ABA Working Group to Advance Wellness in the Legal Profession has a mission of creating policies for law firms and legal employers.
My plan is to heed the National Task Force’s call-to-action by increasing awareness about the staggering substance abuse statistics among legal professionals and to encourage the implementation of the recommendations to assist in lawyer wellness. The Kentucky presentation at the Annual Ethics Seminar to corporate counsel was a granted pilot program with the Association of Corporate Counsel in Washington, DC. The ACC Kentucky Chapter then partnered with PBI to hold an Ethics Conference with the ultimate collaborative goal of coordinating with the Association of Corporate Counsel on a national level and other state Lawyer Assistance Programs (LAPs) to better inform the legal community about these important issues.
A 1990 Johns Hopkins study of lawyers found that skepticism was a trait that helped lawyers, but that same skepticism, coupled with pessimism, made them vulnerable to depression. Does that inherent skepticism make lawyers less likely to seek help when needed?
It is plausible, though not a direct correlation. The greatest barriers to seeking treatment are more systemic. There is a simple personal denial that a problem exists; the stigma and shame associated with alcoholism, addiction and mental health; the fear of losing a law license; and the inherent alcohol-centric culture of the legal profession where cocktail parties and happy hours are the norm. There is an ease of obtaining addictive prescriptions in our society that goes unmonitored to a great extent. Unfortunately, society views these struggles as a moral failure or a sign of weakness. A culture shift is necessary to eliminate the stigma associated with addictions and mental health.
The 1990 study found lawyers develop drinking problems later in their careers. However, 25 years later, the 2016 survey found the inverse is true: lawyers are now developing drinking problems earlier in their careers. What do you think caused this shift?
This important realization in this shift indicates there is a deep seeded problem in our profession. Today, the numbers indicate 14.2 percent of attorneys report problematic use during law school, and 43.7 percent of attorneys reported problematic use within the first 15 years after law school. The shift is partially a result of an alcohol-centric culture and the ease of prescriptive medications, not only in the legal profession but in American society in general. Also, our society is experiencing a willingness to openly discuss alcohol issues previously considered taboo. In speaking with directors of various LAPs, most in the industry believe the percentages regarding alcohol may be accurate. However, most agree the numbers regarding substance abuse and depression including suicide are actually much higher than reported, due to the illegality of drug possession, the stigma of depression and suicide, and general lack of willingness to admit to the disorders. One important seminar aspect is teaching participants how to confidentially direct a colleague to their LAP and obtain wellness services for a healthy recovery. These tools and methods are crucial in helping our fellow attorneys.
How can “super lawyers” strike a work-life balance when they’re working long hours and in such high-pressure situations?
Wellness and work-life balance are an individualized tasks. However, the National Task Force for Lawyer Wellness has made 44 recommendations to its constituents to take responsibility to implement policies promoting wellness in work and educational environments. A well-balanced life also includes giving back to others in need. Encouraging lawyers at law firms and corporations to take the time and energy in pro bono activities is a way to get outside of a high-paced environments and participate in using legal skills for others. It creates a sense of satisfaction from helping others.
What are some tips that lawyers—or anyone—can use to better help deal with the day-to-day stress in their lives?
First, remove yourself from the stressor. Give yourself permission to take a break—even if it’s just for 20 minutes. Second, try to stay active. Walk, run, swim, take a dance class—keeping the body active is good for your mental wellness. Next, smile. Laugh. Go see a funny movie, put on a stand-up comedy album. Smiling and laughing help to relieve tension. Also, try to have social supports in place. Have friends that you trust and are positively validating you. Finally, try meditation, spirituality, and mindfulness. Learn from a wellness coach how to relax and focus the mind and the body.
Many thanks to Patton for taking the time to answer our questions. For anyone seeking help, there are options available to you. The Lawyers Assistance Programs are completely confidential. All services and support provided by a LAP are confidential and contacting a LAP does not jeopardize your law license. To locate a lawyer assistance program in your state, visit www.ambar.org/colap. You can text the Crisis Text Line by texting START to 741-741 and you can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. Please contact Patton if you would like her to conduct a seminar for your organization.
Asking your friend or co-worker how they are doing or if they need help may save a life.
Pro Bono at the Border
Lawyers are stepping up to meet another emergency situation, as the pro bono community has been mobilizing on the behalf of those in DHS custody along the border. There has been an amazing response by pro bono lawyers to address issues from family detention to reunification, arising from the separation of families at the United States’ borders. PBI reached out to Ellyn Josef of Vinson & Elkins*† and Karen Grisez of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson*† to discuss their work at the border and beyond and how others can get involved. Click here to read the full post.
Pro Bono Powering Up: 2017 Law Firm Challenge Report
The 2017 PBI Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® Report is out and it was a healthy and vibrant year for pro bono programs! The Report examines the pro bono performance of signatories to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge initiative during the 2017 calendar year. Signatories have committed to contribute three or five percent of their annual total paying client billable hours to pro bono activities as defined by the Challenge and to report their performance to the Law Firm Pro Bono Project each year.
Pro bono efforts increased on a number of fronts last year. The percentage of firms that achieved the three percent goal rose from 59 percent in 2016 to 63 percent in 2017. The percentage of firms that achieved the five percent goal also improved from 50 percent in 2016 to 58 percent in 2017.
Although the number of firms reporting decreased slightly from last year, total pro bono hours increased by more than 310,000 hours from 2016. Furthermore, the average number of pro bono hours rose to 66.26 hours per attorney. This was an increase of four hours per attorney and represented the highest level since 2009.
We thank and congratulate the Challenge signatories whose commitment to pro bono is positively reflected in this Report, and we look forward to a renewed and expanded level of commitment in 2018! If you would like to join and become a signatory, visit the Law Firm Project’s website for more information.
Aging With Dignity: How Pro Bono Can Help Seniors
Be sure to mark your calendars — PBI is hosting Serving Our Seniors, on July 25 at 1PM EST. This program covers how we can ensure that low‐income and other eligible seniors age with dignity. From advanced planning to government benefits and housing protections to fraud and abuse prevention, this session will explore a range of pro bono opportunities and developments. Registration, which is free to Law Firm Pro Bono Project member firms as a member benefit, is required to access this program, either live or on-demand as a recording. Please contact Elysse DeRita for assistance with becoming a member. Contact CPBO Project Assistant Virginia Lyon for registration information if you are with an in-house team.
ICYMI, in June, PBI hosted a timely and important webinar: Time’s Up: Actions for Gender Equity. Adapted from the popular 2018 PBI Annual Conference workshop session, this program introduced the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which connects those who experience sexual harassment, abuse, or misconduct in the workplace with legal and public relations assistance, and discussed how pro bono volunteers can get involved. You can listen to this webinar on demand, available soon!
The rest of our webinars are available on demand, including the popular Ferguson, Fines, and Fees program. These episodes are a great opportunity to lunch and learn, so check out all of our great webinars today!
New Faces, Same Great Mission
PBI is thrilled to welcome some new people to Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO) our new CPBO Assistant Director, Alyssa Saunders, and CPBO’s new Project Assistant, Emily Van Fossen!
Alyssa (right) joins PBI with years of pro bono experience. She most recently worked at Cooley†, where she served on the Pro Bono Committee in the Washington, D.C. office and coordinated that office’s pro bono summer associate research program. As a law firm associate, Alyssa worked on a diverse array of pro bono matters, including affirmative and defensive asylum cases, social security disability appeals, litigating civil rights cases in federal district court, and representing tenants in eviction proceedings. Alyssa graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School.
Emily Van Fossen is the Project Assistant for CPBO. Prior to joining CPBO she was the Human Resources and Finance Assistant at USA for UNHCR, a nonprofit that raises funds for refugees. While at USA for UNHCR she worked to build the human resources department and collaborated with companies to provide in-kind donations to refugee camps around the world. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University where she studied Pre-Law, Politics and Government, and Psychology.
Welcome Alyssa and Emily!
A Fête Worthy of the Queen (of Pro Bono)
In April, PBI commemorated what would have been Esther Lardent’s 71st birthday with a two-week email and social media campaign, sharing memories from a few of her colleagues and inviting personal gifts to the Esther F. Lardent Fund for Innovation in Pro Bono (“Esther’s Fund”). PBI’s Board created Esther’s Fund in 2015 as a tribute to the organization’s founder and first president.
Known as the “Queen of Pro Bono,” Esther transformed the culture of pro bono in the legal profession. Her innovative approaches inspired law firms and in-house law departments to motivate and encourage each other to do more pro bono, leveraging competition and public recognition as incentives. “Esther’s spirit and passion live on at PBI,” says PBI President & CEO Eve Runyon. “She is in our hearts and in the work that we do together every day. Her powerful legacy is a solid foundation on which to strengthen PBI’s future.”
Goodwin Procter’s Chairman Emeritus Regina M. Pisa, a long-time friend of Esther and current PBI Board member, leveraged her personal gift and challenged other PBI Board members to raise $50,000. They responded so enthusiastically that before you could say “res ipsa loquitur,” Pisa had set a new goal of $100,000, followed quickly by $150,000, and then $200,000. The outpouring of support for Esther’s birthday celebration was extraordinary, with donations surpassing all goals and exceeding $200,000 by the end of the two-week campaign.
“I should have known that even after her passing, Esther would be responsible for shattering expectations and setting records,” says Pisa. “During the campaign, I received many heartwarming emails from people who shared the profound impact that Esther had on their lives. She would have been so moved by this and, of course, more than a bit embarrassed by all the attention.”
PBI appreciates every gift to Esther’s Fund, which helps PBI to continue developing new and innovative solutions to close the justice gap. With your support, Esther’s legacy will continue to thrive. For more information about Esther’s Fund or the Esther F. Lardent Leadership in Pro Bono Series, please contact:
Director of Development
Pro Bono Institute