Updated: Nov 9, 2021
Attorneys suffer from significantly higher rates of stress, depression, substance abuse, and mental health problems than general adult and professional populations. These high rates are especially concerning as they have detrimental consequences on attorneys’ wellbeing which in turn impairs their abilities to serve their clients. Finding the origins of these distressors is key to better understanding and improving mental health for attorneys. Reed and colleagues (2016) showed that these distressors begin in law school.
In Problem signs in law school: Fostering attorney well-being early in professional training, Reed et al. (2016) conducted a study asking law students about their levels of stress, depression, anxiety, substance use, and overall adjustment/coping. First (1L), second (2L), and third (3L) year students were all surveyed at the beginning of the semester; 1Ls were also surveyed two more times – at the end of the first semester and the end of the second semester. The researchers hypothesized that they would see distress rates increase as students spent more time at school, thus they would find higher levels of mental problems moving from year to year (cross-sectionally) and throughout the first year for 1Ls (longitudinally).
The findings were worrying, but perhaps not surprising. The results showed high levels of mental health problems among law students, including depression, anxiety, and stress. These rates were relatively stable and consistent among all populations, both cross-sectionally (year to year) and longitudinally (across one year); however, depression did worsen over the 1L’s first year. In addition, law students also reported frequent consumption of alcohol with 15% believing they had a drinking problem. Eighteen percent of students even reported driving under the influence, which is particularly concerning given law students are attempting to enter a profession meant to uphold the law. Getting a DUI can be a basis for being denied admission to the bar upon graduation.
Law school is challenging. Therefore, it is necessary that law schools acknowledge and address mental health problems within their student bodies. Currently, law schools provide minimal resources to students suffering from mental illness and they are sometimes not affordable and available. Even when they are available, they are sometimes not publicized enough for students to know they exist. Only 41.6% of participants in this study were aware of the affordable resources and counseling services their law school provides. Similarly concerning, many students were afraid of the consequences of seeking help and the stigma that surrounds it. 65% percent indicated that they were at least moderately concerned that seeking help would affect their career and 16.8% were extremely concerned.
This study indicated that much of the distress present in attorneys are continuations of that which was present in law school. In a recent unpublished study, Reed found similar rates of distress and alcohol abuse in Ivy League law students, indicating this problem is widespread. Attorney distress can have large ramifications which become quite costly for the legal system. For example, attorney attrition and burnout is common, with 25% of associates leaving within 2 years. Training attorneys is an expensive process for law firms. Moreover, attorney distress is arguably a major cause of legal malpractice, which can be costly for the attorney, the firm, and the client. Addressing these problems early on by providing adequate mental health resources and eliminating the stigma of seeking help is essential to improving attorney well-being in the legal community.