Boston, we have a problem: mental health and practice data is out there

Massachusetts has a lot to offer. Harvard is there, for example. They also have that funny way of pronouncing the word “yard” like they’re throwing it out of their mouths. And um… I’m sure there’s something else, right? That third thing might be just what is needed to make the practice in New England a little more bearable. Because at present people are having a hard time registering those billables. From Reuters:

Massachusetts lawyers are exhausted and experience elevated rates of anxiety and depression, according to a study released Wednesday that adds to a growing body of research documenting mental health issues within the legal profession.

Last year, University of Chicago Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers and NORC researchers surveyed 4,450 Massachusetts attorneys for the latest study. Statewide, 77% reported feeling exhausted, 26% reported high rates of anxiety, 21% reported depression, and 7% reported suicidal thoughts, all above average for US adults.

The survey also found high rates of alcohol consumption, with 42% of respondents reporting unhealthy or dangerous consumption.

Now, unless they’ve made a methodological error and only got the opinions of people who were basically asking for help — say lawyers trying to go see Pagliacci or Adult Swifties™, for example, that’s a good size of the sample of people to be that down bad. And while advocates have had disproportionately high rates of alcohol use for some time, a self-reported unhealthy or dangerous drinking rate of 42 percent is too close to comfort in the middle.

An outlier may have colored the data: COVID-19. That said, the results are likely still worth paying attention to.

“Nearly half indicated that they had considered leaving their legal employer and 40% reported that they had considered leaving the legal profession completely in the past three years due to exhaustion or stress,” according to the study, Lawyer Well-Being in Massachusetts.

The timing of the survey, which was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, likely contributed to the higher rates of burnout and anxiety reported, the authors said. But it was consistent with previous findings that lawyers have higher rates of substance abuse and mental health problems than the general population and other professions.

This hints at some advice that non-Massachusetts-based companies might want to keep in mind as well: It might be in their best interest to relax on strict back-of-office policies. Who really wants to add gossip to the depressive brew at this point? Burning associates may have been a viable economic tactic at one point, but with depletion rates like these, even your bottom dollar could be burned.

Burnout, anxiety and depression were particularly high among minority groups, according to the new Massachusetts study. The burnout rate among black and Hispanic lawyers was 86% and 88%, respectively, compared to 77% among white lawyers. Lawyers with childcare responsibilities also reported higher rates of burnout.

The survey found that nearly half of attorneys who tested positive for depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts did not seek mental health help. The researchers attributed this to the stigma surrounding mental health issues, as well as time constraints and fear of professional retaliation.

The fear of professional retaliation is palpable: remember the guy who wanted to get a woman fired for “sitting on her ass” on maternity leave? The partner is dead, long live the mentality of the company, oddly enough, great for the company and very hard on partners and collaborators. They’re the ones in the oak box, after all. Thankfully, the study concludes on a pragmatic note.

The study found that attorneys who reported having a supportive work environment in which they are treated with kindness and respect, given flexibility, and have access to mentorship had higher life satisfaction and lower rates of burnout, anxiety, and depression.

So, Boston attorneys and anyone else who fits this shoe, you work all those hours for the firm, why don’t you work on yourself a little? Take a day or two off, talk to a therapist, maybe even find one online. And hey, if that means switching to a company that treats you like a real person, so be it.

Burnt. Depression. Red flags abound in a Massachusetts lawyer’s office [Reuters]

Chris Williams became a social media manager and assistant editor for Above the Law in June 2021. Prior to joining the staff, he worked as a junior Memelord™ in the Law School Memes Facebook group for Edgy T14s. He endured Missouri long enough to graduate from Washington University St. Louis School of Law. He is a former boat builder who can’t swim, a published author on critical race theory, philosophy and humor, and has a love of cycling that sometimes annoys his peers. You can reach him by email at cwilliams[email protected] and by tweet at @WritesForRent.

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