It’s no secret that the legal industry is fast-paced, high stakes, and rife with stress. The responsibility to obtain justice, represent clients fairly and accurately, meet a myriad of deadlines, and operate within a business model that can be volatile with cash flow has the possibility to create a true pressure-cooker environment, where attorneys and team members can be on edge more often than not. This isn’t just an anecdotal observation; it’s a real and measurable phenomenon that has resulted in disastrous consequences, including high rates of depression, substance use, and suicide.
In 2017, a National Task Force published a critical report called The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change. That report revealed staggering statistics about alcohol usage, stress levels, and mental health decline among lawyers.
The release of the report sparked a movement in the legal profession to both acknowledge and address well-being, and that movement is alive and well today, though the issues and concerns addressed in the report are still far from solved.
The rate of substance use in the profession is high, higher than in most industries. Why? Practicing law is the perfect storm of stress, competition, long hours, and often a culture of hard partying at events or as a “reward” for hard work, big settlements, or tough projects completed.
According to a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 79.3% of people who binge drink are employed, and 68.9% of illicit drug users are employed. While many people are able to hide their drug and alcohol usage while in the workplace, that does not mean it doesn’t affect their performance and their overall quality of life. Like other mental health issues, substance use disorders can lead to an increased level of absenteeism, low morale, and job safety risks, not to mention the significant health impacts it presents to the individual.
It sounds pretty bleak, but that doesn’t mean we as an industry and as leaders cannot take steps to discuss, destigmatize, and help promote a healthier culture.
Here are some tips for addressing substance overuse:
1. Create a culture of safety.
This is good advice in general, but it’s especially important in discussions about recovery, sobriety, and substance use. Believe me, this one isn’t as easy as it sounds. Society in general celebrates alcohol usage as a coping mechanism more than you may think. In fact, once you start to notice it, it’s pretty staggering. I challenge you to find a television show or movie that doesn’t include at least one scene where binge drinking is normalized, funny, or presented without comment as the status quo. We tend to be so desensitized to it that it often goes unnoticed. If your firm can create a culture that welcomes and even embraces honest conversations about recovery and sobriety, you are removing the judgment and stigma that so often accompanies people in recovery. If your team members don’t feel the need to hide their recovery journey out of shame, that may open the door for others who may be struggling and don’t want to admit or address it. Just like with other efforts for inclusion, normalizing and supporting different journeys benefits your firm as a whole. Think too about your firm celebrations. Do you offer choices for sober team members, or is there an expectation that anyone not drinking isn’t “fun” or not part of the action? Are all your holiday parties or after-work events alcohol focused? You may have never considered the message being sent, so take a look at your culture and what it is rewarding and celebrating with an eye to mental health.
2. Offer education to your leadership team and your firm in general.
Wellness initiatives as a benefit may help to set your firm apart from the pack, which is sorely needed in today’s labor market. There are many ways to embark on these initiatives, and an easy one is to simply offer education. You may already have lunch and learn sessions for your team. Consider folding wellness into those lunch and learn topics. Offering education on substance overuse is another way to destigmatize and open the dialog. Addiction, overuse, and recovery are rife with judgment and shame, so ensure your educational resources address those people who may pass judgment on those on a recovery journey.
3. Offer resources to your team.
Your HR company may be able to help with this. Rather than simply terminating someone who is exhibiting an issue or who comes forward to share a struggle, offer resources to support them in recovery. If you don’t work with an HR company or don’t know where to start, there is a helpline offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It is free, confidential, and open 24/7 for anyone struggling with mental and/or substance use disorders.
Another way to reduce stigma, boost morale, support the entire team, and promote inclusion is to celebrate recovery the way you would any important life milestone. If your team members are comfortable, join them in celebrating their sobriety anniversary or other important mile marker in their journey. Make these milestones something we, as a society, say out loud and proudly. It’s a big deal and a huge accomplishment. Make sure your team members feel that.
5. Replace unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthier ones.
Instead of suggesting that a team member under a lot of stress “go get a drink”, offer healthier alternatives for stress reduction, like meditation, proper sleep, exercise, reading, healthy foods, or getting together with supportive friends or teammates. It’s possible to normalize healthy behaviors instead of unhealthy ones.
That National Task Force on Lawyer Wellbeing report included five central themes:
- Reduce toxicity in the profession
- Eliminate the stigma of needing and seeking help
- Emphasize that well-being is a part of the lawyer’s duty of competence
- Educate lawyers, judges, and law students about well-being
- Make incremental steps to change how law is practiced, and lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being.
As a firm, you can embrace many of these tenets by being the light in a sea of stress and unhealthy salves. Promoting a firm culture that celebrates well-being and acknowledges the darkness that can come with constant stress, competition, and high-stakes work, leaves room for your team to live and work safely. Though the legal profession presents many inherent challenges and heavy stressors, we can navigate that landscape more skillfully and avoid unhealthy and harmful outlets. Be a catalyst for change and help move our industry forward.