Change and the Legal Profession: There is Hope for the Future
By Heidi Alexander
Data on the well-being of our profession demonstrates a great deal of suffering, dissatisfaction, and burnout. In the past year alone, the legal profession lost numerous lawyers and law students to suicide. According to key findings from the recent report on Lawyer Well-Being in Massachusetts conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, a majority of Massachusetts lawyers report burnout from their work. They also report high rates of anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, and hazardous or unhealthy drug and alcohol use. Even more worrisome is the finding that lawyers are not seeking help. The report found that half of lawyers experiencing high rates of mental health concerns did not seek care and almost all lawyers reporting hazardous or unhealthy alcohol use did not seek care. Studies on the legal profession cite high rates of suicide contemplation, including a 2021 Mental Health Survey by Law.com and ALM Intelligence in which 19% of all respondents and 31% of Black lawyers responded that they contemplated suicide at some point in their careers. A 2021 Survey of Law Student Well-Being reported that 11% of law student respondents had suicidal thoughts during the past year (up from 6% in 2014).
For years now, the legal community has mostly reacted to these challenges, rather than take a proactive approach. This is made clear from the challenges identified in the 2016 report The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, published by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, as well as the 2019 Report to the Justices, published by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being. The recommendations in these reports stress proactive strategies to address problems inherent in the profession and which will support attorneys, allowing them to thrive.
With supporting data and growing institutional awareness, we are at a pivotal point. These reports and their recommendations show our leaders and advocates are being thoughtful about change. Now is the time for all of us to act.
Massachusetts: An Exemplar State
Since its founding, the Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being (Standing Committee) has worked to implement recommendations from the 2019 Report to the Justices. Individuals alone cannot solve the problems enumerated in that report. While self-care, awareness, education, and encouraging help-seeking behaviors are important components that contribute to better well-being outcomes, they are only a piece of the puzzle. If individual action is half of the equation, the other half is change in systems, culture, organization, and policies. The latter requires collective, collaborative, and non-traditional actions that may cut against the dominant and longstanding structures of the profession. Much of the Standing Committee’s role is to influence, encourage, and incentivize stakeholders to focus on well-being and to support their efforts.
One of the Standing Committee’s first steps was convening the Legal Well-Being Network to provide an opportunity for well-being pioneers and advocates in legal practice and education to come together to share best practices, ideas, challenges, and their vision to improve the well-being of Massachusetts legal professionals. This group meets every other month; participation continues to grow. Presentations and conversations span from suicide awareness, building healthy physical office environments, firm vacation policies, public service support groups, leadership and management tools and training, retention and support of attorneys from underrepresented communities, making the business case for well-being, peer support and identifying colleagues in need, and much more. By continuing to grow this network and introduce new ideas and approaches, these well-being ambassadors take their knowledge and integrate it into their legal sectors and workplaces.
Integral to the Standing Committee’s work is addressing the lack of diversity in the profession and improving the experiences of historically underrepresented and marginalized lawyers. In addition to the numerous benefits that diversity brings to the profession, it also reduces isolation often felt by individuals underrepresented within the bar. The Standing Committee works to amplify the lived experiences of historically underrepresented and marginalized attorneys, in particular through its Affinity Bar Town Hall Report. While some were shocked at its findings, many were not. As a result, people began to pay attention, including Trial Court leadership. Those leaders now meet regularly with Affinity Bar leaders and have redoubled their efforts to tackle systemic racism by creating the Trial Court’s Committee to Eliminate Racism and Other Systemic Barriers, as well as expanded education and awareness of their reporting hotline and investigation processes. The Standing Committee is also developing actionable ideas that workplaces in each legal sector can use to make structural and policy changes to increase diversity and support diverse lawyers. These will publish early this year.
In another related, major initiative, the Standing Committee in October 2022 published the first ever large-scale data set that provides demographic and law practice information on the legal profession, available at the Standing Committee’s website. This was a direct result of implementing a recommendation of the 2019 Report to the Justices that a system to collect demographic data on an ongoing basis be integrated into the annual registration process. SJC Rule 4:02, as amended in November 2020, now requires the anonymous collection of demographic and law practice information to provide insights into the profession, benchmark diversity, and inform programs and services to aid lawyers.
The numbers give teeth to the severe lack of diversity in the Massachusetts legal profession, showing diverse lawyers underrepresented as compared to the general population. The report also shows a growing population of lawyers 55 or older, indicating the potential for a workforce shortage as lawyers begin to retire. As older lawyers, predominately identified as White and male, begin to retire, it appears that the youngest generation of lawyers is more diverse, possibly indicating a trend toward increased diversity in the profession.
Furthermore, the demographic and law practice report provided data employment characteristics of Massachusetts lawyers, indicating that most lawyers in Massachusetts practice in solo or small firms or organizations. This data provides further support for expansion of programs and services that support solo and small firms, discussed in detail in the 2019 Report to the Justices. Already, the Standing Committee has worked to enhance these supports through free financial education and coaching, advocacy for loan forgiveness for solo practitioners, statewide mentorship opportunities, and a recently launched partnership with the Massachusetts Health Connector to offer health insurance and cost savings for small firms.
A Call to Action
Recommendations from the 2019 Report to the Justices span far and wide, encompassing law schools, the judiciary, bar regulators, and more, and, as a result, so do the efforts of the Standing Committee and its partners and collaborators. Awareness, education, and collective action is key. Everyone plays a part in this evolving work.
What can you do to contribute to this well-being movement and work to create positive change in the profession? Here is our call to action:
- Talk. Talk about mental health and well-being. Be authentic, be a role model. Talk about challenging situations in your life and what you did to get support. We need people to know that it is important to seek help, and that they will be better off as a result. Be an ambassador of well-being by modeling it in your workplaces and sharing helpful resources, including, for example, those from the Standing Committee, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, and the Mindfulness in Law Society. Take breaks, take vacations, and establish boundaries.
- Collaborate. Create a well-being committee or group at your workplace. Get buy-in from the leaders in your firm or organization. There is no lack of data on the impact of well-being on productivity, retention, and performance. Provide well-being programming, but also address systemic and structural problems that may be barriers to well-being in your workplace. Work collaboratively with any DEI committee (or leader) or workplace affinity groups or even reach out to and support individual attorneys.
- Innovate. Just because something has always been done a certain way, does not mean it is the right way. There are many traditional aspects of our profession, workplaces, and legal education system that encourage inefficiency, exclusivity, and inequality (e.g., the billable hour, the Socratic method, grading curves, leave policies, binary bathrooms). Ask whether your policies and practices advantage or disadvantage certain people. Think about how you can harness technology in a positive way to further wellness.
- Prioritize. Prioritize continuing education and training, particularly in skills and topics such as cultural awareness, competency, humility, communications with and management of people, emotional intelligence, leading with compassion and empathy, and systemic racism, to name a few topics. For example, do you know how to manage people through a trauma- or stress-informed lens? Do you understand micro and macro aggressions? Do you know why it is important to not make assumptions about someone’s pronouns? Whether you like it not, the new generation of lawyers will demand that you answer these questions.
Each day, the well-being movement gains more traction and attention. And, yet, we continue to hear stories of attorneys suffering in toxic work environments, accomplished attorneys dying by suicide after suffering in silence, lawyers leaving practice due to inflexibility, young women leaving the profession due to its incongruence with family, lawyers and law students of color being regularly mistaken as defendants and interpreters in court, attorneys pursuing high billable targets and then burning out, public service attorneys experiencing vicarious or secondary trauma, and more. My hope is that we hear these stories because of increased awareness and not increased incidence.
As someone who has committed much of their legal career to this work, I see progress particularly in changes in mindset and willingness to pursue culture change. I see optimism in law students and young lawyers demanding changes. I see leaders advocating for change, particularly in Massachusetts. I encourage you to join this movement by taking the actions described above and seeking out opportunities to contribute to institutional change. A profession that supports thriving lawyers benefits all – your colleagues, your staff, and your clients alike – and, most importantly, you.
Visit www.lawyerwellbeingma.org to learn more about the SJC Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being and www.lawyerwellbeing.net to learn about national well-being efforts through the Institute for Well-Being in Law.
For free and confidential mental health and practice management support, reach out to Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, www.lclma.org.
Heidi Alexander (she/they) is the first Director of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, President-Elect of the Institute for Well-Being in Law, and former Deputy Director of Massachusetts Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. You can reach Heidi at Heidi@lawyerwellbeingma.org.