We Need More Optimists in the Legal Profession

By Brandon Vogel

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There are not too many optimists in the legal profession.

By preparing for the worst-case scenario to solve client problems, lawyers are trained in law school to be pessimists and to embrace the negativity.

Perhaps then it’s unsurprising that job dissatisfaction is the highest it’s ever been, according to Hon. Sarah L. Krauss (Ret.), chair of the Substance Use Disorder Working Group of the NYSBA Task Force on Attorney Well-Being.

But lawyers can also be taught resilience skills to help them deal with stress and rediscover why they were attracted to the legal profession to start.

Krauss and Meredith S. Heller, chair of the Emotional Well-Being Working Group of the Task Force on Attorney Well-Being, shared practical advice and tips on the Business Law Section panel, “Keeping Lawyers Happy During COVID – Ethical Considerations.”

The problem

Studies have shown that happiness and professionalism go hand in hand. Lawrence S. Krieger wrote in the 2005 study, “The Inseparability of Professionalism and Personal Satisfaction: Perspectives on Values, Integrity and Happiness” that “satisfaction and professional behavior are inseparable manifestations of a well-integrated and well-motivated person.”

Krauss quoted Marian Rice, co-chair of the NYSBA Committee on Law Practice Management, who has said, “An unhappy lawyer will never be a good lawyer.”

While the practice of law can be rewarding, it can be stressful. Studies have also shown that there is more job dissatisfaction and higher rates of alcoholism and depression in lawyers.

In 2014-2015, the ABA surveyed 13,000 attorneys and discovered 21 percent of respondents were problem drinkers.

Since COVID, the number of US adults with symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder have quadrupled. Sales of alcohol increased 24%, while 67% of adults report an increase in alcohol consumption in New York.

Stress can have an impact on the  physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioral lives of lawyers.

“The problem with our profession is that the kind of our stress that happens every day is a bit unrelenting and often attorneys do not have that kind of education or resources to figure out how to get rid of that,” said Krauss.

Stresses include demanding clients, fierce competition, adversarial encounters and the lack of civility, which Krauss called “the big elephant in the room.”

“We have to develop some resilience to handle that kind of stress,” Krauss said.

Otherwise, stress can lead to vicarious trauma, a trauma process that occurs over time when an individual is exposed indirectly to the suffering of others for whom they feel responsible.

Krauss recalled that the stress of being a Family Court judge during the last five years of her career led to weight gain, higher cholesterol and an increase in the medications she was taking. She assumed it was aging, but, after retiring, her stress decreased and she found her health improving.

Avoiding unhealthy foods, such as pizza and ‘street hot dogs’ and energy drinks, is essential for good health, said Krauss.

She noted the increase in forums where lawyers can talk through their stresses and challenges. One example is NYSBA’s weekly Attorney Roundtable, held every Thursday at 4 pm.

Defining happiness

Krauss explained that happiness is generally being connected to what you are doing in a real visceral way.

What does make lawyers happy is autonomy, connectivity and feeling competent. But as lawyers progress in their careers, it becomes harder to maintain those feelings.

Judges do not have as much autonomy as people might assume, given their fluctuating caseloads, said Krauss, who served on the bench for 18 years.

Lawyers are “legendary” for not taking their vacations, particularly solo and small-firm lawyers who might not have as much control over their calendars.

“Ask yourself what keeps you going every day,” said Krauss. “Yes, we have a problem, but we also have a solution.”

What happens if there’s a problem

Heller said common misconduct resulting from impairment includes neglect, financial misconduct, criminal/sexual misconduct, and bar violations.

The number one complaint for attorney grievances is a failure to communicate with clients, not just in the United States, but also Canada and the UK. Heller said that providing false information to a client is a “very, very bad idea.”

Financial misconduct can include overbilling, failure to refund fees or deliberately destroying financial records.

“The conversion of client funds is an almost guaranteed way to get disbarred,” said Heller.

“If you don’t promptly return fees, you are looking at discipline,” said Heller. “Prompt means prompt. It’s not within six months or when you win at the track. It is prompt. It’s a surefire way to have a complaint lodged against you.”

Heller also stressed the importance of keeping up with OCA registration dues and CLE requirements. “Make sure you are on top of that.”

Private discipline is still discipline and you will need to notify your insurance carrier.

Heller said that New York, along with many other states, now have diversion programs for impaired attorneys. It’s similar to treatment courts in the criminal system, she explained. It is not available to attorneys for escrow violations, but it is an option for neglect cases.

If you’re struggling with substance abuse or have an untreated mental health issue, please call the NYSBA Lawyer Assistance Program at 1-800-255-0569 or email [email protected].

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