One day over lunch, I was speaking to a lawyer friend about the spoken and unspoken pressures and unrealistic expectations inherent in the culture of law. As a clinical psychologist, I was struck by all the ways in which lawyers’ brains are trained, the unrealistic expectations they often have of themselves and the personal sacrifices they feel they “should” make to be a good lawyer.
It was apparent to me that these patterns of thinking, the system of reinforcement and the common methods lawyers employ to manage their lives are the very pathways that lead to clinical depression, anxiety and addiction. It was no surprise to me after reading the research that lawyers have significantly higher rates of all of these life-impairing diagnoses We didn’t fully know at the time how this lunch conversation with Libby Coreno would frame the next chapter of both of our professional lives. In retrospect, that day solidified our journey together to enhance well-being and mental health for lawyers and for that I am so grateful.
I still vividly recall our first joint presentation at NYSBA’s Annual Meeting in 2018. We wondered how we would be received and how I as a psychologist would be perceived discussing what it means to be a lawyer. We were aware that by pointing out the mental health crisis and the need for change, we were entering unchartered and uncomfortable territory. We treaded lightly while outlining how perfectionistic thinking, anticipatory anxiety and the adherence to unrealistic work expectations at the expense of all other areas of life are not optimal for healthy living.
At first, it was difficult to read the crowd and no hands were raised for the question and answer portion. Feeling a bite deflated, I became aware of numerous stragglers. It was when the presentation was over that lawyers felt safe to come forward and the questions and stories flowed. One on one, people thanked us for presenting on such an important topic; they shared with us their struggles, self-doubt and fears. Most importantly, they asked for help. Since this time, Libby and I have had the honor of discussing these issues with hundreds of lawyers across New York State.
These lawyers are ready to discuss the topic of mental health because they are suffering. We have all read the ABA statistics on depression and anxiety and they are striking; however, it is easy to fall back into the business as usual mode where lawyers believe they have no other options. Employees, friends and colleagues feel that they need to choose between self-care and work expectations, that a healthy work/life balance would be met with criticism and that anything less than perfect is failure. They fear that if they set limits or need help that it’s a sign of weakness or not worthy of the role of being a lawyer. These stories of suffering don’t need to continue if we choose together to shift these dynamics.
The second lesson we have learned is that our law schools do an amazing job of teaching the cognitive skills necessary to become an excellent lawyer. I have talked with hundreds of lawyers regarding how they have been trained to think and perceive the world like a lawyer. They describe to me the following: the skill of problem solving with dispassionate logic, effective arguing techniques, anticipating all possible negative outcomes to protect clients, competitiveness, perfectionistic standards and high priority on control.
I have no doubt that these are qualities that clients want in their attorney. What is missing, however, is that the attorney is also a parent, spouse, sibling, friend and needs to be allowed to have human needs. Imagine if law schools also taught young lawyers that “to be a good lawyer one needs to be a healthy lawyer.” How would things change if schools addressed work/life balance and self-care as essential skill sets to producing high functioning lawyers who will be buffered from emotional burnout?
Young lawyers also need to be taught how to transition from the role of attorney to the other essential roles in their life. I have heard the heartbreaking stories of young lawyers who are trying to accept the personal sacrifices they feel they must make for the profession. We need to acknowledge that a balanced life creates higher functioning, more productive and effective lawyers. This is important for every stakeholder. How would the culture of law change if we addressed these topics?
After hearing hundreds of stories of what lawyers experience in the profession, what both Libby and I know to be true is that individual lawyers can’t do this in a vacuum. The overarching culture of law must change as well. Lawyers share with us fears that if they follow the recommendations we provide for their mental/physical well-being they will be met with criticism and negative professional consequences. These fears are valid, and this is an impossible choice that no one should have to make.
Reflecting back over the last six years on my journey into the world of what it is like to be a lawyer there have been moments when I have felt the enormity and power of the culture. There were times I questioned can this really shift? Are we asking individual lawyers to do the impossible while the unhealthy cultural context remains rigidly in place?
In those moments, I look back to that first presentation when no one could publicly speak their truth to now. In our more recent presentations, Libby and I are moved by the transparency in self disclosures, bravery and honesty regarding deep issues like vicarious trauma, depression/suicide and burnout. Most recently at the weekly NYSBA Roundtable we saw lawyers ban together to discuss self-care in the face of social isolation and anxiety due to COVID-19. How far we have all come; the changes are already underway.
Most hopeful to me and the most promising sign that New York is ready for true culture change to support our lawyers is the formation of the NYSBA Task Force on Attorney Well-Being. Libby Coreno, one of the task force chairs, knows deeply both the undeniable need for change in law culture as well as the enormity and complexity of this undertaking.
This task force has been divided into nine separate working groups. Each working group is charged with developing recommendations to truly move New York on a pathway to a more positive future for lawyers. With the innovative minds and dedication behind this groundbreaking undertaking, I have no doubt that the NYSBA Task Force on Attorney Well-Being will become the model that others will emulate. I am so proud to be on this journey with you all and I know I will look back in the years to come and again be struck by how much we have grown.
Dr. Kerry Murray O’Hara, clinical psychologist, is the Director/Founder of DBT Wellness & Psychological Services in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She has over 25 years of experience in a variety of clinical settings including inpatient, residential, forensic, outpatient, and academic. Over the course of the last six years, Dr. O’Hara has focused on the mental health crisis and wellness for the field of law. Dr. O’Hara has been named as a clinical consultant to the NYSBA Lawyer Taskforce for Lawyer Wellbeing and currently co-facilitates the weekly Lawyer Round Table discussions.