Mental Health Issues are Significant and Pervasive in the Legal Profession. In fact, the culture may be exacerbating those concerns. In one 2016 survey of attorneys in the United States, 28 percent self-reported experiencing symptoms of depression, 19 percent symptoms of anxiety, and 23 percent symptoms of stress.
These numbers not only underscore the prevalence of mental health concerns in the legal profession, some suggest that those in the legal profession experience these symptoms at rates higher than other adults in the United States.
Adding a compounding factor, it is often very challenging for legal professionals to seek help or support. The normalization of perfectionism, long hours, and extreme stress in legal culture doesn’t leave space for mental health concerns.
And, as noted by the American Bar Association, stigma, shame, and fear often play “a major role in an individual’s decision not to seek help when suffering from mental health and substance use disorders.” In other words, many of those in the legal industry who navigate mental health concerns are forced to do so alone.
The Pandemic has Increased Isolation
Recently, the full weight of the COVID-19 pandemic settled onto society. With it came tremendous disruptions to people’s lives, the health care system, the economy, and so much more, not to mention a “new normal” of immense uncertainty and loss.
The mental health impacts of this crisis are already becoming apparent: in March, 32 percent of adults reported experiencing mental health concerns due to the pandemic; more recently, that number has increased to 53 percent.
For those who experienced stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns before the pandemic, this time may exacerbate symptoms in a way that feels especially challenging.
On top of the massive amount of stress and anxiety many are currently experiencing, COVID-19 has meant a shift to working remotely, social distancing, and for many in the legal profession, even more isolation.
The Legal Profession Will Benefit From Community
Mental health is complex, and there is no one-size-fits all solution. But evidence suggests that mental health issues can loom larger when we don’t have support, and may feel more manageable when in authentic, empathetic connection with others.
This is the principle underlying the Lawyers Depression Project (LDP), a community of over four hundred legal professionals, including law students, with personal experience navigating depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD, eating disorders, trauma, sexual abuse, addiction and other mental health conditions, who have come together to provide and receive support.
In 2018, Joseph Milowic III, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP, wrote an article for the New York Law Journal about his journey with depression. The article resonated with so many people, and the response was personally overwhelming: over one hundred people expressed an interest in wanting to connect with Joe and others in the legal profession who were willing to share their own mental health journeys.
After searching for a group and realizing it did not exist, Joe, his friend and former colleague, Aaron Kaufman, and his wife started an online peer support group. Within one year, they were joined by compassionate volunteers and co-founders, Julia Clayton, Reid Murtaugh, Darin Wizenberg, and David Evan Markus, who helped found the non-profit Lawyers Depression Project to help break the stigma around discussing mental health in the legal profession and to establish a community to foster connection and a greater sense of purpose for legal professionals.
LDP’s Resources and Impact
LDP hosts a confidential web forum, where members can post anonymously on a number of topics related to mental health. LDP also offers free, anonymous, and confidential peer-to-peer support group meetings online.
“LDP provides unique support for legal professionals who can benefit from peer connections. Welcoming those who struggle with any mental health issue or their relationship with substances, we find and share our common strengths,” notes Lisa Smith, a writer, lawyer and LDP Board member. “I think one of the reasons that LDP has been so successful is in large part because it normalizes the experience of struggling with mental health issues by connecting legal professionals sharing similar concerns,” adds Colin Jamron, a psychotherapist and LDP board member.
With LDP, legal professionals have an opportunity to engage in authentic, empathetic connection around a topic that carries so much stigma in their field. “Whenever I participate in a call, I am always so touched by the collective kindness of the group,” says Julia Clayton, an attorney and co-founder of LDP who has OCD. “The ability to talk openly about one’s struggles and hear them echoed by others is so tremendously validating.”
In addition to providing a space where members can find support, LDP hopes to create systemic change. “The time has long passed for the legal profession to fully acknowledge and address mental illness within our ranks. We do ourselves and clients an incredible disservice by continuing to pretend that the proverbial emperor is wearing clothes,” says Stephanie Mitchell Hughes, an attorney and LDP Board Member.
Jamron believes that LDP’s growing membership may facilitate this change: “As more people participate, there is an expectation that this awareness and call to action will spread to other areas such as law school programs and eventually lead to an increase in our community and a culture shift toward better mental health access and care overall.”
How To Get Involved
LDP welcomes new members into the community. Any legal professionals, including law students, who are interested can read more and sign up at LDP’s website: https://www.lawyersdepressionproject.org/. As Clayton notes, “We want to keep LDP growing so that more people know they are not alone.”
About the author
Joseph Milowic III is an IP partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, LLP in New York City. He is also a founder of a non-profit called the Lawyers Depression Project (LDP) which provides an online peer support network for legal professionals (www.lawyersdepressionproject.