Investigative Report: Mental Health Issues and Substance Abuse Threaten the Legal Profession
Ervin Gonzalez, was a top Miami civil lawyer, beloved partner of the prominent Coral Gables law firm Colson Hicks Eidson, and renowned for not only his charismatic and warm demeanor but as “a trusted, go-to trial attorney.” Despite his stellar reputation and an enviable record of 33 verdicts of at least $1 million or more, Gonzalez committed suicide in June 2017.
At 38, Lisa Smith was living in a bright, beautiful New York City apartment and had a high-powered job at the prestigious Manhattan firm Pillsbury Winthrop. She also drank day and night and turned to cocaine to “straighten up enough” to perform her duties at the firm.
Experts say that Gonzalez and Smith aren’t isolated cases. Not by a long shot.
A Johns Hopkins University study of more than 100 professions revealed that lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people with other jobs, while the landmark 2016 American Bar Association (ABA) and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study determined that 28% of licensed, employed lawyers suffer depression. The study also showed that 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety and 21% qualify as problem drinkers.
Attorney Patrick R. Krill, lead author of the ABA/Hazelden study and a recognized authority of addiction and mental health issues in the legal profession, says the data “paints the picture of an unsustainable professional culture that’s harming too many people.”
Krill points to the impact of the experience of the profession, which begins even before the J.D.’s are awarded. And Smith, now Deputy Executive Director and Director of Client Relations at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP and author of the addiction memoir, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, can attest to that, highlighting the very different dynamic of law school. “Instead of being in school with friends, we found ourselves pitted against each other all the time, particularly with the use of the Socratic method,” Smith says. “We were constantly being ranked and there was this sense of ‘my gain is your loss’ that permeated our entire experience. It was a different kind of pressure to succeed and a much more pronounced level of stress than I had previously faced.”
That stress skyrockets when graduates are launched into practice. Smith by her own admission had always done “everything right.” An exemplary high school record lead to admission into Northwestern University. After receiving her B.A., she then went off to the Rutgers School of Law, where she served on the Editorial Board of the Law Review, graduated at the top her class, and ultimately landed a job at a prestigious law firm in New York City…along with 90 other highly qualified first-year associates.
“I was a perfectionist, and I always did well. And now [at the firm] I was competing against all of these people whose credentials were equally as good as mine,” she recalls. “It was a very charged, very competitive environment.”
Not to mention demanding. Deadlines, long hours, excessive workloads, and client pressures together make the practice of law one of the most stressful careers.
This unrelenting pressure, Krill notes, puts lawyers at odds with the types of things one does to support mental health, such as rest (actual sleep or downtime for recharging), exercise, and quality social connections.
The tendency to prioritize winning and achievement rather than well-being and happiness also compromises mental health.
Yet, despite the deficit in mental health, lawyers are not feeling sufficiently supported to seek help. According to Whitney Hawkins, a licensed psychotherapist in Miami, the majority of lawyers continue to feel isolated and shameful when they are unable to measure up to unreachable standards in the legal community. “Lawyers are fearful that if they share they’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or substance abuse they will be seen as incompetent or unable to complete their duties at work,” she says.
Smith concurs. While she has since gone public about her addiction and depression, she only did five days of detox before returning to work. “I was really terrified of the stigma,” she says. “The day I checked into detox, I told work I had a medical emergency and would be out for five days. I knew that because of HIPAA, I could safely be out for five days without a doctor’s notice. Any longer would require that I admit to what was really going on.”
Although Smith had been privately struggling with addiction and depression for 10 years, she was still highly regarded as a respected, trusted, and smart member of the team. “I couldn’t risk becoming someone, who in their eyes, was weak, deficient, and unreliable,” she says.
Today, however, momentum is building around lawyer mental health and well-being, particularly in response to The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, which was prompted by the ABA/Hazelden study.
The Path to Lawyer Well-Being is a 72-page report by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being that outlines recommendations around what needs to be done in order to address and improve lawyers’ well-being. The report’s recommendations focus on five central themes: “Identifying stakeholders and the role each can play in reducing the toxicity in the legal profession; eliminating the stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors; emphasizing that well-being is an indispensable part of a lawyer’s duty of competence; educating lawyers, judges, and law students on lawyer well-being issues; and taking small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession.”
Since its publication, the report has been carefully reviewed across the country and states are starting to form task forces to roll out recommendations. The Florida Bar, for example, has already launched a new Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness.
Also, last month the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates adopted a resolution “urging bar associations, law schools, lawyer licensing agencies, and legal employers to step up efforts to help attorneys with mental health and substance abuse issues.”
Krill is hopeful. “After decades of refusing to acknowledge our profession’s problem with depression and addiction, we finally seem to be moving in the right direction,” he says. “Truly improving lawyers’ well-being requires long-term culture change. At the end of the day, lawyers are humans. We must focus on their well-being.”
*This is part one of our five-part series on mental health, substance abuse, and wellness in the legal industry. See the rest of the series here.
Kristin Johnson is an executive and corporate communications professional, and founder of KSJ Communications, a communications and public relations firm. She consults with a diverse roster of clients spanning the technology, professional services, financial services, public sector, consumer, and healthcare industries. In addition to Rocket Matter, Johnson writes for various other publications as well.