CLA Health and Wellness Committee
Law Firm Culture That Values Professionalism and Humanity Linked to Lawyer Well-Being
I. PROFESSIONALISM WINS OUT
A research paper published this month—developed from a project involving the California Lawyers Association and the District of Columbia Bar Association—found a clear link between law firm culture and lawyers’ mental and physical health. Lawyers who felt most valued for their professional talent/skill or overall human worth had the best mental and physical health, according to the paper published June 3 in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Behavioral Sciences. In addition, those lawyers were also much less likely to report they were considering leaving the profession.
On the other hand, lawyers who felt most valued for their billable hours, productivity, and responsiveness had poorer mental and physical health. Lawyers who did not feel valued by their employers or did not receive enough feedback to know what their employers valued about them fared even worse in terms of their mental and physical health.
“This new, definitive research illuminates the important role professional culture plays in lawyer well-being and gives us a roadmap for helping to address one of the root causes of burnout and stress in the legal profession,” said CLA CEO and Executive Director Oyango A. Snell.
II. GROUNDBREAKING RESEARCH PROJECT
a. Based on Confidential Study of Bar Association Members
The findings, published in “People, Professionals, and Profit Centers: The Connection Between Lawyer Well-Being and Employer Values,” were based on a groundbreaking research project by attorney mental health and well-being expert Patrick Krill of Krill Strategies and Justin J. Anker from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota. Krill and Anker designed the anonymous and confidential 2020 survey of California and D.C. bar members to assess the prevalence of mental health and substance use problems among licensed attorneys and identify underlying risk factors and contributing causes.
Krill said the new research paper raises important questions about whether a drift toward a profit and business-centric approach to law is sustainable for the health and well-being of lawyers and legal professionals. “This novel and actionable research invites a challenging yet essential conversation for lawyers. We need to step back and ask ourselves whether we are valuing the right things in our profession and, if so, whether we are effectively communicating those values to our colleagues,” Krill said.
b. Key Takeaways for Legal Employers
The paper identified these key takeaways for legal employers: • Employers who can make their lawyers feel more valued for their skill or humanity may be able to improve lawyer well-being, reduce healthcare costs and mitigate unwanted turnover. • Providing clear and regular feedback may reduce stress and improve mental health. • By targeting and seeking to improve maladaptive behaviors in their workplace, employers may be able to improve the stress levels and mental health of their lawyers. The paper is the second one to come out of the 2020 survey. In May 2021, “Stress, Drink, Leave: An Examination of Gender-Specific Risk Factors for Mental Health Problems and Attrition Among Licensed Attorneys,” was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE. The research found that mental health problems and hazardous drinking are exceedingly high among currently employed attorneys. In addition, female attorneys experience more mental distress, greater levels of overcommitment and work-family conflict, and lower prospects of promotion than their male counterparts. Another research paper is forthcoming exploring the predictors of suicide among attorneys, Krill said.
III. BAR ASSOCIATIONS RESPOND
Snell and D.C. Bar CEO Robert Spagnoletti thanked the researchers for continuing to glean new insights from their collaboration on the project. “Once again, Patrick Krill and Justin Anker have held a mirror to the legal profession, presenting important data on the impact of an attorney’s working environment and perceived value,” Spagnoletti said. “Knowing and understanding this information will better enable the D.C. Bar to provide meaningful services to its members and those organizations that employ lawyers.”