Washington Lawyer - January 2018 - 18
To address the mental health needs of lawyers, judges, and law students in
the District of Columbia, the D.C. Bar has provided lawyer assistance services
to members since 1985. Lawyers and judges often encounter problems during
their career, both personally and professionally, that may spill over into their
work. The LAP provides free and confidential counseling services to members
to address these problems proactively through education, consultation, and
After an initial consultation, the LAP counselor determined that Carolyn would
benefit from individual counseling sessions. She met with her counselor about
once a week in the beginning. The sessions focused on improving Carolyn's
boundaries and helping her cope with stress both at home with her family and
on the job. The counselor recommended books and articles for her to apply to
everyday experiences. They talked about what Carolyn learned in their sessions.
"My stress was my little companion I took along with me everywhere. So,
dissociating from that and learning that I don't need to feel anxious in order
to keep my edge and to do well was really liberating," Carolyn says. "It was a
pleasant surprise, actually, how effective the counseling was and how much
AN ALARMING TREND
Carolyn is not alone. Stresses in the legal profession and problems with mental
health and addiction have accelerated since the economic recession of 2007-
2008 as firms and clients demand more and more from their people.
Increasingly, leaders in the profession recognize the pressures of being a successful lawyer can lead to poor well-being. A groundbreaking study published
in the Journal of Addiction Medicine in 2016 found a high incidence of mental
health issues, problematic drinking, and drug abuse among lawyers. In August
2017, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being issued a report identifying
steps the profession should take to address what it called "toxicity" in the legal
profession. The task force was a collaboration between the American Bar
Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, the National
Organization of Bar Counsel, and the Association of Professional Responsibility
Lawyers. The task force's research suggests the current state of lawyers' health
- profession wide - cannot support a profession dedicated to client service
and dependent on the public trust. That kind of finding by the nation's top legal
professional organizations is setting off alarm bells.
"The whole structure of law firms creates a situation where lawyers are asked
to work very long hours, which is not healthy," says Denise Perme, a licensed
independent clinical social worker (LICSW) and manager of the D.C. Bar Lawyer
Over time, chronic stress is a killer. Stress raises levels of the hormone cortisol,
which puts the human body in a constant fight-or-flight state. That wreaks
havoc on our cardiovascular system, causing high blood pressure, heart disease,
and stomach ulcers. And, to put it simply, stress messes with our heads.
"Stress impacts us emotionally and physically," Perme says. "It makes us feel
depressed and sad over time. When we can't cope with the amount of stress
in our lives, we end up thinking that there is something wrong with us. We
will blame ourselves."
Ted* had been in the military before deciding to go to law school. He found the
transition to civilian life frustrating and disappointing. Going to law school with
younger classmates was isolating for him. Then there was a death in the family,
a common trigger for underlying mental health problems.
"My parent was dying and was kind of struggling and ultimately passed away,"
Ted says. "That compounded with coming out of law school at a time when
the market was very uncertain. It manifested itself in a way that is not dissimilar
to many people dealing with stress related to getting out of school and losing
a parent - issues with sleep and irritability in waking hours, just profound
unease," he recalls.
That was two and a half years ago. After finding his way to the D.C. Bar's LAP,
he was able to talk through his troubles and get help.
"In addition to being just a caring, patient, and understanding person, there is
a skill set there as the therapist helps you kind of unpack things that are going
on. Through an ability to have a nonjudgmental conversation, it is probably the
most productive environment to be able to speak freely about how one feels
and what you are experiencing, with the aim of trying to resolve or manage the
stress," Ted says. "I was really, really lucky to have this resource available, particularly as an impoverished law student, and then as a poor attorney, at least
LEARNING TO ASK FOR HELP
Lawyers tend to cope with stress in unhealthy ways because, while they
may know they feel stressed, they aren't good at recognizing they need help.
Lawyers often think of themselves as people who others can go to for help.
"The whole structure of law firms creates a
situation where lawyers are asked to work very
long hours, which is not healthy. That already
creates a situation where people are highly
Assistance Program. "That already creates a situation where people are highly
stressed. And because they are highly stressed, many people are emotionally
reactive in the firm. So, we hear stories about people yelling at each other,
acting unprofessionally, raising their voice, getting really angry, overreacting
because they are under a lot of stress."
DENISE PERME, LICSW
D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program
* JANUARY 2018