Candor – A Key toward Resolving Issues Negatively Affecting Your Practice

The practice of law is extremely demanding, and research indicates, the levels of substance abuse and mental health issues is highest among attorneys. Due to the stress of the work, it permeates every aspect of a lawyer’s life, placing heavy and constant demands on the individual. A study of 12,825 licensed, employed attorneys, showed a prevalence of substance abuse and mental health issues. The study in the Journal of Addiction Medicine (2016,) found 20.6% of participants reported problem with drinking with those in private firms reporting the highest level. Drug abuse showed 20.9% of respondents showing intermediate levels of use. Regarding mental health issues, 28% reported problems with depression, 19% with anxiety and 23% problems with stress. With the frequency of these issues, how is a firm able to serve its clients appropriately, attain more clients, or retain those they currently serve?

The long, irregular hours and constant pressure to meet the needs of the client and firm makes it difficult for an attorney to maintain a work-life balance. Don’t forget your staff either as they are exposed to many of the same stressors lawyers encounter and are the ones who often see the “unfiltered” version of the lawyer’s personality when pressures increase.

A key to reducing the stigma of attorneys seeking help is creating a workplace culture where it is safe to discuss these problems openly. For this to happen, leaders need to candidly communicate with all employees regarding these life-threatening issues.  Your organization needs to have a caring culture that supports recovery not silence.  Is your firm or practice one which allows candor to disclose and address issues head-on, or is it one that chooses to turn a blind eye on these devastating issues?

The ideologies, rules and policies form the organization’s culture. Some of these are written and some are indicated through the behaviors of the leadership. Effective communication is essential for a healthy workplace environment and plays an important role in increasing the comfort of the employees. The only way to minimize burnout and reduce issues of mental health and substance abuse is for leadership to play an active role in minimizing the stigma by addressing the elephant in the room.  If you want to do what is right, not only for your employees, but clients as well, the culture needs to be supportive and open communication needs to take place to address these issues.

Create a Healthy Environment: Expecting employees to work 80 hours a week and constantly contacting them during off hours can dramatically increase the stress experienced by the person. A recent conversation with an attorney stated that younger lawyers focus more on work-life balance, and it is a good thing. “We used to be here until 7:30 most nights and on the week-end as well.” It may be looked down by more seasoned professionals but finding ways to promote good health will in the long run better serve your clients and your firm.

Educate: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1 in 5 people suffer from some form of mental illness. Often people are unaware that what he or she is experiencing is a mental health issue and they suffer in silence. By helping employees recognize the symptoms of these conditions you can improve their ability to get help.

Employee Assistant Services: An employee assistance program (EAP) is a work-based intervention program to assist employees in resolving personal problems that may be adversely affecting their ability to perform. EAPs offer confidential help to deal with not only substance abuse and mental health, but other issues such as eldercare, childcare and relationship challenges.

Preventive Strategies: A lack of meaning is a key driver of burnout. By helping attorneys remember the noble purpose of their work, and show examples of cases that positively impacted their client, you can help refocus their energy.

To be a good attorney, one has to be healthy. Sadly, unhealthy coping mechanisms affect attorney’s ability to function. With the law profession experiencing dwindling market share, there needs to be innovation in how to deal with these issues that affect your organization’s ability to attract and meet client’s needs. Only through creating a culture which allows people to feel safe about discussing these challenges can they get the help they need. If you want your younger employees to have a desire to become partners or take on leadership roles, things must change and it will be a win-win for the organization, employee and especially your clients.

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