American Bar Association

Firms sign ABA pledge to tackle lawyer mental health and substance-use issues

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Several large law firms have signed a seven-point pledge developed by an ABA working group to target substance-use disorders and mental-health issues among lawyers.

The ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession developed the pledge, which asks legal employers to take specific steps to achieve the goals of raising awareness and improving lawyer well-being.

The working group was formed in September 2017, a year after release of a survey that found the levels of problem drinking and mental health issues in the legal profession appeared to be higher than indicated by previous studies.

Nearly 21 percent of licensed and employed lawyers and judges who responded to the survey reported problematic alcohol use. Twenty-eight percent said they experienced depression, 19 percent experienced anxiety and 23 percent experienced stress. The survey was conducted by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

Based on the survey results and a list of recommendations by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, the working group recently released the Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers. The toolkit is available free of charge and best viewed with Google Chrome or Internet Explorer. The group also hopes to introduce a resolution at the ABA Midyear Meeting in January that would propose a model policy for legal employers to adopt if they suspect one of their employees is impaired by substance use or a mental-health issue.

ABA President Bob Carlson said in a statement that he supports the working group’s effort to improve the health of lawyers. “Many lawyers have struggled with alcohol, other substance-use or mental health disorders, and many more of us have watched friends wrestle with them,” he said. “This pledge campaign will give these issues the attention they deserve by raising awareness throughout the profession and making help available to lawyers in need. I hope all law firms consider taking the pledge.”

Law firms that have signed the pledge include: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Corette Black Carlson & Mickelson; Duane Morris; Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn; Latham & Watkins; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; Nixon Peabody; Perkins Coie; Reed Smith; Schiff Hardin; Seyfarth Shaw; Snell & Wilmer; and Wiley Rein.

Reed Smith’s global managing partner, Sandy Thomas, said in a statement that his firm was proud to be one of the first to sign on. “We hope our commitment encourages other firms to participate in this campaign to raise awareness, work to reduce the incidence of substance use and mental health distress, and improve lawyer well-being,” Thomas said. “This effort provides the legal profession with a strong framework for changing the conversation about these important issues and finding real solutions.”

The pledge asks legal employers to describe how they have:

1) Provided “enhanced and robust educational opportunities” to lawyers and staff on topics related to well-being, substance-use disorders, and mental-health distress.

2) “Disrupted the status quo of drinking-based events” by de-emphasizing alcohol.

3) Partnered with outside entities committed to reducing substance-use disorders and mental-health distress in the profession.

4) Provided confidential access to addiction and mental health experts and resources to all employees, including free, in-house self-assessment tools.

5) Enacted a leave policy for substance-use and mental-health problems that includes a defined back-to-work policy.

6) Promoted and encouraged help-seeking and self care.

7) Highlighted adoption of the well-being pledge.

The ABA hopes all legal employers will take the pledge by Jan. 1, according to the press release. The announcement was made Monday, which was also World Suicide Prevention Day.

Recasts headline on Sept. 13.

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