Identifying and eliminating implicit bias toward psychiatric disabilities in the legal profession
“Don’t let it happen again.” When I heard the statement, my body melted into my chair as I sat staring toward the screen in our Zoom meeting. Shock spread through my body for several moments—no words came. I was petrified and let waves of shame and disbelief flow through my body.
“I hope this won’t keep you from working with me,” I offered through the screen, only met by side glances and obligatory responses of, “No, no.”
For the remainder of the day, the words tumbled through my brain. I questioned how I could control whether this type of occurrence would happen again. If I had a physical condition, such as diabetes or heart disease, the warning would never have been uttered. My frustration grew.
After several stressful months of working 16-hour days and sleeping only a few hours at night, I had slowly slipped into a mild depression, with exhaustion seeping through my bones. I had reached the point of burnout in which I had not been able to complete time-sensitive work-related projects over the last weekend. By Monday, I emailed my team that I needed some time off to recuperate. During our Zoom meeting, I told the two managing partners that I suffered from a depressive illness—not being willing to relay the true diagnosis—which had led to the latest bout of depression.
This was not the first time I had experienced implicit bias regarding mental illness, but this experience made a lasting impression on my heart and mind, as I witnessed my project load slowly draining down. Struggling with manic depression throughout my career, I often felt as if I were climbing uphill and was not on the same playing field as my peers.
Over time, I found my episodes from manic depression affecting projects (whether by limiting my ability to work all night or concentrate on simple tasks and attention to detail) and inhibiting my career progression and success. Yet, I refused to “come out” about my manic depression to human resources to obtain reasonable accommodations, and when I did discuss my limitations with certain partners, I referred to my disability as simply a “depressive illness.” The fear of stigma was too great.
I had come to understand that I had so much untapped potential, but the limitations of my mental illness were very difficult to overcome. I needed more sleep, less stress, stability and accommodations for which I never felt comfortable requesting out of fear of stigma.
I am determined not to allow this to happen to others.
Effects of implicit bias
Implicit bias is a negative attitude, of which one is not consciously aware, shaped by experience and learned associations between particular qualities and social categories, including race, gender and/or disabilities.
It can lead to microaggressions like those I experienced, which are subtle but offensive; comments or actions, which are often unintentional; the unconscious reinforcement of a stereotype aimed at a member of a marginalized group; or lead to discriminatory actions in many human interactions.
For example, an individual with a known psychiatric disability may receive limited or less sophisticated projects (as occurred with me), be subject to unconscious or discriminatory comments in reviews or be viewed as untrustworthy or less competent or professional.
Implicit bias against those with disabilities is rampant. A 2007 study called “Pervasiveness and Correlates of Implicit Attitudes and Stereotypes” supported by the National Institute of Mental Health found that “[preference] for people without disability compared to people with disabilities was among the strongest implicit and explicit effects across the social group domains,” with only age showing more implicit bias. A 2016 survey conducted by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs with Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found 28% of practicing attorneys suffering from depression; 19% suffering from anxiety; and 11.5% experiencing suicidal thoughts in the past year. In addition, a 2020 study supported by the ABA Commission on Disability Rights found almost 40% of those with disabilities report experiencing implicit bias while 22% report experiencing intentional bias.
Why does this matter? There are documented high attrition rates in the profession. With these rates of mental illness in the profession, implicit bias and barriers to success must be addressed. And diversity can lead to higher performance through innovation, due to the think tank approach offered by individuals with varying backgrounds and ideas.
Affirmative steps for law firms
Firms can take specific steps to mitigate the negative effects of implicit bias against those with psychiatric disabilities in the legal profession. They can focus on education and positive interactions with those suffering from mental illness to lessen stigma and implicit bias. Those steps may include the following:
- Diversity, equity and inclusion and implicit bias training specific to psychiatric disabilities.
- Providing speakers who can discuss their honest experiences with mental illness in the legal profession to educate others and destigmatize this cohort by putting a face to mental illness.
- Specific training for managing partners and project managers to discuss ways to interact with and manage those who have identified as having a psychiatric disability, suffer burnout and identify those who are struggling to manage workload, expectations and ensure attrition does not occur.
- Development of programs that allow attorneys to reach out for support and speak anonymously.
- Coaching of those who need support and advice, including finding the right “fit” within the firm.
- Analysis of existing infrastructure to develop an overarching program to support those with psychiatric disabilities.
- Remember that “mental health and wellness” is not necessarily “mental illness.”
Bias against those with mental illness runs rampant in the United States, and law students learn early that bias abounds in the legal profession simply by the mentioning those words on bar applications. Intense investigations can ensue, along with the relegation of the right to privacy for HIPAA-protected medical records. Professionals at the highest levels are constrained by societal stigma from coming out publicly.
As I gradually realized, the shackles were not coming off and the limitations were too great, I decided to leave BigLaw, break my silence and become a mental health advocate and consultant, so others could not face the same internal and external battles. If I had felt comfortable self-identifying as manic depressive under the Americans with Disabilities Act, I could have received at least some reasonable accommodations that could have lightened my load. I urge others to speak up too and ask for accommodations. Through a united voice, we can elicit change.
ABAJournal.com: “Unbroken: A call for psychiatric disability initiatives in the legal profession”
Lindsey Rogers-Seitz is a former mergers and acquisitions attorney at a leading international law firm. She is now an award-winning author, speaker and mental health advocate and consultant.
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