JUST RELEASED: First Ever Study on Lawyer Well-Being in Massachusetts (February 1, 2023)
In 2019, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), led by the late Chief Justice Gants, convened a Steering Committee to evaluate the wellbeing of lawyers in Massachusetts. Perhaps the broadest coalition of legal minds ever assembled in the Commonwealth for a common purpose related to the legal community, in 2019, the Steering Committee, which became the Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, collected anecdotal evidence that lawyers in Massachusetts are not alright.
Now, more than three years, and a pandemic later, according to a recent study conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago and Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Massachusetts (LCL), most Massachusetts lawyers (77%) reported being burned out from their work. Within the last three years, nearly half indicated they considered leaving or have left their employer or the legal profession entirely due to burnout or stress.
Also consistent with the findings of the Steering Committee, this recent study found that lawyers from groups that have been marginalized, including lawyers who identify as female, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino/a/e, having a disability, or non-heterosexual reported higher burnout, anxiety, and depression. Further cause for concern is that, primarily due to stigma, lawyers are not seeking help for mental health issues, and even less often for hazardous or unhealthy alcohol use.
The Executive Summary and the Final Report break down the examination of lawyer well-being by demographics, employment characteristics, and workplace environmental factors. The study also sought to understand barriers to accessing mental health and substance use care. The study indicates that supportive workplaces play a role in the well-being of their workers and significant numbers of those identifying as belonging to groups that have been marginalized do not experience their workplaces as supportive. Even while lawyers are burned out, most (66%) are experiencing life satisfaction, which seems to highlight the importance of the workplace environment and the need for employers to make positive changes.
One of the key messages of this survey is that if someone tells you they are not okay, believe them and believe that there are others like them. This NORC survey is consistent with others around the country and supports the information collected by the SJC Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being. The analytical among us might be tempted to discuss the minutiae of the methodology, but the important takeaway is that lawyers in Massachusetts are not okay, especially in their workplaces.
Time for a Culture Shift?
One of the more intriguing findings of the survey was that hazardous or unhealthy alcohol use was more prevalent among lawyers who are younger, identify as White, do not have a disability, or are earning more than $150,000 annually. This finding is in contrast to other negative well-being indicators that were more likely found in groups that have been historically marginalized. The data collected and the report do not help us untangle this finding but when viewed alongside another gut punch; very few of the lawyers who screened positively for unhealthy or hazardous alcohol use sought care, it might be time to think about a culture shift. It may be time to focus on deemphasizing alcohol as part of our interactions where in addition to significant unhealthy alcohol use (42%), the profession is suffering high rates of burn out, depression, and anxiety.
Exhibit 12. Substance Use Care Access Among Massachusetts Lawyers who Screened for Hazardous or Unhealthy Alcohol Use
Notes: These results are from a weighted sample of 4,450 lawyers. Missing data were excluded. Questions on substance use care seeking were asked to all survey participants, but questions on receiving substance use care were only asked to participants who indicated they were seeking care. Hazardous or unhealthy alcohol use was measured using the AUDIT-C with a score of 3 or higher for individuals who identify as female, transgender, agender, nonbinary, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, don’t know, or indicated a ‘prefer not to answer’ response to gender identity and a score of 4 or higher for individuals who identify as male and do not identify as transgender. Lawyer Well-Being in Massachusetts, pgs. 24-27, NORC, Feb. 1, 2023.
It Takes a Village
One of the key observations from this study is that the path to prevention involves the complex interplay between the individual, interpersonal relationships, organizations (structure and culture), and society. See NORC Report, Exhibit 1, February 1, 2023.
Exhibit 1. Social-Ecological Model for Lawyer Well-Being
Notes: This model for lawyer well-being was adapted from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social-Ecological Model: A Framework for Prevention. Lawyer Well-Being in Massachusetts, pg. 10, NORC, Feb. 1, 2023.
During the last several years, employers have invested resources geared towards improving individual wellbeing. While the data by age on burn out, anxiety, depression, and unhealthy alcohol use might suggest such programs targeting younger associates can be useful, the data related to the improved outcomes for those experiencing supportive work environments that include lower conflict between work and personal life, flexible work schedule, kindness, respect, a positive relationship with supervisor, access to mentorship, and opportunity for promotion suggests there are real opportunities for employers to think about how they define leadership, those who hold leadership positions, and commitment to train leaders to improve the equitable distribution of the resources and opportunities associated with a supportive work environment. See NORC Report, Exhibit 3, February 1, 2023.
This survey confirms the anecdotal evidence from the SJC Steering Committee that one of the most significant problems facing the profession is alienation resulting from a lack of diversity and inclusiveness. Black or African American and those identifying as having a disability were less likely to report experiencing several factors of a supportive environment including being treated with kindness and respect. Simply, DEI is well-being. Inclusiveness, especially, is about culture, and so much of culture is about leadership.
Leadership and Stigma
The NORC study also asked about barriers to seeking care for mental health concerns of depression or anxiety, as well as unhealthy alcohol use. While lawyers suffering from anxiety or depression sought care at higher rates than lawyers who misused or abused alcohol (53% to 2%), the number one barrier to seeking help was stigma. Time and punitive concerns were other significant concerns. While these concerns can be much about perception, leaders can help by openly supporting seeking mental health and substance use care, being vulnerable by being open about challenges faced, and ensuring policies and practices that make time and space to address these issues.
The NORC study, which was the product of collaboration demonstrates that it will take all of us, and a variety of strategies to make a difference. Clearly there is much to do. The SJC Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being has been a valuable partner in better understanding the challenges of the legal profession. The upshot is legal employers and leaders must actively assist in changing the culture of our workplaces and the environments in which lawyers practice. But no one has to go alone; we are LCL and our staff of seasoned professionals is here to help, as we have been since 1978.
About Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts
Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is the sole lawyer assistance program in Massachusetts exclusively dedicated to helping with the many personal and professional challenges of life in the
legal practice. Its mission is to promote well-being and resilience in the legal community, improve lives, nurture competence, and elevate the standing of the legal profession. Information about LCL is available at www.lclma.org.
About the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well- Being
Established in January 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court Standing (SJC) Committee on Lawyer Well-Being is dedicated to improving the working lives of lawyers to achieve a healthy, positive, and productive balance of work, personal life, and health, and to address structural challenges in the legal profession that contribute to poor health outcomes. Information about the Standing Committee is available at www.lawyerwellbeingma.org.