Byte of Prevention Blog

ABA Sounds Clarion Call On “Toxicity” in the Profession

jay reevesIf there was any question about whether our profession is in crisis, a new ABA report has removed all doubt.

“The legal profession is at a tipping point,” says the ABA Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. “We are at a crossroads…. Depression, anxiety, chronic stress, burnout and substance use disorders exceed those of many other professions. We have to act now.”

The August 14 report is the culmination of a year-long dive into the state of health of the national bar, with a focus on what the Task Force calls a “level of toxicity” that has infected the profession.

“We have ignored this state of affairs long enough,” according to the 73-page report. “To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being.”

The Task Force was compromised of state and national bar leaders, mental health professionals, bar regulators, liability insurance executives and practicing attorneys. Chief author of the report was Anne Brafford, a lawyer-educator-psychologist and chair of the ABA Law Practice Division’s Attorney Well-Being Committee.

The report incorporates findings from various groups, including the National Organization of Bar Counsel, the Hazelden Foundation and the Conference of Chief Justices.

“Change will require a wide-eyed and candid assessment of our members’ state of being, accompanied by courageous commitment to re-envisioning what it means to live the life of a lawyer,” the report says.

Read the full report here.

A Clarion Call

If you’ve ever read a white paper from an ABA task force, you’ll notice right away that this one is different. Missing is the usual measured language and legalese. In its place is a “clarion call” for urgent action.

“Substance use, addiction and mental disorders, including depression and thoughts of suicide—often unrecognized—are at shockingly high rates,” writes ABA Past President David R. Brink in the introduction. “Lawyers, judges and law students are faced with an increasingly competitive and stressful profession.”

The report cites a 2016 survey of 13,000 lawyers that found between 21 and 36 percent could be deemed problem drinkers, 28 percent suffered from depression and 19 percent were dealing with anxiety.

The problem is even more acute for law students and new attorneys. More than 40 percent of students reported binge drinking, and nearly 20 percent admitted to some level of depression. A disturbingly high percentage of new attorneys expressed disillusionment with their jobs and pessimism about their future.

“The legal profession is already struggling,” the report states. “Our profession confronts a dwindling market share as the public turns to more accessible, affordable alternative legal service providers. We present these recommendations and action plans for building a more positive future. We call on you to take action. The time is now to use your experience, status, and leadership to construct a profession built on greater well-being, increased competence, and greater public trust.”

The report includes action checklists and specific recommendations for seven groups:

  • Law schools
  • Bar regulators and Bar counsel
  • Judges
  • State and local bar organizations
  • Law firms
  • Lawyer Assistance Programs
  • Lawyer professional liability carriers

“Our members suffer at alarming rates from conditions that impair our ability to function at levels compatible with high ethical standards and public expectations,” the report concludes. “To preserve the public’s trust and maintain our status as a self-regulating profession, we must truly become our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, through a strong commitment to caring for the well-being of one another, as well as ourselves.”


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