Wellness in the Legal Profession: Addressing the Issues Created in Law School That Spill Over Into Practice
Assita Toure received her J.D. from Stetson University College of Law with a concentration in Social Justice Advocacy. She was the 2018-19 President of the Black Law Students Association. She earned a B.A. in Political Science from the University of South Florida with a minor in Criminology. Ms. Toure was part of the Pilot Program Class of 2019 of the Journey to Esquire: Scholarship & Leadership Program. She currently practices law as part of the 13th Judicial Circuit's Office of the Public Defender in Tampa, Florida. Visit her LinkedIn page for more information.
I. Introduction Over the past few years, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of lawyers who have substance abuse issues. Numerous bar associations throughout the country have initiated conversations about these rates. Still, the actions they have taken have not done much to cure these problems among members of the profession. In 2016, the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published their study involving nearly 13,000 practicing lawyers. It found that between 21 and 36 percent of lawyers qualified as problem drinkers and that approximately 28 percent, 19 percent, and 23 percent, respectively, were struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress. The most alarming part of this study, however, its finding that younger lawyers in their first ten years of practice had the highest rates of drinking and depression throughout the profession. In this article, I will address the need for wellness initiatives in law schools to help law students find healthier wellness and coping mechanisms before they enter into the legal profession.
II. The Issue As a law student, I experienced the ease with which I formed poor habits. I have also seen how they can spill over into law practice. The entire process of law school is stressful; and poor wellness habits begin to form at the outset of our 1L year. The first year of law school is an experience that only those who have been through it can understand. There is pressure to comprehend and digest the assigned material, cold-call anxiety, stress from the overall competitive atmosphere, all combined with issues students may already face in their personal lives. The aggregation of all these factors prove difficult, even for those who come to law school with healthy wellness habits.
Within the first year, students pick up unhealthy habits- such as sleep deprivation- to keep up with the competition and maintain class rank. These unhealthy habits often result in an overall negative mental state that many students feel they lack resources with which to cope. Students experiment with alcohol and other illegal substances to relax, and these coping mechanisms quickly become habits or addictions.
Fifteen law schools and over 3,300 law students participated in the Survey of Law Student Well-Being, which released it results in 2016. It found the following: "17 percent [of students] experienced some level of depression, 14 percent experienced severe anxiety, 23 percent had mild or moderate anxiety, and six percent reported serious suicidal thoughts in the past year. As to alcohol use, 43 percent reported binge drinking at least once in the prior two weeks, and nearly one-quarter (22 percent) reported binge-drinking two or more times during that period. One-quarter fell into the category of being at risk for alcoholism for which further screening was recommended.” These statistics make it very clear that there is a significant problem with the way law students deal with stress and shed light on the growing need for wellness in law school programs.
One of the most worrisome aspects about the rates of illness listed above is many students, aware of the issues they have developed, refuse to seek help to address them. The study found that “42% of students needed help for poor mental health but only about half sought it out.” Some of the reasons for this reluctance to seek help is the perception of a lack of confidentiality and an overall concern that seeking help will harm their chances of practicing law.
Law school is hard work, and students who go through the process do not want to out bar admission at risk, so they ignore the clear signs of their need for help. Other factors cited by the students as discouragement from seeking help included: job or academic status, social stigmas, privacy concerns, lack of time, and the belief that they can handle the issues on their own. Students’ overall reluctance to seek help may be one factor explaining why law student wellness has not changed significantly since the last student survey of these issues from the 1990s.
Analysis of the statistics described above makes it easy to see why there is such an overall issue with mental illness in the legal profession. While bar initiated wellness programs are still essential, it is time to shift focus to the way students develop those habits in law school. A study conducted on lawyer wellness by Lawrence S. Krieger and Kennon M. Sheldon provides the statistical analysis to confirm that problems with mental health begin in law school and further supports the need to create solutions that start in law school. Starting at the source is crucial as it is the best way to prevent the creation of issues that are seemingly beginning before students even reach the profession. Promoting wellness in law school is the best way to give future attorneys the necessary skills that they will need to cope with the many stressors that come with the practice of law.
III. Solutions Initiatives to increase wellness in law school should not be limited to enhancing student resilience and detecting the disorders that exist. Identifying the source of the problems that may stem from organizational practices and assessing changes that will support student wellness should form the basis of law school wellness initiatives. If legal educators continue to ignore the stressors associated with law school, their inaction may suppress the overall learning capacity of students and intensify mental illness.  Based on a solution-oriented mindset, law schools can address these issues proactively.
One of the first solutions law schools can implement is hiring at least two professional onsite counselors. This proposal provides students a readily accessible resource: confidential talk therapy with a mental health professional about any issues, personal or professional. It also provides access to counseling to students who have no other resource. Two onsite counselors will meet the tremendous need in law school campuses. Many students want the opportunity to speak with a counselor. But they get discouraged with long wait times and limited appointment slots. Ensuring that there are adequate resources, for the students who choose to get help, addresses the issue of access.
Because many students recognize that they have an issue but do not seek help. Thus, law schools should implement a mandatory course on wellbeing during the 1L year. In this course, students can not only get information about the rates of alcohol and substance abuse for law students, but also where they can gain some advice on how to deal with the challenges in law school. To support a program like this, law schools should train their professors in courses as well so that they can learn how to relate and help their students with mental health and substance abuse issues. The two onsite mental health professionals can also teach these courses. A program like this will stress to students the importance of keeping up with their health and wellbeing and give them insight into the negative consequences of ignoring their mental health. The training that professors get will provide them with the tools to help students after their 1L year as well.
The last and more obvious suggestion is for law schools to discourage or eliminate alcohol-centered events altogether. Showing students that it is possible to network without alcohol consumption is very important. Many of the social events sponsored by law schools have free alcoholic drinks offered at unlimited amounts, aka “open bar.” This tradition of drinking alcohol during networking events should be carefully examined. Law schools can model for their students positive steps to address the increasing rates of alcohol abuse by law students. It is equally important that law schools make a formal statement to their students that they have chosen to discourage alcohol intake at school events to encourage health. Transparency is paramount. If students see that the law school takes the issue seriously, then they will be more likely to do so as well.
IV. Conclusion Wellness in the legal profession has been a hot topic recently, but an area that needs more attention is law schools. Ensuring that the future generation of lawyers knows about the high risks of alcohol and substance abuse of those in practice is critical. But equally as important is giving students the resources necessary to help them maintain their wellness. Many attorneys who have alcohol and substance issues formed these habits in law school. If we are able to help students while they are still in law school, we will be able to decrease the rates of abuse in the profession. We can help students in law school by encouraging them to seek help.
Recently, the Florida Bar's Young Lawyer Division launched the #StigmaFreeYLD campaign to remove the stigma that comes with seeking help for mental health and abuse issues among lawyers. Also, the newer bar application, which was effective on November 1st, 2019, encourages applicants to seek help for problems with mental health and substance abuse and also notes that seeking help will not hurt their application. Being a lawyer is tough, and if we can be proactive in our approach to deal with it before there is an issue, we can help so many more people.
 P. R. Krill, R. Johnson, & L. Albert, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 J. ADDICTION MED. 46 (2016).
 J. M. Organ, D. Jaffe, & K. Bender, Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns, 66 J. LEGAL EDUC. 116 (2016).