While Pace of Legal Profession Has Presented Heightened Pressure For Lawyers, There Is Help 2/8/18 02/08/18 10:22:45 AM
Mark Weber, the Nebraska Supreme Court’s Counsel for Discipline presents a detailed report to the Nebraska State Bar members each year at their annual meeting.
While Pace of Legal Profession
Has Presented Heightened Pressure
For Lawyers, There Is Help
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
Lawyers are in the business of helping people. That’s one of the oft-cited reasons for becoming a lawyer. They are good at it. What they are not so good at is helping themselves.
“They are under so many pressures and when it gets to be too much, they need to ask for help. It’s there. They just need to ask.”
That’s the message that Mark Weber, the Nebraska Supreme Court’s Counsel for Discipline, wants to convey to the thousands of lawyers licensed by the state.
Weber is sometimes the first stop for a lawyer who is struggling.
“I get calls from colleagues and judges about lawyers,” he said. That’s in addition to those referrals from the Supreme Court when they get a complaint about a lawyer.
But he emphasizes that he is dedicated to helping people solve their problems without resorting to harsher professional penalties.
Weber said the pressures lawyers are under today present a daunting challenge, even though some of them are self-imposed.
“Society is moving so fast now, social media is instantaneous, with the heightened pace of the legal profession and the demand for services – some of them unrealistic, especially in domestic relations cases, … it all takes a toll.
“Then young lawyers sometimes take cases that they shouldn’t, just because they need to pay down the incredible student loans.
“Part of what I’m seeing is non-participation, in the Omaha Bar for example. There has been a decline in numbers, but it is still a wonderful organization to be a part of. You get so much more back than what you put into it.
“Personally, I was late to the table in my participation in the state bar. Then a colleague volunteered me for the Nebraska State Bar Association’s (NSBA) House of Delegates. That turned out to be one of the single biggest things in my career, not only for well being. … I developed great relationships with lawyers and judges and lawyers that became judges; it flat out became one of the biggest referral services for me. It is a great tool for marketing and client development,” Weber said.
“What lawyers need to do is live a well-rounded life. There’s often too much emphasis on the office, on billable hours, on the need to get ahead,” Weber said. “The problem is chronic, almost epidemic.”
But is it unique to lawyers?
Comprehensive StudyIn 2016, the American Bar Association, in conjunction with the Hazelden/Betty Ford Foundation, published the findings of a comprehensive study of lawyer wellness. The anonymous study looked at over 12,800 lawyers in 19 states.
The study concluded: “Attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise consistent with alcohol use disorders at a higher rate than other professional populations.”
The study noted that ironically, while some individuals may drink to cope with their psychological or emotional problems, others might experience those same problems as a result of their drinking. It’s a Catch 22.
The study compared attorneys with other professionals, including doctors, and determined that lawyers experience alcohol use disorders at a far higher rate than other professional populations, as well as mental health distress that is more significant. The study also found that the most common barriers for attorneys to seek help were fear of others finding out and general concerns about confidentiality.
Some of the findings showed that 21 percent of lawyers in the study were determined to be “problem drinkers” (problem drinking was defined as harmful, hazardous, with possible dependence). That number increased to 32 percent of lawyers under the age 30; 28 percent of lawyers suffered from depression; 19 percent suffered from anxiety; and 11 percent of lawyers in the study admitted to contemplating suicide at some point during their legal career.
The Journal of Addiction Medicine wrote that “the study measured the prevalence of these concerns among licensed attorneys, their utilization of treatment services, and what barriers existed between them and the services they may need.”
“Instead of owning those issues and recognizing there’s a problem and then dealing with it, there’s a lot of ‘head-in-the-sand’ out there,” Weber noted. “The number one complaint is a failure to return calls; a failure to communicate.
“If there were just a little bit of stopping and taking a breath. There are some practice pointers, such as returning phone calls at 10 and 2 o’clock, that can help. Sometimes that’s not enough.
“Dennis [Carlson, Weber’s predecessor] would observe that a person would begin to shut down from activities with friends and family and other lawyers and would slowly withdraw.
“The sad end result is just total shutdown,” Weber said.
“When we investigate such a complaint, it may have been a simple case of neglect, easily remedied” if it had been addressed earlier.
“Dennis preached this for 25 years. He could see it coming a mile away,” Weber said.
“Like Dennis, I too see heartbreaking cases of just complete shutdown, failure to address the client, but more importantly, failure to address my office, which leads to an increase in charges and then it just snowballs and the person just feels overwhelmed with no idea how to get back on track.”
NLAPNSBA’s Nebraska Lawyers Assistance Program (NLAP) is there for that purpose, Weber said. “My staff and I make ‘courtesy calls.’ When a lawyer gets a call from me… they are very guarded for first couple of minutes, because they figure the sheriff is in town. But we want to talk it out and solve the problem, with no additional action necessary. Education and offers of assistance come well before prosecution.
“My biggest task is convincing them I’m not out to get them. If you get the help you need, I don’t need to know anything else. We’re always there to provide assistance.
Weber makes the referral to help the lawyer address his or her issues.
“Fortunately, Nebraska lawyers today have Chris Aupperle,” director of NLAP, whom Weber describes as a “brilliant choice” to succeed Rick Allen, who retired last fall.
NLAP is a confidential program that offers help to all licensed lawyers, judges and law students through hardship, illness, addiction and other circumstances that may affect their professionalism or ability to practice law.
“NLAP is the best. Rick Allen created a model program for the country,” Weber said.
Weber said Allen marshaled a legion of lawyers who came to be known as “Rick’s Army.”
“He made NLAP one of the finest lawyers’ assistance programs in the country. He recruited a core cadre of lawyers who assist our impaired sisters and brothers, their families, clients, the courts and the public. He expanded NLAP to provide assistance to lawyers facing any type of issue that impairs their ability to practice, including cognitive decline, stress, depression, and more,” Hon. Joseph Batallion wrote in The Nebraska Lawyer.
Wellness is Key“The saddest thing I saw reported nationally is that lawyers are less likely than any other profession to recommend the practice of law as a career to their children,” Weber said.
Wellness is the key, he said, living a healthful life and maintaining a healthy balance. “Be honest with your doctor, your priest, minister, rabbi. Practice meditation or yoga, get a personal trainer, do whatever makes you calmer – just take time to do it. You will be more productive.”
No lawyer of any age is immune to the pitfalls.
In addition to the study of licensed lawyers, 15 law schools and over 3,300 law students participated in the Survey of Law Student Well-Being, the results of which were released in 2016. It found that 17 percent 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.
The study said “Legal employers should expressly encourage lawyers to make time to care for themselves and attend to other personal obligations.
“Such objectives will send a clear message that the court prioritizes lawyer well-being, which influences competent legal services. This, in turn, can boost public confidence in the administration of justice.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Weber noted that, “as we age, complaints against lawyers with 20-plus years of practice or more are rising. In the last three or four years, complaints against them amounted to more overall complaints than all other categories combined.
“That is one reason the Supreme Court raised the MCLE (Mandatory Continuing Legal Education) exemption on emeritus status. We encourage active participation in the bar and mentoring. But the focus needs to start in law school,” Weber said.
The report on the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being, published in August 2017, concluded: “Lawyers, judges and law students are faced with an increasingly competitive and stressful profession. Studies show that substance use, addiction and mental disorders, including depression and thoughts of suicide – often unrecognized – are at shockingly high rates.
“As a consequence the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-being, under the aegis of CoLAP (the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs) has been formed to promote nationwide awareness, recognition and treatment.”
“I believe we are doing a better job of promoting awareness, with such things as professionalism classes and visits by NLAP and my office in law school,” Weber said.
“The more we talk about this, the more we’ll think about it and that’s a good thing. Bottom line: If someone needs help, they should feel free to call my office.”
Comprehensive Study of Lawyer Wellness
Editor’s note: The study is from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. The Task Force was conceptualized and initiated by the American Bar Association on Lawyer Assistance Programs, the National Organization of Bar Counsel and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers.
The results from both surveys signal an elevated risk in the legal community for mental health and substance use disorders tightly intertwined with an alcohol-based social culture.
We recommend that all stakeholders consider how longstanding structures of the legal system, organizational norms, and embedded expectations might be modified to enhance lawyers’ sense of control and support a healthier lifestyle. Courts, clients, colleagues, and opposing lawyers all contribute to this problem.
Examples of the types of practices that should be reviewed include the following:
• Practices concerning deadlines such as tight deadlines for completing a large volume of work, limited bases for seeking extensions of time, and ease and promptness of procedures for requesting extensions of time;
• Refusal to permit trial lawyers to extend trial dates to accommodate vacation plans or scheduling trials shortly after the end of a vacation so that lawyers must work during that time;
• Tight deadlines set by clients that are not based on business needs;
• Senior lawyer decision-making in matters about key milestones and deadlines without consulting other members of the litigation team, including junior lawyers;
• Senior lawyers’ poor time-management habits that result in repeated emergencies and weekend work for junior lawyers and staff;
• Expectations of 24/7 work schedules and of prompt response to electronic messages at all times; and
• Excessive law school workload, controlling teaching styles, and mandatory grading curves.