Groundbreaking Survey to Take Closer Look at Attorney Mental Health

By John Murph

January 14, 2020

The D.C. Bar is participating in a new pivotal research project that seeks to provide deeper insight into mental health struggles in the legal profession, including risk factors, triggers, and what could be done to improve lawyer well-being. The survey will build upon the findings of the 2016 landmark American Bar Association/Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study that revealed alarming levels of problem drinking and mental health disorders among U.S. attorneys. 

Scheduled to be launched in late March, the survey will be distributed to members of the D.C. Bar, the largest unified bar in the country. Patrick Krill, attorney, counselor, and lead author of the 2016 study, and Dr. Justin Anker, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, are designing the new survey. 

D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Committee chair Julie Mitchell Newlands said she is excited about the Bar’s participation in the research. “In order to help current and future members of our profession, it is imperative that we learn more about the factors contributing to the high levels of mental health and substance use problems, as well as what can be done to promote well-being,” Newlands said. 

The confidential and anonymous survey will assess the current prevalence of mental health and substance use problems among licensed attorneys, as well as identify the underlying risk factors and contributing causes for those problems. It will also investigate a variety of personal factors that can increase attorneys’ vulnerability to mental health and substance use problems, such as stress sensitivity, early life adversity, impulsivity, sleep, diet, exercise, social and financial health, burnout, and personality disorders. 

In addition, the survey will explore the impact of cultural and workplace triggers, including environmental stress, toxic goals, incivility, incentivized and rewarded behaviors, and the availability and utilization of support resources. Importantly, the survey will ask respondents to share their views about what can and should be done to promote better mental health and personal well-being within the legal profession.  

“The legal profession has made great strides in the realm of mental health, substance use, and well-being over the last few years but, in many ways, our work is just beginning,” Krill said in a press release from the California Lawyers Association, which is also participating in the survey. “We need to move beyond prevalence data alone, and to shed light on the many risk factors that exist on both the profession-wide and individual level.” 

In a separate statement, Krill, a leading authority in attorney mental health and well-being, said the “D.C. Bar’s desire to participate in this vitally important research and to help lead on the well-being front is hugely appreciated.”  

The 2016 study led by Krill surveyed nearly 13,000 practicing lawyers and found that between 21 percent and 36 percent of them qualified as problem drinkers, almost 28 percent battled some level of depression, 19 percent experienced anxiety, and 23 percent struggled with stress. The findings also noted that attorneys in their first 10 years of practice — particularly at private firms — experienced the highest rates of alcohol abuse and depression. 

Denise Perme, manager of the D.C. Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program, welcomes the upcoming research as an “important next step in the ongoing national campaign to increase well-being in the lawyer population.” 

“The data the research yields should be extremely useful to us in our efforts to help LAP clients with their well-being challenges,” Perme said.  

D.C. Bar CEO Robert Spagnoletti said the Bar is “proud to participate in this important research aimed at understanding and improving the health and well-being of its members and the wider legal community.”  

“Ensuring the integrity of the legal profession and protecting the public has been a pillar of the D.C. Bar’s mission since its creation in 1972,” Spagnoletti added.