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Lawyering and Mental Health: Facing the Hard Truths Head On

By: Kayla Heckman

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Established in 1949, the goal of Mental Health Awareness Month is to emphasize the importance of mental health and undo the stigma commonly associated with mental illness that is deeply ingrained in our society.[1] Coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Month, Well-Being Week in Law is observed nationally during the first full week of May. Well-Being Week in Law was initiated to address mental health concerns specific to the legal community, which has suffered from unacceptably high rates of depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and drug use.

Our mental health is just as important as our physical health, yet our mental health is often overlooked and misunderstood. This is partly because unlike a physical ailment, a mental illness is often not visible.  Despite this, mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States: more than 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness[2]. More alarming is the impact of mental illness on the legal profession. Specifically, lawyers are more prone to depression and anxiety than the general population and in studies of suicide by occupation, lawyers rank within the top 10.[3]

Despite the increased prevalence of mental illness among us, many lawyers struggling do so in silence for fear of being judged or for their struggles being perceived as a weakness. Mental health impacts all of us and talking about it is a sign of strength—not of weakness. The more we talk about it, the more we can reduce the stigma commonly associated with mental illness.

This article discusses some of the “hard truths” that we, as lawyers, often lose sight of. By keeping the following in mind, we can begin to improve our mental wellbeing.

-You are replaceable at work but irreplaceable at home.

As attorneys, we devote significant energy and time to our profession—as we should. However, it is easy to become absorbed by this work and obtain the mindset that there is nothing more important. Moreover, it is even harder to disconnect with email access on our cell phones and remote work. Lawyers are known for working long hours, working weekends, working on holidays, and even working on vacations. While there are times where this is unavoidable, it is essential to maintain a work-life balance by setting boundaries at work, maintaining a connection with your family and friends, and never losing perspective.

Working more doesn’t always result in getting ahead.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion brought on by prolonged or intense stress. We often feel like we can only get ahead by working more (working longer hours, working through lunch, etc.). But by doing so without breaks leads to burnout and can make us less productive. Studies show that taking short, regular breaks throughout the workday can increase performance.[4] Just as “recovery days” are essential to an athlete’s workout regimen, rest and recovery is pivotal to our mental health. So, take a break. It can be as simple as a quick stretch at your desk, a 5-minute walk outside, or even just a lap around the office.

-There is never a “good time” to take vacation.

We have all been there. We have all told ourselves at some point:

  • “I’ll take a vacation as soon as things slowdown”
  • “I’ll take a vacation as soon as I am all caught up”
  • “I’ll take a vacation AFTER I get through that motion for summary judgment hearing”
  • “I’ll take a vacation AFTER I get through that trial”

And then what inevitably happens? Something ELSE comes up and so you put off taking a vacation, or even just a much-needed day off, yet again. The bottom line is—there will always be more work that needs to be done, so just take the vacation. The work will be there when you get back and time off is essential to avoiding burnout.

-It’s okay to say “no.”

In addition to their day-to-day duties (e.g. meeting “billable hour” requirements), lawyers are also encouraged to participate in additional “extracurricular” “non-billable”  activities/events that take place outside of the law firm and sometimes occur after “regular” work hours. These events can include attending networking events, participating in voluntary bar associations, attending conferences, speaking on panels, putting together CLE programs, writing articles, teaching classes, etc., all of which eat into the already limited “free time” lawyers have. It is important to be involved in the legal community and in organizations outside of your law firm, but you don’t need to do it all—all at the same time. When you are at capacity, it’s okay to say “no.” Overextending yourself will only lead to burnout.

Work is something that you do and not who you are.

Prioritize your hobbies outside of work. Make time every day to do something for YOU that is unrelated to work.

-There will always be more work, but there won’t always be more time.

I know it’s cliché, but life is short and no one on his deathbed ever said, “I wish I had worked more.”

In the legal field, there is immense pressure to achieve professional success. However, this professional success often comes at the expense of our personal well-being and mental health. Being mindful of the above “hard truths” can help us maintain perspective of what really matters and what it truly means to live a fulfilling life.  Self-care is not selfish. After all, how can we be the best advocate for our clients if we cannot even advocate for ourselves? All this to say, take care of you.






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