Mindfulness in the Law: How to Foster Mental-Health Initiatives to Improve Attorney Wellbeing

Stephanie Raborn

Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are documented as being statistically higher among members of the legal profession than in other professional industries.[1] Causes of these issues include long work hours combined with a stressful, competitive, and often conflict-oriented environment.[2] Despite the pervasiveness of mental health and substance abuse issues in the legal profession, many individuals are reluctant to seek help, and institutional barriers to accessing help or care are partially to blame. Professionals cite fear of discovery as a primary reason for not seeking help,[3] and in light of articles such as one published on October 9, 2019, titled “Law Grad Who Disclosed Alcoholism as Student Claims Bar Is Now Taking Punitive Action,” it is not hard to understand why.[4] One of the benefits of meditative and mindfulness practices is that such practices do not carry the same stigma as traditional talk therapy, and are therefore more likely to be utilized by those otherwise hesitant to seek counseling from a psychologist or other counselor.[5]

One of the primary ways in which organizations can respond to the mental health crisis in the legal industry is by providing education about and access to mindfulness techniques such as meditative practices, which have demonstrated effectiveness in reducing individuals’ anxiety and stress-responses.[6] The ABA and state bar associations should provide CLE credits for participation in wellness initiatives and education on mindfulness meditation. Additionally, they should educate law schools and their students about character and fitness questions and advise regarding how to best respond if help has been sought. By continuing to require applicants to answer questions related to mental health, state bar associations not only perpetuate the stigma that plagues mental health treatment, but they also erect yet another barrier for individuals to access care or learn preventative strategies for combatting stress.

Law schools should provide academic credit for courses that teach stress-reduction and mindfulness meditation techniques, and law firms should provide and promote resources for employees to access mental health counseling, including non-western practices such as yoga and mindfulness meditation. Some employers have begun to provide designated meditation spaces for employees, and firms and schools with the resources should follow suit.[7] Employers with fewer resources can promote the practice by offering something as simple as giving employees memberships to mindfulness-promoting smartphone apps such as Headspace.[8]

In conclusion, the ABA, state bar associations, law schools as well as law firms all have the opportunity to promote true “wellness” in the legal industry. Encouraging professionals to seek counseling as well as providing education and access to practices such as mindfulness meditation would further this aim by destigmatizing mental health issues and ultimately improve not only the lives of legal professionals but also the lives of their clients as recipients of services by healthier and more effective attorneys.

[1] Patrick R. Krill, Ryan Johnson and Linda Albert, Prevalence of Substance Abuse and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 J. Addiction Med. 46, 52 (2016).

[2] Kristin Johnson, Investigative Report: Mental Health Issues and Substance Abuse Threaten the Legal Profession,  abovethelaw.com (May 10, 2019), https://abovethelaw.com/?sponsored_content=investigative-report-mental-health-issues-and-substance-abuse-threaten-the-legal-profession.

[3] See Prevalence of Substance Abuse and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys at 50.

[4] Raychel Lean, Law Grad Who Disclosed Alcoholism as Student Claims Bar Is Now Taking Punitive Action, Law.com (Oct. 9, 2019), https://www.law.com/2019/10/09/law-student-who-disclosed-alcoholism-says-florida-bar-examiners-taking-new-punitive-action-292-54919/.

[5] Katelyn Woolford, Overcoming mental health stigma through holistic healing in Atlantic City, BreakingAC.com (May 17, 2019), https://www.breakingac.com/2019/05/overcoming-mental-health-stigma-through-holistic-healing-in-atlantic-city/ (“Stigma plays a major role [in why people do not seek mental health treatment].”).

[6] See e.g., Sarah Knapton, Mindfulness meditation lowers stress hormone and decreases inflammation in body, scientists find, Telegraph.co.uk (Jan. 24, 2017), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/01/24/mindfulness-meditation-lowers-stress-hormone-decreases-inflammation/; See also Mindfulness Meditation Training Lowers Biomarkers of Stress Response in Anxiety Disorder, Georgetown University Medical Center (Jan. 24, 2017), https://gumc.georgetown.edu/news-release/mindfulness-meditation-training-lowers-biomarkers-of-stress-response-in-anxiety-disorder/.

[7] See Scott Thompson, The Advantages of a Meditative Space in the Workplace, Chron.com, https://work.chron.com/advantages-meditative-space-workplace-1085.html (last visited Nov. 11, 2019).

[8] Angelica LaVito, Meditation app Headspace on track to double corporate clients, bring mindfulness to work, CNBC. (Sept. 2, 2018), https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/02/companies-are-turning-to-headspace-to-help-their-workers-meditate.html.