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Q&A: Mental Health, Addiction, and Sustaining Wellness in the Legal Field

The latest in a series of interviews by Kim Johnson, Quarles & Brady's Chair, discussing the business of law with prominent attorneys, thought leaders and innovators.

Across the country, businesses are taking pains to improve and promote wellness in the workplace. But big law, historically a “work-hard, play-hard” environment, has been slower to initiate discussions around what a healthy, sustainable work environment looks like. I recently spoke with Lisa Smith, an attorney whose book Girl Walks Out of a Bar provides a candid portrait of alcoholism in our profession. We talked about why the legal industry has fallen behind on wellness and what we can all do to make our profession more mindful, supportive and proactive on mental health.

KIM JOHNSON: Wellness has lately been a common point of discussion across the business world, but even more pointedly in the world of big law, where many are questioning the culture of law firms and the basic economics of the profession. What do you think is missing from that conversation?

LISA SMITH: First, I want to acknowledge that a lot of good work is being done that wasn’t years ago. Following a groundbreaking Betty Hazelton Ford study, an ABA task force has declared that to be a good lawyer, one needs to be a healthy lawyer; that includes mental health. We need to break the stigma and treat the issues that attorney’s face. The next step is for legal professionals to begin treating mental health and abuse disorders the same way we treat physical health issues. If an attorney needs to leave the office for physical treatment, we don’t question it. It’s equally important they can take the same time for treatment related to mental health or addiction. Further, they should be allowed similar timing to readapt to the work force after leave.

KJ: What should law firms be doing to better address wellness concerns among their lawyers? How can they move toward a preventative approach?

LS: It becomes a cultural discussion, really. Early in my career, it was a badge of honor to cancel your vacation because of a client demand. We shouldn’t need to see it like that; instead, a senior partner or attorney should be saying, “let’s talk about when we can put that vacation back on your schedule – immediately.” And then partners need to set the example for young attorneys and take their vacations. It will be a cultural cue for others to do the same.

KJ: Are there wellness efforts – either in the legal profession or elsewhere – that have been particularly successful? What differentiates them from less successful attempts?

LS: One thing I’ve seen is the way companies are treating things we do to take care ourselves as a group activity. A lot of firms put together a basketball team or go on a group run together, so there is a shift. It all has to do with the level of commitment; what a firm does on wellness has to have consistent support from the top down. Wellness hires are good, but that person needs a champion. Wellness committees with members from across the firm and across offices are important, because it provides a network of support not only for the wellness hire, but for those who need to feel confident in reaching out for help.

KJ: You’ve described the legal profession as being “steeped in alcohol,” and those of us who have been in the law a long time can certainly understand why. So how do firms start to address that? The holidays, for instance, are coming up. How can we be more mindful of those struggling with addiction?

LS: It’s not about removing alcohol; it’s about providing an alternative so folks don’t feel pressure to drink. At a former firm of mine, we held an anniversary party that provided both a signature cocktail and a signature mocktail. When you walked in, there were servers with trays of virgin mojitos alongside the real cocktails. We had so many people say how happy they were with the mocktail; it made it so easy to participate in the fun without the cost. And it’s not just about addiction: one woman said she had to hop on a commuter train and go home to her kid. Not everyone wants to drink on a Tuesday night.

KJ: Many people believe that only men become alcoholics, but as you have pointed out, women have largely caught up to men in terms of alcohol consumption. What impact does this stubborn stereotype have on professional women?

LS: Unfortunately, the drinking culture in law firms hurts women in several ways. First, they are often the ones with responsibilities when they get home at night. And as we know, when the alcohol starts flowing, the wrong things can be said or done among colleagues. Not only is there a risk of inappropriate behavior, but also a risk to physical health.

KJ: What advice can you offer from this side of recovery? In other words, what would you say to someone who is suffering from addiction or mental illness in the legal profession? What would you say to a lawyer who feels themselves spiraling toward addiction?

LS: There’s a lot to it, because you never know what level of denial someone is in. It’s a culture of high achievers and high-functioning alcoholism. When I was struggling, I still felt as if there was nothing I couldn’t do. I’d say, “yeah I drink too much, but look at me, I’m successful, I’m on time to meetings, I’ve never been arrested.” But it’s only high functioning until it isn’t, until you get pulled over, or sleep through a court date.

I now know that my colleagues were willing to help me, but if anyone had said, “hey you’re working from home a lot,” which I was, I would’ve run for the hills. If you notice someone isolating themselves or continuously running late, it’s just good to ask if they’re okay. In doing so, you’re pointing out that something has changed. The person, because of denial or shame, may say they are okay. But acknowledging them may at least plant a seed that someone is noticing and may be willing to help. It is a delicate thing, but worth it.

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