Groundbreaking Study Focuses on Attorney Mental Health and Well-Being
In 2020, the California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar announced their participation in the project, which has now yielded the first of several forthcoming papers. Entitled “Stress, Drink, Leave: An Examination of Gender-Specific Risk Factors for Mental Health Problems and Attrition Among Licensed Attorneys,” the research was published in May in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE. This first-of-its-kind research project generated significant, alarming, and highly instructive data which will greatly enhance the legal profession’s efforts to improve the health and well-being of its members.
Key findings from the study include:
• Roughly half of practicing attorneys are experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, with approximately 30% of those falling in the mild range and nearly 20% falling in the moderate/severe range.
• Over half of the attorneys screened positive for risky drinking, and 30% screened for high-risk hazardous drinking (which is interpreted as alcohol abuse or possible dependence).
• Women are experiencing meaningfully worse mental health than men and are drinking more hazardously.
• Considering the higher rates of mental health distress experienced by female attorneys, an expected but nonetheless troubling result is that 1 in 4 women is contemplating leaving the legal profession due to mental health problems, burnout, or stress. 17% of male attorneys report the same thoughts.
The research project was led by attorney mental health and well-being expert Patrick Krill, who collaborated on the work with Dr. Justin Anker from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Minnesota.
“The legal profession continues to have significant work ahead of it to improve mental health and gender disparities among practicing attorneys,” said Krill. “Our hope is that this essential research will be a useful tool for performing that work in a timely and effective manner.”
The research found that mental health problems and hazardous drinking are exceedingly high among currently employed attorneys. Most notably, a significant gender disparity was revealed, with female attorneys experiencing more mental distress, greater levels of overcommitment and work/family conflict, and lower prospects of promotion than their male counterparts. Additionally, the findings raise meaningful concerns about the stress levels of both male and female attorneys, and the possible impact of that stress on the delivery of effective legal services. CLA’s CEO and Executive Director Ona Alston Dosunmu emphasized the importance of this research for the organization and its members.
“We at CLA are so grateful to have this rigorous, data-based analysis to back up what we have all known intuitively,” said Dosunmu. “This study will enable us to develop targeted, effective programs to enhance the well-being of our members - particularly women.” The results of this study highlight the importance of addressing the structural, cultural and organizational infrastructures responsible for this mental health gender disparity and are an important step towards achieving the profession’s longstanding goals around improving mental health and the retention of female attorneys.
“The D.C. Bar deeply appreciates the study’s authors and our participating members, without whom this critical work would not have been possible,” said D.C. Bar CEO Robert Spagnoletti. “These insights will enable us to better serve our members and help drive awareness about the severity of mental health issues and gender disparities in the legal profession.”