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When It’s Time To Say The Quiet Part Out Loud: Mental Health In The Post-Pandemic Legal Landscape

In October 2018, Sidley Austin law firm partner Gabe MacConaill fatally shot himself in the parking garage of his firm. A month later, in a heartbreaking open letter to The American Lawyer, his widow Joanna Litt wrote, “He said he couldn’t quit in the middle of a case. The irony is not lost on me that he found it easier to kill himself.” Unfortunately, MacConaill’s poor mental health is not an exception in the legal profession: for a long time, it’s been the unspoken rule. 

No career is free of stress, but the high-pressure nature of the legal field makes lawyers uncommonly susceptible to increased stress levels. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this struggle reached a breaking point, and it became clear that “grin and bear it” was no longer a viable strategy for attorneys or for their firms. In the past three years, mental health in the legal profession has gone from a taboo to a pressing topic. While the COVID-19 pandemic caused lasting impacts on lawyers’ well-being, it also rocketed an important conversation into the minds of every lawyer, which has led to consequential steps in the right direction.

COVID-19 was not the first cause of poor attorney mental health, but its unprecedented upheaval of the global status quo greatly exacerbated long-standing issues. A February 2021 article from the Maryland Bar Journal examined lawyers’ reactions to the pandemic’s first weeks and found that Lawyer Assistance Programs actually experienced decreased cases in summer 2020. This may seem ironic, but considering attorneys’ dedication (and sometimes perfectionistic addiction) to their work, it was not surprising. When interviewed by the Maryland Bar Association, law students and lawyers alike “couldn’t take the time to take care of themselves because they were focused solely on how to survive the enormous changes.” In other words, they were so stressed that they felt incapable of getting help for their stress.

As the pandemic continued and the world remained quarantined, attorneys continued to suffer. In October 2021, The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School wrote about a PLOS-ONE survey of lawyers which determined that “35% of women and 29% of men reported that their drinking has increased during the pandemic.” Men who reported increased drinking were four times more likely to drink riskily, while women were seven times more likely. Patrick Krill, an expert on mental health and addiction in law and a co-author of the PLOS-ONE study, warned that these drinking habits were encouraged by the pandemic but stemmed from workplace permissiveness towards alcohol. Krill also warned that a return to the workplace would bring new behavioral health challenges and that it was crucial for legal employers to prepare themselves for these challenges.

From firm leaders opening up about their own mental struggles to corporations rethinking their treatment of outside counsel, employers have done their best to heed Krill’s words. Simon Malko, a managing partner at a large Atlanta law firm, decided to start with himself. Malko, who experiences anxiety, told Bloomberg Law in an interview in May of this year that his “goal is to make it easy to seek help and get rid of the stigma.” To support this goal, Malko’s firm has introduced a free onsite therapist to reduce barriers of accessibility.

But lawyers’ concerns at work extend beyond their firm: they also harbor intense emotions about their clients. When Gabe MacConaill committed suicide, his wife cited the Mattress Firm bankruptcy case he was working as a primary reason for his stress and depression. As a partner overseeing a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars, MacConaill felt extreme pressure from his clients to execute the case perfectly. When they are working such high-stake cases, most lawyers are expected to be continually available. Even if it is not an explicit requirement, failure to satisfy a client’s availability demands could jeopardize an attorney’s career. 

In an extensively-detailed article about attorney well-being, the Reuters Practical Law Journal cited one client who is working to combat that pressure: Barclays Bank. Barclays recognized the unfair strain they were putting on their outside counsel by essentially forcing a constant state of “being on-call.” To improve work-life balance, Barclays founded the Mindful Business Charter, “a set of best practices and behavioral principles aimed at reducing avoidable stress in the workplace.” To date, over 100 companies have signed the Charter, including Unilever, Mastercard, and Goldman Sachs.

It is clear that significant strides have been made towards the destigmatization and improvement of attorney well-being. Still, there is a long way to go. ALM found this year that 71.1% of surveyed lawyers surveyed had anxiety, up 5 percent from 2022. 15% said “they knew someone in the profession who died by suicide in the past two years.” In order to decrease these percentages, the next step for legal employers is to improve workplace culture. Just as lawyers avoid taking their vacation time for fear of damaging their career, taking a medical leave of absence or accessing a workplace therapist can feel even more threatening. Not only must resources be available to lawyers, their usage must be encouraged. As Malko told Bloomberg Law, “We’ve always had good benefits that covered mental health, but people weren’t using them. A big part of that was stigma. People don’t need to wait…to get help.”

Claire Cullen is from Greenville, South Carolina, studying Spanish

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