Wall Street Journal: Law Firms Finally Say It’s OK to See a Therapist

I was honored to be interviewed by the Wall Street Journal last year; On-site psychologists and other wellness initiatives are becoming health considerations for Legal Firms globally.

For ease of access to the Wall Street Journal article, I have reprinted the article below in its entirety:

Patrick Krill noticed a troubling trend while running a substance-abuse treatment program for lawyers.

Many of his clients said law-firm colleagues intervened in their addictions only when they stopped billing enough hours to justify their pay.

“Unfortunately, the help really begins to emerge when the performance falls off,” said Mr. Krill, a former practicing lawyer who moved into addiction counseling seven years ago and now consults law firms.

Big firms have long been reticent to openly address addiction and other mental-health problems, despite research showing lawyers face higher rates of substance abuse, depression and suicide than the wider population. Law-firm leaders say the need to keep up appearances in a competitive industry has contributed to the resistance.

That attitude, however, is slowly changing.

Some U.S. law firms are tackling mental-health issues head-on. They’re offering on-site psychologists, training staff to spot problems and incorporating mental-health support alongside other wellness initiatives.

“We’re trying to eliminate some of the stigma around these issues,” said Tracee Whitley, the U.S. chief of operations at global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright. The firm has trained 20 U.S. employees to be mental-health first-aid responders, who can spot warning signs of addiction or mental-health concerns and offer assistance.

A study of mental-health issues among U.S. lawyers released last year by Mr. Krill and other researchers found 20.6% of those surveyed were heavy drinkers and 28% experienced symptoms of depression. That compares with 8% or less of the general population, according to other studies. The results of a survey of members of the American College of Surgeons published in 2012, by comparison, found 15.4% abused or were dependent on alcohol.

The research, published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, found lawyers are less likely to seek help than others, out of confidentiality concerns and a fear of telling others they have a problem. “Both of which speak to a barrier unique to the legal profession, this concern about our reputations,” Mr. Krill said.

The taboo around mental health starts early; many state licensing boards ask detailed questions about an applicant’s history of mental illness and treatment, though without disclosing how the information will be used.

The uncertainty causes some law students to avoid seeing a doctor when feeling depressed to avoid getting tagged with a diagnosis, said Starling Marshall, a New York lawyer who is president of the Dave Nee Foundation, a nonprofit that raises mental-health awareness at law schools. The group, named for a Fordham Law School graduate who committed suicide in 2005 while studying for the bar exam, is working to eliminate such questions from state character and fitness exams.

The reluctance to address problems continues once lawyers start practice. Norton Rose and other firms say they’ve followed the lead of colleagues in the U.K. and Australia, who have been more willing to talk about mental health in the workplace.

The New York and D.C. offices of 2,500-lawyer Hogan Lovells started offering on-site psychologists last year after seeing a similar program in London.

“It’s been a rousing success,” said Oliver Armas, the firm’s New York managing partner. The service is open to the office’s roughly 400 employees, including junior lawyers, partners and support staff.

Clinical neuropsychologist Joel Becker, who comes to the office one day a week, said most of his sessions involve an element of depression or anxiety, stemming from work and home stressors. Endless client demands are often a contributing factor, Dr. Becker said. For lawyers facing periods of particularly high workloads, he suggests taking a cellphone reprieve, which could mean turning devices off at 2 a.m. until around 6 a.m.

“The hours are long,” Mr. Armas said. “We do what we can to soften the blow.” Increasing employee productivity wasn’t the driving force behind the office’s wellness program—which also includes an on-site masseur, gym memberships and healthy snacks—but it is a byproduct, Mr. Armas said.

Leaders at several major firms bristled at the idea of bringing a therapist into the office, saying it isn’t needed, could cause privacy concerns or would send the wrong message.

Joseph Andrew, the global chairman of Dentons, said that while he applauded Hogan Lovells for having an on-site psychologist, the fear of offering such a service is that “our competitors will say we have crazy lawyers.”

The adversarial nature of law practice, where one side typically triumphs at the expense of another, and the emotional toll of taking on clients’ personal issues, can create chronic stress that contributes to bigger problems, Mr. Krill and others said. The profession also tends to draw high-achieving individuals who avoid showing any signs of weakness.

Attorney suicides make headlines every year, renewing concerns over how to combat depression. The U.S. legal industry had the 11th highest suicide rate in 2012 among occupations at 18.8 per 100,000, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared with 16.1 per 100,000 nationwide. Occupations with higher rates include farming, architecture and engineering, and construction.

Mental health and substance-abuse claims take up 6% to 8% of health-care spending in the legal services industry, versus 3% to 4% spent nationally by employers, according to Adam Okun, an executive vice president at Frenkel Benefits who consults law firms on benefits programs.

Bringing a psychologist into the office is a novel way to try to address these issues, Mr. Okun said, “but obviously many firms are not ready to make that public statement.”

Article by Sara Randazzo, at [email protected]
Appeared in the May 22, 2017, print edition as ‘Law Firms Tackle a Taboo.’ 

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