The American Bar Association has launched a campaign to target substance abuse and emotional strain among lawyers, a professional group long plagued by significant mental health issues.

“Lawyers are taught, ‘Your client must come first, your work must come first,’” said Terry Harrell, chair of the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession. “And yes, sometimes you have to sacrifice your sleep, but overall you have to put your own oxygen mask on first.”

Roughly 21 percent of working lawyers qualify as problem drinkers and 28 percent struggle with some level of depression, a 2016 study by the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found.

Lawyers in their first 10 years of practice are more likely to have these problems, and that lawyers experience alcohol abuse and mental health distress at higher rates than other professionals, including doctors.

Mental Health Pledge

The ABA is asking firms to sign a pledge to provide mental health and substance abuse education to attorneys and staff, find alternatives to alcohol-based firm events, provide confidential access to addiction and mental health experts, and implement back-to work policies for attorneys following treatment.

The ABA pledge was created by the well-being working group, which was formed last fall by then-ABA president Hilarie Bass in response to the results of the Betty Ford study.

The working group has also asked law firms to develop “visible partnerships” with outside resources providing mental health treatment, including insurers and lawyer assistance programs.

The pledge doesn’t go into detail about what mental health insurance coverage law firms should offer, but Harrell said comprehensive mental health coverage is “critical” for firms hoping to meet the goals of the pledge.

“For some of these firms, having the coverage is not so much an issue as making it acceptable to get help,” she added.

Firms Sign Up

Several law firms have already signed the pledge, including Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Corette Black Carlson & Mickelson; Duane Morris; Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn; Latham & Watkins; Morgan, Lewis & Bockius; Nixon Peabody; Perkins Coie; Reed Smith; Schiff Hardin; Seyfarth Shaw; Snell & Wilmer; and Wiley Rein.

Casey Ryan, Reed Smith’s global head of legal personnel and a member of the ABA working group that wrote the pledge, said the initiative dovetails with an existing wellness program at Reed Smith.

That firm’s program, called “Wellness Works,” offers training and special events for lawyers on the topics of physical fitness, work-life balance and mindfulness.

“We will continue to add new components to the initiative as we work to translate our support for [the ABA] campaign into action,” Ryan said in a statement.

Akin Gump offers a “Be Well” initiative that provides on-site health screenings and access to parenting support programs. Norton Rose Fulbright has mental health first responders trained to spot warning signs of addiction.

Some firms have programs to address time constraints. A few offices of Hogan Lovells offer on-site psychologists who visit once weekly and are available to lawyers and staff. The firm is reviewing the ABA’s pledge and expects to sign it, according to a spokeswoman.

Cultural Change

Law firms have until the end of the year to formally sign the pledge.

“Every year thereafter, we’ll be asking firms to fill out a short, online form saying, ‘What have you done to promote these seven goals?’” said Harrell. “We’ll ask them to report back what they’re doing and hopefully share some creative ideas.”

Harrell hopes the pledge will contribute to a broader cultural change in the legal profession.

“There are people who don’t necessarily show signs of clinical depression, but they’re unhappy with their work,” she explained. “We don’t just want the absence of disease, we want lawyers thriving.”