How Lawyers Need to Be Healthier: Q&A

A national task force of lawyers thinks law has become unhealthy and it has a plan to fix it.

Last month, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being released a report that contains 44 recommendations to create a safer and more productive work environment for lawyers across the U.S.

The recommendations range from de-emphasizing alcohol as a pillar of social events to encouraging firms to stress the importance of mental health. Bree Buchanan — co-chair of the task force — says these recommendations could help prevent lawyers from burning out and developing substance abuse issues.

A former legal aid lawyer, Buchanan spent years defending domestic violence victims and children. Her exposure to tragedy coupled with the stress of the job took a toll and she burnt out several times over the course of her career, she said. Buchanan decided to focus her efforts on the oft ignored issue of lawyer health. Big Law Business spoke with Buchanan to learn more about the task force’s efforts to promote health.



Big Law Business: One of underlying issues in the report and in the recommendations is the stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse issues. How can lawyers work towards erasing this stigma?

Bree Buchanan: Studies have shown that the most effective way to reduce stigma is direct contact with someone who has a disorder. We will start to make a change when leaders of the legal profession step forward and say “I am a person in long term recovery. This is my story. This is where I am now.” That does more to break down barriers than anything else.

I have started telling my story. I’m a person in long term recovery from drugs and alcohol addiction. We need to create a space to have discussion and normalize the discussion. When we make it OK to talk about these issues, what that does is normalize help-seeking. Law students and lawyers are extraordinarily adverse to ask for help. It is critical for us to re-frame the issue that help-seeking behavior is a sign of strength rather than a sign of weakness.


Big Law Business: How can a firm promote mental health?

Bree Buchanan:  There are a variety of things a law firm can do. It can form a committee that assesses its own state of well-being. It can make sure there are policies in place for employees to know who to talk to and clear a path for these individuals to get help. That committee could put on regular educational programs and other initiatives to promote well-being and educate their employees. They can have an educational awareness component to it, that they could do through having lunchtime speakers or videos they could watch. Not any one of these things is necessarily enough alone. It will take an integrated approach to really bring about a change. We are more than capable of achieving this. It’s just a matter of will and initiative.


Big Law Business: One of the recommendations is for state bar associations to re-evaluate their policies about inquiring into applicants’ mental health history. Can you describe why this is a problem and how they can fix it?

Bree Buchanan:  In the bar application, some states ask very invasive questions about the applicants history of mental health and abuse of drugs or alcohol. When those questions are overly broad and invasive, it has the effect of reducing help-seeking. Law students are terrified to go to a therapist because they’re afraid that it’s going to prevent their admission to the bar. These questions are like, “Have you in the last x years abused alcohol? If the answer is yes, please explain.” I would submit to you these are students who have been to college. Many law students do abuse alcohol off and on and it doesn’t mean they can’t be a lawyer. The way law students tend to interpret that, is they just know they will be asked about mental health and feel they won’t be admitted to the bar. We recommend they modify questions with bar examiners in each state and to make sure questions are tightly tailored to what they’re actually seeking.


Big Law Business: Another recommendation talks about creating well-being education programs at law schools. How could you achieve this?

Bree Buchanan: Some of the more progressive law schools have developed seminars in well-being. At South Texas College of Law — Houston, one of the professors developed a two-day program immediately before orientation to talk about meditation and mindfulness, to teach the students in a way to build their resiliency. Professors who teach professional responsibility, that is a natural place to spend some time talking about these disorders and how they will impact a lawyer’s fitness to practice, their competency and overall ethical obligations. In addition to contract law and torts, a core competency that should be taught in law schools is how to attend to your own well-being.


Big Law Business: What challenges do you see in implementing these recommendations? And how do you plan on implementing them?

Bree Buchanan: They require people to change outlook, change behavior, change practices. Change is hard.

Rather than contacting individual law firms, we are working to promote awareness of the report and its recommendations through educational opportunities and through bar associations. We are working with professional malpractice liability carriers to systematize education around these issues. We’re trying to make it happen collectively with resources we can bring to table. Ultimately it’s going to come down on the shoulders of the leaders of the law firms to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk and make their well-being an issue for their firm. 

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UPDATED: This post has been updated to correct the description of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. The group consists of both ABA and non-ABA members and is not an ABA task force, as BLB previously stated.