Every few years you hear about a new study sounding the alarm about lawyer mental health. But what does the science say?
Many articles point back to a 2016 study surveying nearly 13,000 lawyers about their mental health and substance use. This found symptoms of depression in 28% of respondents and anxiety symptoms in 19%, which are higher than the rates found in similar surveys of professionals in other fields. Even more worrying, 20% of respondents reported problematic drinking habits, which is almost double the rate of other professionals.
But a 2020 study made waves by casting doubt on the standard narrative of unhappy lawyers. Researchers out of Yale Law School pointed out that earlier studies draw from nonrandom, voluntary surveys, which can lead to results that don’t mirror the wider population.
Instead, the Yale study drilled down into a larger data set: the Center for Disease Control’s National Health Interview Survey. Every year, the CDC randomly samples the US population around mental health. Though only 100-200 lawyers are included in this survey each year, their responses can be pulled out and compared to other professions over time.
In this study, they found that lawyers had only slightly higher rates of mental illness than their professional peers. These numbers were lower than the general population, and much lower than those who had never attained a college degree.
All the same, the 2020 study found that “compared to their educational peers, lawyers consume alcohol at extraordinary rates,” doubling the excess alcohol consumption rates of their professional peers. This rate has grown over time.
It’s worth acknowledging that lawyers as a whole are doing better than many in our society. But the profession continues to show worrying signs of stress and burnout. These challenges don’t hit all lawyers equally—in fact, they are exacerbating inequalities that already exist within the industry.
A 2021 randomized study of 2,800 lawyers found that women in law experience higher rates of anxiety, stress, and depression than their male counterparts. 25% of women had considered leaving law due to mental health challenges, while the rate for men was 17%. Other studies continue to find that racial minorities have higher rates of depression, isolation, and suicidality compared to their white colleagues.
Tellingly, I couldn’t find any research on the mental health outcomes for non-lawyer legal staff. We know from experience that paralegals, firm administrators, and other legal staff members experience high rates of stress and burnout. But they don’t receive the same scholarly attention and have fewer mental health resources in the office (the ABA found that 36% of firms offer mental health resources only to the lawyers in their office). This blind spot is indicative of a logic of hierarchy that devalues the very workers it depends on.
All of this is to say: the legal profession does have a problem. Building greater awareness of mental health needs in the legal workplace is crucial—not only to improve the lives of each team member, but also to help legal offices flourish and become more diverse.
Here are some activities you can begin today to protect your mental health and help slowly shift the broader culture.
8 practical mental health tips for legal professionals
1. Seek out shared values
It’s fine to go into the practice of law because it’s financially lucrative. But for your long-term mental health, seek out work opportunities that align with some of your values.
Even just being valued for your expertise rather than your financial worth can make a big difference. A recent study in the journal Behavioral Sciences looked at the well-being of lawyers based on the ways they are valued by their firm. Those who report being valued for their expertise and professionalism have significantly better mental health outcomes than those who report being valued for their financial worth or not being valued at all.
2. Move your body
If you’re ambitious and goal-oriented, you might find yourself setting extreme fitness goals. You want to run a marathon, get 6-pack abs, and ski the black diamond slope. But when you fall short of those goals, you might get stuck in self-criticism or perhaps stop trying completely.
For mental health benefits, set realistic movement goals that are pleasurable and fun. Go on walks. Try out pickleball with a friend. Find something that is easy to stick with. The best exercise is the kind that you will do consistently.
3. Do one thing mindfully
Meditation practices have been established as a promising treatment for depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. There are countless apps, programs, and retreat centers that can help you learn the basics of mindfulness meditation. But even if you find it challenging to dedicate half an hour every day to sitting still and breathing, you can still find ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life.
Start by doing one thing with mindfulness. Prepare or eat a meal, garden, go on a hike, play an instrument—it can be almost any activity you already enjoy. The key is to be fully present while you’re doing it. Just pay attention to the sensory experience of the moment. Don’t listen to a podcast or background music, don’t distract yourself, and when you find yourself worrying about the future or ruminating on the past, gently invite yourself back into the sensations of the present. Over time, you can slowly train your brain to settle into calmer, more appreciative patterns.
4. Strengthen your support network
As a legal professional, you are likely skilled at networking and building professional connections. But are you giving enough time to the people who really support you?
Recent thought leadership has promoted the idea of the “T-shaped lawyer.” These are lawyers who have some knowledge of a broad range of issues and practice areas, coupled with a deep, exhaustive knowledge of one area. Think about building a “T-shape” to your social connections as well. You can hob-nob with many people, but then you have a strong, deep connection to a smaller group. This smaller group is your core support network—the people who will be there for you regardless of what happens in your professional career.
Invest in these relationships. Set aside quality time with them, without phones or other distractions. Show up for them when they need help. Not only will these relationships help reduce mental illness, they’ll also sustain you if bigger problems occur.
5. Find healthier coping mechanisms
Alcohol has long been the go-to coping mechanism for the high stress and long hours of legal work. The industry in general takes a very permissive stance toward heavy drinking. But these behaviors can further erode mental (and physical) health.
I’m particularly interested in the growth of alcohol abuse by women in law, noted in both Listokin’s 2020 study and Anker’s 2022 paper. I’ve seen the rise of a cheeky “rosé all day” mindset among young professional women. It feels lighthearted and playful, and no one wants to be the killjoy who suggests we should give our livers a rest.
But sometimes that playfulness can mask something more dire. If we’re trying to dull pain and anxiety with substances, we’re setting ourselves up for a spiral of sadness, shame, and addiction. There has to be better ways to socialize, connect, and let off steam.
Recognizing the reputation risks of substance addiction, many firms are also shifting the workplace culture to cut down on alcohol. Support this shift by advocating for events that aren’t alcohol-centric, asking for there to be interesting and tasty beverages that aren’t alcoholic, and speaking out against the behavior of pressuring others into drinking.
6. Get professional help
How do you feel about people who are dealing with complex legal questions, but want to rely on their own wits rather than consulting with a lawyer? What if someone said talking to a lawyer was basically an admission of guilt, and they’d only do it if they were in an extreme crisis?
Lawyers know the value of vocation and expertise, but many still refuse to see a therapist. Some fear being seen as ‘weak’ or ‘crazy,’ or believe they can handle everything themselves.
Fortunately, the culture at large is embracing therapy as part of a normal, meaningful life. Mental health professionals are a necessity when you’re in crisis—but even when you’re doing mostly fine, they can provide you with tools you need to achieve your full potential.
7. Use technologies that reduce stress—rather than cause it
Every new piece of software promises to make your life easier. But now your work is spread across a deluge of apps, emails, text messages, and social media platforms, and your phone and computer never stop dinging with new notifications. In the meantime, you have a sinking feeling that important deadlines and information are falling through the cracks.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Seek out case management tools that truly streamline and centralize your work, making other repositories irrelevant. Prioritize solutions that help you share information collaboratively, so you don’t have to be asked at every stage what to do next, or what the latest status is. Embrace automation tools that remove busywork and mindless data entry from your day. And manage your notifications, making sure you’re only interrupted when there is something truly urgent, and allowing the other information to be delivered in daily digests.
8. Go beyond self-help: build power and support others
Any mental health blogger can tell you to maintain a good work-life balance. But if you’re in an industry that only hires and promotes overworkers, does that advice even matter?
I believe it does—at least a little bit—because change often requires pressure from many directions at once.
It’s true that really effective office-wide cultural change often comes from the top down. That means if you’re a senior partner at a firm: please, begin implementing policies that are proven to improve the mental well-being of all members. Relax billable hour expectations, allow flexible work agreements, and offer mental health resources.
But if you’re not in charge, you don’t just have to wait around hoping your boss will fix things for you. Like with all big change, it takes active, organized people from all levels to agitate for improvement. Stand up for each other, push back against blame-and-shame reactions to mental health problems, become active in internal and external groups promoting better workplace policies.
It’s much easier to protect your own well-being if you’re in a culture that respects everyone’s. So as you incorporate wellness practices into your private life, don’t forget to push for a healthier workplace culture for all.