Legal professionals may be exposed to their clients’ trauma on a daily basis. Repeated exposure to clients' stories of injury, assault, or other trauma-related occurrences is mandatory for many lawyers, yet, the effects of trauma exposure can be harmful to mental health and overall well-being.
Legal professionals may discount their own mental health in comparison to their clients’, as their clients endured the trauma first-hand. Still, it is essential for lawyers to actively monitor how trauma exposure affects their own mental health to avoid negative consequences. Studies show that for some lawyers, trauma exposure can give rise to PTSD, among other mental health-related problems.
There are ways to safely build trauma-informed client relationships that limit harm from indirect trauma exposure. One effective practice to mitigate the harmful effects of trauma exposure is “trauma-informed supervision.” This practice encourages lawyers to share their vicarious trauma experiences, access emotional health resources, and participate in self-care practices. Though the science on trauma exposure is relatively new, strong trauma-informed supervision programs have been shown to improve overall lawyer well-being.
Though adverse mental health effects may arise due to vicarious trauma, lawyers still must be able to develop a strong trauma-informed relationship with their clients. Advice on how lawyers can build better attorney-client relationships in trauma-informed circumstances can be found on the American Bar Association’s website.
Mindfulness and meditation is proven to reduce anxiety and improve job satisfaction in the legal profession.
It is commonly known that those who work in the legal profession may experience high rates of stress, anxiety, and substance abuse. It is also known that these symptoms can lead to burnout, and ultimately attrition in some cases. Recent research shows attorney attrition is primarily attributable to work-family conflict and overcommitment.
The high stakes and demanding nature of the legal profession that leads to work-family conflict and overcommitment may be inherent in the profession, but there are ways to ameliorate these effects. Attorneys and law firms can employ proven strategies “to reduce unwanted turnover and increase the likelihood” that their employees can “thrive across all dimensions of their lives.”
One stress-reducing strategy that is gaining more traction is “mindfulness and meditation.” Mindfulness is the “awareness” of one’s own well-being and the practice of “being intentional with [one’s] time.” Studies have shown that mindfulness and meditation can play a large role in improving lawyers’ mental health. Mindfulness has been shown to decrease anxiety, reduce depression, and improve cognition. And in other professions, professionals use meditation “to improve leadership skills and collaboration.”
A meditation practice can start with just a few minutes of practice per day, and the benefits from decreased anxiety and improved cognition likely outweigh the cost of spending a few minutes away from one’s desk. A great resource for attorneys looking to start a meditation practice is Mindfulness in Law Society: a national nonprofit that offers weekly guided meditation sessions and other mindfulness exercises for lawyers. As for legal employers, consider hosting a class on mediation or mindfulness, providing quiet spaces for employees to meditate, or simply encourage the practice.
In addition to meditation, there are a variety of tools and resources that legal employers and employees can utilize to improve well-being on the Well-being Committee for the Legal Profession’s website.
A 2016 study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association suggests that 1 in 5 lawyers are problem drinkers, and nearly the same amount suffer from depression, anxiety, and stress. Additionally, a 2021 study shows that when compared to the general population, lawyers are “significantly more likely to report suicidal ideation” and are more likely to experience general symptoms of depression.
As the Hazelden/ABA study concludes, this data emphasizes “the need for greater resources for lawyer assistance programs,” as well as “the expansion of available attorney-specific prevention and treatment interventions.”
The Utah State Bar and the Well-being Committee have various well-being resources available to legal professional and legal employers. These include Lawyer’s Helping Lawyers, access to mental health services through Blomquist Hale, and various resources provided by the Well-Being Committee for the Legal Profession.
For those on the fence about whether well-being programs are important to the legal profession, economic studies show that “happier” employees are significantly more productive. In a profession driven by productivity and the billable hour, legal employers should recognize that well-being measures are not only the right thing to do for their employees, but are also in the best interest of their economic shareholders.
The Well-being Blog is a collaborative effort between members of the Utah State Bar's Well-Being Committee for the Legal Profession and others who are committed to improving the health, well-being, and professional success of Utah Legal professionals.