CLA Using Study Findings to Mitigate Attorney Suicide Risk

California Lawyers Association will use recent findings from an attorney well-being research project to design strategies to help lawyers address suicide risk factors and improve their overall health.

CLA participated in the groundbreaking research project that pointed to perceived stress, loneliness, work overcommitment, work-family conflict, alcohol use, and prior mental health diagnosis as among the factors foreshadowing suicide risk among lawyers.

“Stressed, Lonely, and Overcommitted: Predictors of Lawyer Suicide Risk” was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Healthcare on February 11, 2023. It was the third in a series of papers gleaned from 2020 research by attorney mental health and well-being expert Patrick Krill of Krill Strategies and Justin J. Anker of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota.

Using a random sample of about 2,000 practicing lawyers from California and Washington, D.C., the Krill team explored the root causes of attorney mental health problems, substance abuse, and attrition among practicing attorneys. 

“The results of this joint study validate what the California Lawyers Association has known for quite some time—attorneys spend so much time taking care of others and do not take enough care of themselves,” California Lawyers Association CEO and Executive Director Oyango A. Snell said. “Alongside our partners at Krill Strategies, the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, and D.C. Bar, we commit to all attorneys that our focus has been and will always remain the health and well-being of attorneys. The data released in this study will further guide the strategies we are actively designing to mitigate these trends of self-harm and improve overall well-being.”

The findings were released in three phases, each with a unique focus. The two earlier papers were “Stress, Drink, Leave: An Examination of Gender-Specific Risk Factors for Mental Health Problems and Attrition Among Licensed Attorneys,” published in May 2021, and “People, Professionals, and Profit Centers: The Connection Between Lawyer Well-being and Employer Values,” published in June 2022.

FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Key findings from the February report on suicide include:

  • Lawyers were twice as likely as the general population to think about suicide.
  • Perceived stress was the number one predictor of suicidal thoughts. Those with high stress were 22 times more likely to think about suicide than lawyers with low stress. 
  • Loneliness and being over-committed to work increased the likeliness of suicidal thoughts threefold and twofold, respectively. Prior mental health diagnoses also increased the risk of suicidal ideation.
  • Male lawyers were twice as likely to contemplate suicide, unlike the general population, where women experience higher levels of suicidal ideation. 
  • Lawyers who contemplated suicide blamed working in the legal profession for contributing to mental health problems, substance use, and feelings of burnout.

The study recommends legal employers and other stakeholders consider the following:

  • Deploying a two-fold strategy to reduce stress in lawyers and enhance their stress tolerance.
  • Factoring in all options for mitigating stress, including shifting work culture.
  • Making collaboration and regular social interactions in the work environment more of a priority.
  • Avoiding reliance on alcohol-based events as a primary means of increasing socialization and connection.

By raising awareness of the notable downsides of being too committed to one’s work, encouraging lawyers to set appropriate boundaries in their lives, and reframing notions of success, the legal profession may be able to temper the harmful effects of work overcommitment, the paper’s authors said.

CLA’S WELLNESS FOCUS

In 2020, CLA established its Health and Wellness Committee, which provides programming for lawyer and law student wellness. Topics include general health, mental health, and substance abuse. 

Chaired by Sara Rief, the committee is trying to center networking events on healthier activities like hikes and yoga rather than alcohol-centered happy hours.

CLA President Jeremy M. Evans told the Daily Journal legal newspaper that these and other initiatives help draw attention to the mental health issues in the profession.

“Anybody who practices law knows this is a tough business,” he said. “What we do is admirable, but also, there is a need to take a step back and find a balance.”