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California Young Lawyers Association

Mental Health Issues and Substance Abuse Among New and Young Attorneys

By Chris McConkey

Rates of anxiety, depression, and harmful drinking are high in the legal profession, and especially high among its new generation. These issues harm attorneys and stifle the availability of affordable, high quality legal services. The legal profession has the opportunity—and perhaps the responsibility—to intervene in structural peculiarities that harm student and attorney health.

Last winter, the Journal of Addiction Medicine published findings from a national study of about 13,000 attorneys. The researchers found that 28% of respondents showed signs of depression, 23% showed signs of stress, and 19% showed signs of anxiety. The rates were even higher among new and young attorneys.

The study also found that 21% of attorneys demonstrate problematic drinking. The rate for attorneys in their first ten years of practice was 28%. Among those who self-identified their alcohol use as a problem, 44% reported that the issue began in the first 15 years of practice. The researchers therefore recommended that interventions target new attorneys.

Law schools and legal employers may have an ethical duty to prevent and treat avoidable stress, anxiety, and depression. These institutions create environments that unnecessarily wear on the health of law students and attorneys. Furthermore, creating environments where law students and attorneys can thrive personally as well as professionally benefits the public. Low- to moderate-income Californians desperately need, and all Californians rely on, effective representation.

In the meantime, the State Bar of California’s Lawyer Assistance Program (“LAP”) offers free and confidential screenings to attorneys who experience mental health and substance issues. Additionally, the American Bar Association offers resources for students, including a Substance Abuse & Mental Health Toolkit.

Enhancing the health of law students and attorneys—for their own sake—is the right thing to do. Furthermore, it serves the public by increasing the supply of effective legal services and empathy for others.

Chris McConkey is a Staff Attorney at OneJustice and member of the California Young Lawyers Association (CYLA) Board of Directors. This abridged article originally appeared in the November 2016 California Bar Journal.

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