New Lawyers

Disbar the Stigma: Let’s Talk Mental Health

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By Jake Zindulka
Chair, New Lawyers Section, California Lawyers Association

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health is a central part of our overall health and wellness. It impacts how we feel, think, and act, including towards colleagues, clients, opposing counsel, and judges.

Mental health struggles among lawyers are widespread. A study found that “roughly half of practicing attorneys are experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, with approximately 30% of those falling in the mild range and nearly 20% falling in the moderate/severe range.”[1] In addition, “over half of the attorneys screened positive for risky drinking, and 30% screened for high-risk hazardous drinking (which is interpreted as alcohol abuse or possible dependence).” Id. “Women are experiencing meaningfully worse mental health than men and are drinking more hazardously.” Id.

Jake Zindulka

The stress and demands of our profession contribute to the data above. Those issues are then added to anything else happening in our life. That is why it is so important to pay attention to our mental health.

Unfortunately, due to the stigma around metal health, many lawyers do not seek professional help or talk about their struggles with others. It’s not easy to do—especially as a new lawyer. There are often concerns among lawyers, including myself, that seeking help or reaching out will somehow impact their career prospects. But to seek help is to confront a challenge. It demonstrates strength and courage—not weakness. Vulnerability is likewise a strength, as well as a vital characteristic of effective leaders.

If you have concerns about mental health or mental illnesses (e.g., depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder), seek professional help. Contact your health care provider about available options (check out this article from the National Institute of Mental Health on how to talk to health care providers about mental health services). There are several mental health specialists, like licensed clinical social workers, that can help. Not all therapy is long-term (i.e., the Sopranos). It could focus on developing skills to improve your mental health or ways to respond to triggers, not necessarily analyzing your past. Your provider may recommend support groups—spaces where individuals, often struggling with similar or related matters, share their stories and experiences to help reduce isolation and loneliness. I’ve sought help from mental health professionals, and it helped me tremendously. It’s akin to someone seeking legal help (there are also similar confidentiality rules).

When it comes to self-care, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Try something out. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Here are a few tips on improving mental health that I’ve incorporated in my life:

  • When you’re in the middle of a stressful or difficult episode, recall a positive or fun experience from your past. I like to think about or look at photos from trips I’ve taken with my wife.
  • Avoid self-criticism. Laugh at yourself after making an error or a mistake at work. It’s normal to mess up, we’re human. Plus, even sophisticated computers malfunction or make up law. Just don’t commit malpractice or get sanctioned.
  • Leave the grid (at least for a bit). Schedule time—even 30 minutes—to turn off all your devices. I often leave my phone at home when on walks in the morning or at night. Consider turning off notifications for at least some apps (I love NYT Cooking Instagram posts, but I don’t need to see them in real time).
  • Schedule time each day, maybe a few 6ths or 10ths of an hour, to do something that you enjoy, like playing an instrument, creative writing, drawing, learning a new language, or gardening.
  • Have a transition ritual, a time to unwind from the workday. I like to listen to music (The Smiths, Joy Division, Parquet Courts, TV on the Radio to name a few) while driving and every other second of the day. It helps me forget about all the legal briefs, case law, pressing deadlines, upcoming hearings, and pending responses to opposing counsel. If you work remote, consider walking outside for a few minutes or replicating what you did when commuting from an office (e.g., listing to music in the car, reading on the train).
  • Avoid frequent alcohol and other substances (excluding medication prescribed by a licensed psychiatrist, etc.) Often substance use aggravates or worsens any underlying mental health struggles. Because water is sometimes boring, consider a mocktail or non-alcoholic beer when at a legal mixer or networking event. 
  • Stay active. Regular exercise can have a major impact on your mental and emotional health. It relieves stress, improves memory, and helps you sleep better. Even 30 mins per day may have a material impact.
  • Sleep at least 7 hours a night and stick to a sleep schedule. I’m able to get more done at work after a full night sleep instead of pulling an all-nighter. Cutting off screen time close to bedtime can also improve sleep.
  • Eat well (e.g., veggies, fruits, nuts/seeds, legumes) and drink plenty of water. It can improve your mood, energy levels, and general well-being.
  • Connect with others. I’ve really enjoyed becoming involved in the California Lawyers Association as well as the San Diego County Bar Association. It provides an opportunity to build relationships with attorneys other than your colleagues. Also consider activities outside the legal community (e.g., recreational sport league or book clubs)—sometimes lawyers spend too much time in a legal bubble.  
  • Be okay saying “no” to new tasks, projects, or volunteer opportunities. As a new attorney, it’s difficult to turn down any offer to take on a new role, especially in bar associations or organizations. But it’s important to avoid over-committing yourself, which will likely increase stress and decrease performance. 
  • Talk about your mental health struggles with friends or family, even at a high level of generality—your statements don’t have to satisfy the Twombly standard. Isolation often worsens the underlying issue.
  • Advocate for wellness programs at your firm or organization. We should continually have an open and honest conservation about mental health in the legal profession.
  • Don’t be hard on yourself for any missteps along your mental health journey. Focus on next steps and ways to improve your wellness. I like to incorporate the tips above, but often miss several any given day.

Check out all the outstanding CLA videos, articles, and programs on health and wellness. The State Bar of California also runs the Lawyer Assistance Program. Their confidential program offers free assessments of your situation and can assist you in getting the help you need, whether it’s for mental health issues, substance use issues, or career transition.

Mental health should be a top priority for all lawyers and legal professionals. Disbar the stigma: seek help when needed, talk to family, friends, or colleagues about your situation, and support others.

If you are thinking about harming yourself or attempting suicide, tell someone who can help right away or dial 911 in an emergency. You can also dial 988 for the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention & Mental Health Crisis Lifeline (press 2 for Spanish). Click here for mental health resources in California.


[1] Groundbreaking Study Focuses on Attorney Mental Health and Well-Being, Los Angeles Times, August, 25, 2021, accessible at https://www.latimes.com/b2b/law/story/2021-08-25/groundbreaking-study-focuses-on-attorney-mental-health-and-well-being.


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