Why Lawyer Well-Being Can Impact Access To Justice

By Aebra Coe | August 9, 2019, 8:28 PM EDT

Promoting mental health and well-being among public interest attorneys goes beyond creating healthy work environments and has a direct impact on the quality and availability of legal services accessible to low-income people, panelists said Friday at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco.

Pointing to research that has shown high instances of alcohol abuse disorders and mental health issues across the legal profession, panelists discussed the importance of focusing on well-being in public interest settings where lawyers are offering vital services to communities that may not otherwise have access to the justice system.

Anne Brafford, a former Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP partner who is now a consultant and researcher on lawyer well-being, said that creating cultures and institutions where mental and physical health are paramount allows attorneys to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

“There are studies showing we have this issue of potential alcohol use disorders, depression, anxiety, elevated stress, work addiction, not enough sleep, high suicide rate. These are issues we’re seeing in the profession,” she said. “If lawyers are burned out, stressed out, drugged out, they can’t contribute what they’re capable of contributing to the world.”

Another of the panelists, longtime California public defender Jose Varela, currently public defender of Marin County, said he began to notice the importance of promoting lawyer well-being after witnessing the high burnout and turnover rates of attorneys in his public defender office.

“One of the things I realized, every time I lost an attorney with five to seven years of experience is that I was losing a three-quarter of a million dollar investment and I was losing experience level,” Varela said. “For me it was an issue of equity for our clients to ensure that I kept that attorney with nearly 10 years of experience so they could be rejuvenated and stay and help poor people.”

Varela said he himself encountered mental health issues after years of working as a public defender, and has been able to use that experience to help others and create a better workplace.

He’d just finished up a child torture death penalty case when his body manifested some of the stress he was experiencing by trembling and he went to a doctor. The doctor immediately said he needed to get into counseling to cope with the stress and that he needed to improve his physical health by eating better and sleeping more.

“I literally didn’t know what was happening with my body,” he said of the confusion he felt at the time.

After regaining his physical health, Varela said he took up playing guitar and found it to be a soothing activity that helped relieve stress.

The research shows that such mastering experiences are good anti-stress tools for people with intellectually challenging jobs, Brafford said. Passive activities like watching television may not be helpful when such professionals seek to unwind, while things like learning a new skill or playing sports can often help more.

Seeking out and finding activities that are positive, enjoyable and fulfilling outside work is vital for all attorneys who want to keep burnout and stress under control, she explained.

When people remain preoccupied with their work and the stresses involved with it, failing to “turn off the stress response” for a period of time, they are then less equipped to handle stress when they encounter it because they are in a more exhausted and more vulnerable state, Brafford said.

“It is this vicious cycle. The more you remain preoccupied and don’t build up your resources, the less and less you can handle the challenges that are going on,” she said. “[Working on well-being] is not the icing on the cake, it’s part of the cake. Staying fully well means turning off the stress response for a while so your brain and your body can be their best.”

--Editing by Emily Kokoll.