Pandemic Fuels Mental Health Crisis For Young Attorneys

By Anna Sanders
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Law360 (January 25, 2021, 4:26 PM EST) -- A few weeks ago, attorney Choi Portis felt frustrated. As the 34-year-old deputy general counsel for Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department conducted a deposition remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic, technical issues kept getting in the way.

"Conducting depositions via Zoom, that's a different type of stressor than attorneys are used to," said Portis, who also serves as chair-elect of the American Bar Association's Young Lawyers Division. "It was really stressful for me because we're trying to get this case done before the close of discovery, and we had a witness who was having super, super bad technology issues."

Portis is also a new mom; she had her daughter a few months into the pandemic. But, with a supportive fiancé, she still considers herself fortunate among young attorneys when it comes to handling added stress in the time of COVID-19, she said.

"A lot of young lawyers struggle with the work-life balance already — and especially if they are now working from home and are isolated," she said. "I would not be surprised if the instances of drug and alcohol use do go up, because while some of us have been able to deal with this pandemic in a positive way, some young lawyers probably have not been able to be so lucky."

Young attorneys have faced unique mental health challenges since the coronavirus pandemic upended the legal industry and placed restrictions on how and where they could work, experts said. Often isolated from friends and family, less-established lawyers may lack the same support structures that law firm leaders, partners or older colleagues benefit from, making them more susceptible to depression, anxiety, stress, substance use and other mental health struggles that are already pervasive in the legal profession.

Many young attorneys are forced to navigate an uncertain job market created by the pandemic, hustle through uncertainty to meet their billable hour requirements or find ways to build their reputation despite the crisis. Without the support of their law firms and employers, the pandemic could have a devastating impact on the mental health of the next generation of attorneys, experts said.

"Living in a time of fear and uncertainty while adjusting to the challenges of establishing new routines, working remotely, physically isolated from colleagues and concerns about future job security all contribute to increased mental health issues," said Eileen Travis, executive director of the Lawyer Assistance Program at the New York City Bar Association.

Twenty-eight percent of attorneys struggle with some level of depression, according to a study released in 2016 by the American Bar Association's Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation that surveyed nearly 13,000 attorneys. That's compared with less than one-tenth of the general population.

The survey also found that 23% of attorneys experience symptoms of stress, 21% are considered problem drinkers and 19% demonstrate symptoms of anxiety.

But the most "surprising and alarming statistic" from the research was that "the most affected by mental health and substance use disorders are young lawyers in their first to 10th year of practice," Travis said.

"Navigating an uncertain job market during the pandemic adds to the already high rates of stress, anxiety and depression," she said. "The pandemic challenges young lawyers' creativity to find guidance and support."

The increase in stress is more acute for attorneys who work with traumatized populations, like those dealing with immigration issues, domestic violence and child abuse, Travis said. The program she runs has seen an increase in requests to work with lawyers to promote mental health — and more attorneys willing to engage in group support.

Lawyers and law students have also reported issues with motivation, focus and concentration during the pandemic.

"This pandemic has really reduced the resiliency zone for everyone and disproportionately for younger attorneys," said Jarrett Green, a consultant and former litigator who has practiced at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP. "Challenges they would have been able to withstand before the pandemic can sometimes be crushing."

Green and Rebecca Simon, a former Southwestern Law School professor, consult with law firms, corporations and law schools to improve the mental health of their lawyers and workers. They said the uncertainty of the pandemic has particularly impacted the mental health of younger lawyers, as opposed to partners with years under their belt and a safety net of friends and family.

"A lot of young lawyers are seeing the volatility in the legal market and feeling especially uncertain about their own prospects," Simon said. "They face more challenges, more catastrophizing and the same requirements and sometimes more pressure because firms are trying to look for who's on the chopping block during the economic recession."

Most firms still expect their attorneys to bill at the same level, Green added.

"It's very anxiety-inducing to try and build your professional reputation, the first year or two of your career, under these circumstances because there's not these years of reputation to fall back on," he said.

Portis added that many other young attorneys are out of work.

"A lot of young lawyers are facing being without a job or actually trying to create their own law firm because their law firms have taken their positions away because of the pandemic," she said.

While many younger attorneys who don't have children can avoid the added stress of juggling remote learning and a full plate of work, experts say this makes them more likely to experience social isolation.

"Many of them went to law school or are from a different state than the offices that they ended up in," said Robin Belleau, firmwide director of wellbeing at Kirkland & Ellis LLP and a licensed mental health and substance abuse professional and former lawyer. "Especially the attorneys that started in October or November — they had very little lead time to create any sort of professional or social network."

Their isolation has only compounded when law firms have had to table major inclusion efforts because of the pandemic, according to Phyllis Wan, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Holland & Hart LLP in Colorado.

"I talk to a lot of our associates who are young and single — they may have just moved to Denver, they're in their late 20s — they're having a really tough time because they're alone, isolated and lonely," Wan said. "They're not going out, and they don't have a built-in social network with a partner or kids — they're really struggling in their own way."

Belleau, who provides confidential help to Kirkland attorneys and staff, said she got more calls about isolation from those working in larger cities, like New York, where there were significant lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, younger attorneys could rely on each other for support through the stresses of life and work. But experts said remote work necessitated by the pandemic created a vacuum.

"People didn't necessarily know the degree to which they relied on aspects of their environment just to help them get through on a day-to-day basis," said Joel G. Kosman, an attorney turned psychotherapist whose practice largely serves lawyers and other patients in the legal profession.

Speaking generally about his practice, Kosman said that for younger attorneys concerned about job performance and other issues, having colleagues around to connect with "was really important from a mental health standpoint."

"Without having other people around them who are in similar situations, there's a void, and they're left wondering how they're doing," he said. "I don't think that can be replicated, even with a very caring and concerned and open spouse or partner."

Experts said law firms and businesses should encourage partners to reach out to younger attorneys and associates to foster connection and community. They said firms should also reduce their billable requirements or allow attorneys to credit hours they spend seeking mental health help.

But, more than anything else, firms should adjust their culture to the "new normal" created by the pandemic — and allow attorneys to have down time.

"Either you're doom-scrolling or you're answering emails, and it can be very difficult, when we're not leaving an office at the end of the day, to have that separation," said Alanna Clair, a partner at Dentons who has written about attorney mental health.

Firms also shouldn't employ the same old strategies to galvanize younger associates, because micromanaging and pessimism don't necessarily inspire hard work, experts said.

"The same fear-based motivation tactics that these partners have used for a generation — and that they're continuing to deploy and employ during the pandemic — were not really working well in good times and are incredibly dangerous in these times," Simon said.

Ultimately, experts said, employers must encourage attorneys of all ages to ask for help.

"I think it is important to send a message that people are encouraged to seek out help — now and always," said Joseph Milowic III, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP and founder of the grassroots Lawyers Depression Project. "You are loved, and your health and happiness are important."

--Editing by Aaron Pelc and Katherine Rautenberg.

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