It’s hardly news to say that the collective mental health of the legal profession is under severe strain. The results of the recent ALM Intelligence 2022 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey confirm what has long been true: the situation remains grave.
On the other hand, there is some indication, both in the annual ALM survey data and elsewhere, that law firms are taking mental health concerns more seriously than in the past.
The 2022 ALM survey was administered to more than 3400 respondents working at law firms of all sizes. The survey pool was global, but 79% of respondents were based in the United States. Respondents were 52% female and 48% male, with less than 1% identifying as transgender or other gender. 85% of respondents were White (non-Hispanic), 5% Hispanic or Latino, 4% Asian, 3% Black, and 3% Other/Multiracial.
Broadly experienced negative mental health impact
The proportion of respondents who agree that mental health problems and substance abuse are at a “crisis level” in the legal industry has grown each year since 2019, reaching 44% in the most recent survey. On the question of whether mental health problems and substance abuse are worse in the legal industry than in other industries, 55% of respondents said yes, 36% don’t know, and only 9% said no.
35% of respondents said they personally feel depressed, and two-thirds reported having anxiety. Three-quarters reported that the profession has had a negative effect on their mental health over time. 64% reported that their personal relationships have suffered as a result of being a member of the legal profession. 19% answered yes to the question: “In your professional legal career, have you contemplated suicide?”
When asked to select factors that negatively impact their mental well-being, 72% of respondents selected “always on call/can’t disconnect,” 59% selected “billable hour pressures,” 57% pointed to “client demands,” and 55% selected “lack of sleep.”
Rising awareness of the problem
Even though the overall data are undeniably bleak, the survey does include some indications of progress. The proportion of respondents who agreed that their “workplace is a safe environment to raise concerns about mental health and substance abuse” has risen from 40% in 2019 to 45% in 2022. Still far too low, but at least moving in the right direction. The survey also indicates that more firms are taking tangible action to provide more comprehensive mental health support: in 2022, 61% of attorney respondents reported that their firm offered an Employee Assistance Program including assistance for mental health or substance abuse, up from 54% in 2019.
In addition, the survey suggests that COVID-related mental health pressures are starting to improve. 61% of respondents reported that the COVID pandemic had made their mental health worse, but this was down from 70% in 2021.
Mental health and return to office
Although some aspects of the survey might seem like “more of the same,” the section on Remote Work Environment is particularly timely, given that the profession remains in a tug of war over a return to the office. In a set of questions introduced for the first time in this survey, ALM asked respondents about the effect of “hybrid or remote work environments” on various elements of their professional and personal lives. The results are less than conclusive.
There was something approaching consensus on a few points. For example, 76% of respondents reported that remote work had decreased the quality of interpersonal relationships with colleagues and 62% said it had increased the quality of home-based personal relationships. 59% reported that remote work had increased their quality of life.
But the reported mental health effects were much less clear. 38% of respondents stated that remote work increased mental health, whereas 35% said it decreased mental health, and 27% reported no impact. On the question of whether hybrid or remote working environments increase or decrease the likelihood of professional burnout, 25% said increase, 33% said decrease, 25% answered “stay the same,” and 17% didn’t know.
Unfortunately, the published survey includes no breakdown of how these responses intersect with demographics, which is perhaps a missed opportunity.
For those who found that remote work flexibility relieved stress levels, the prospect of being forced to return to old ways of working inspires real anxiety. It will be interesting to observe over the coming months and years how the widespread desire of firm leadership to encourage (or enforce) return to office will interact with increased awareness of a responsibility to address mental health challenges.