Supporting Associates Amid Pandemic's Mental Health Toll
Law firms and their attorneys continue to face numerous challenges as they navigate the changing legal landscape during the time of COVID-19.
Many of these challenges are practical: court scheduling, case adjournments, remote work, client cultivation, virtual meetings and maintaining an engaging work environment. Many more of these challenges are harder to identify and affect attorneys' emotional and mental well-being.
As the pandemic continues, the issues attorneys are struggling with have changed.
Early in the pandemic, we found that attorneys voiced concerns over the unknown but adopted a "we'll get through this" attitude and did not seek assistance in increased numbers. The belief at the time was that the crisis would be over in a few months; it was something temporary and different, but we would return to normal shortly.
As time passed and the realization set in that the pandemic was not going away, additional issues began to surface and, in our experience, more attorneys started reaching out to lawyer assistance and well-being programs for help.
In recent months, younger lawyers in particular have reached out for assistance with increasing frequency. Younger associates that were hired just prior to the pandemic may not have had long to create connections with their co-workers. They may have moved to a new city for their job, and found themselves struggling with logistics and experiencing the loss of personal connections found in the office.
To compound this struggle, many new associates in large cities live and work in small apartments where there is physically no room to separate work from personal space. This leads to a breakdown of boundaries as work bleeds into all areas of an associate's life. There is no clocking out as the work is always visible, the laptop is always on, and email alerts are constantly going off.
Another layer to this challenge is having young children at home due to remote learning or closed child care centers. Finding time to work uninterrupted often means working when the children are sleeping — late nights or early mornings — which cuts into sleep, exercise and time spent with a partner.
Removing or reducing personal time to attend to lingering work matters can lead to feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and result in burnout. Physical health problems can arise due to lack of sleep and physical movement. Relationships may suffer because of the decreased time spent sharing experiences and time together.
Although it sounds counterintuitive, not having the daily commute to and from the office is also contributing to the loss of boundaries and feelings of overwhelm and burnout.
Many attorneys use the commute as downtime, a period at the start and the end of the day to have for themselves, and an important transition in the day. Without a commute, that time is lost. Many report that they have filled their commute time with work, making an already long workday even longer.
As the pandemic and remote work will continue for the next several months, law firms can take steps to mitigate these challenges for their associates.
Modeling desired behaviors from the top down sends a strong message that the firm takes the well-being of its associates seriously. Partners and senior associates who can acknowledge their own struggles during this time can create paths to seek assistance, encourage help-seeking behaviors, and provide practical supports for their younger colleagues.
Tangible actions will reduce the stigma around help-seeking behaviors, create connections between the associates and those in supervisory positions through shared experiences, and give permission for associates to seek the assistance they need.
As an example, if leaders are encouraging staff to put down their work during set periods of time each day, perhaps to mimic the time spent on a daily commute, then leaders must also calendar this downtime for themselves and follow through. This means no calls, emails or meetings scheduled during these times.
When supervisors are seen putting aside their work for specific periods of time each day, associates will believe it is OK for them to do so as well.
Open dialogue of the challenges facing lawyers via dedicated presentations and virtual discussions are also effective tools to support associates and encourage help-seeking behaviors. Regularly sharing educational resources and actionable tips to reduce stress and anxiety is also helpful, and there are many resources available online, including the American Bar Association's Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers.
The ABA toolkit was developed following a 2016 study that found a concerning number of attorneys were suffering from substance use and mental health issues as well as elevated reporting of work addiction, sleep deprivation, work-life conflict and chronic loneliness — issues that have been exacerbated due to the pandemic and remote work. Firms can find useful and effective plans, policies and practices that will directly affect attorney well-being.
Facilitating personal connections is yet another way for firms to support their associates during the pandemic. Through virtual social hours, personal outreach to remote employees, and encouraging collaboration on work assignments, firms can provide avenues for relationships to develop between associates that may not have been developed otherwise during these times.
It is worth noting that the New York State Bar Association's Lawyer Assistance Program has experienced an increase in calls for assistance over the past year. These calls have included attorneys in small and solo firms, as well as from those in assigned counsel positions.
These requests for help mirror many of the challenges BigLaw associates are experiencing, including increased feelings of isolation, anxiety and burnout. Additionally, as the winter in the Northeast continues to drag on without the opportunity to vacation in warmer climates, attorneys are also reporting an increase in feelings related to depression and hopelessness.
The New Jersey Lawyers Assistance Program has also seen requests for help change over the course of the pandemic. Its director, William Kane, told us he has seen an increase in attorneys, specifically younger attorneys, reaching out for assistance regarding mental health issues over these past months.
To provide support to their associates, he recommends firms promote collegiality and connection with their remote staff, provide confidential and professional support and guidance, and produce in-house well-being conferences. These activities reduce the stigma surrounding help-seeking behaviors, which is still a tremendous roadblock for many.
These issues are not isolated to attorneys practicing at large firms. Across the country, in nearly every professional setting, attorneys are experiencing these same challenges. Isolation, anxiety, boundary issues, overwhelm and burnout are being reported in higher numbers no matter the work setting the attorney is in.
While an increasing number of large firms have staffed well-being director positions in recent years, many practicing attorneys do not have in-house resources available. For these attorneys, there are lawyer assistance programs located in every state, which provide confidential assistance to those in the legal profession.
These programs provide evaluations, counseling services, referrals to vetted therapists, mentoring, peer support, educational programs and connections to lawyer support groups. Many offer services at no cost.
Providing support and assistance to attorneys struggling with their emotional and mental health should be a priority for employers large and small, now during the pandemic and after, when the crisis is over. As noted in the ABA toolkit, focusing on attorney well-being is good for business, good for clients, and the right thing to do.
Stacey A. Whiteley is director of the New York State Bar Association's Lawyer Assistance Program.
Robin Belleau is director of well-being at Kirkland & Ellis LLP and former executive director of the Illinois Lawyers' Assistance Program.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
 The ABA's Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers is available here.
 A comprehensive list of programs can be found here: Directory of Lawyer Assistance Programs.