Survey finds deluge of mental health issues among state’s lawyers

One in 10 attorneys report suicidal thoughts, more than half reported regularly abusing alcohol

By: - April 17, 2023 6:55 am

More than a quarter of those surveyed, 28%, said they were considering an exit from the legal industry. (Getty Images)

Mental health, burnout, and substance abuse issues pervade the state’s corps of attorneys, according to a survey released by the New Jersey State Bar Association.

One in 10 of the 1,643 lawyers surveyed reported suicidal thoughts — more than twice the national average for U.S. adults recorded by the 2021 National Survey of Drug Use and Health— and 56% reported regular alcohol abuse.

“Something’s got to give here. We’ve got to do better now that we know better,” said Jeralyn Lawrence, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association.

A supermajority, 68%, reported feeling anxiety in the two weeks preceding the survey, and just under half (49%) said they felt moderate or severe burnout and feelings of isolation.

More than a quarter of those surveyed, 28%, said they were considering an exit from the legal industry.

The figures, which show a prevalence of mental health problems that far exceeds what is seen in most other fields, come amid a historic shortage of Superior Court judges and an erosion of traditional work-life boundaries spurred by increasing digitization.

“The stress of litigators is well known within my field. I can’t speak for other lawyers, but between deadlines and the rules and trials, it is an extremely stressful field,” said Sen. Jon Bramnick (R-Union), a personal injury attorney who sits on the chamber’s judiciary committee.

Young attorneys, solo practitioners, and those working at small law firms are more likely to suffer from mental health ailments than their senior peers or those at large firms.

Majorities reported long working hours, including on weekends, and a feeling that firms expect their employees to be available outside of regular hours.

A little under half (39%) said they felt uncomfortable taking time off, and those who said so were 18 times more likely to report depression than peers who felt otherwise.

Sen. Jon Bramnick, a personal injury attorney, said the “stress of litigators is well known within my field.” (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

Support for attorneys

The report includes a list of wide-ranging recommendations for law firms, the judiciary, and affinity bars to reverse the decline in attorneys’ mental health, and it appears the courts have already acceded to some of the requests.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner will convene a Supreme Court committee on mental health in the legal field, according to Lawrence, who said the chief justice agreed to that recommendation “on the spot” shortly after hearing it.

“At a recent meeting with the bar association, the Supreme Court conveyed it will form a committee — comprised of court officials, members of the bar, and other experts — to examine mental health challenges facing attorneys and judges alike,” said Pete McAleer, the judiciary’s communications director.

Court officials are still reviewing the report’s other recommendations, McAleer said, and have scheduled an event on attorney wellness and mental health ailments among law practitioners in early May.

Bramnick signaled the Legislature would defer any action until they received requests from Rabner.

“I don’t want to get ahead of the chief justice. I want to hear what he has to say and what he’d want us to do,” he said.

The bar association is also requesting changes to the character and fitness examination lawyers must take.

A question on it requires attorneys to disclose any conditions — like substance and alcohol abuse or mental and emotional disorders — that could affect their ability to practice law and to describe the treatment they’re receiving for those conditions. This discourages attorneys from seeking treatment for mental health issues, the association says.

Jeralyn Lawrence, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association

Lawrence said numerous colleagues told her they had deferred seeking care for mental health issues in law school because they knew they would have to disclose that treatment and possibly jeopardize their future employment.

“To think that we have an impediment in our practice to mental health treatment, that’s painful,” she said.

A separate question on the same form asks attorneys whether they have exhibited in the past five years any conduct that would undercut their ability to practice law. Lawrence said that question is more appropriate.

Other recommendations in the report seek to address mental health issues among legal practitioners by removing administrative sources of stress.

It asked the court to make changes to speed fee arbitration proceedings that attorneys must complete before suing clients over non-payment of fees and allow attorneys some way of responding to negative online reviews they say have become increasingly damaging as more and more clients choose attorneys based on online reviews.

Such responses are currently barred by rules of professional conduct imposed on attorneys by the courts.

The bar also asked the state to create a pathway for disbarred attorneys to return to practicing law.

New Jersey is one of only eight American states where attorneys can be permanently disbarred. Rabner in June convened a committee to examine whether disbarred New Jersey attorneys should be given a second chance and how long they should wait to get it.

“Lawyers are human beings, and we make mistakes,” Lawrence said. “We’re not out here championing for thieves and fraudsters. But we’re human, and we need a process that acknowledges that.”


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.