7 Healers and Lawyers Offer Keys to Overcoming the Stress of a Big Law

As part of this, we spoke with lawyers who struggled with depression, and after taking some time to address their mental health issues, we went on to lead successful careers.

Attrition is the No. 1 warning sign that law firm culture is putting pressure on the workforce, they said. They also provided insights on how to overcome feelings of anxiety and powerlessness that can crumble on lawyers who have significant responsibilities with the client.

Law firms have offered on-call psychologists and welfare initiatives, such as free access to the Peloton training platform, to help their employees feel better about work-life balance.

But many lawyers said those efforts only go so far, as the law firm’s business model is built around billable hours, and lawyers are often expected to work 15 hours a day or more. Industry reviews also show the range of cultural and structural obstacles that lawyers face in seeking help.

A 2020 survey on lawyers’ welfare by the New York State Bar Association, which has more than 3,000 respondents, indicated that only 8 percent of them have looked at employee assistance programs when dealing with issues including mental health concerns.

Lawyers have indicated their concerns about whether these programs are truly providing confidential services, and whether it will reflect on their abilities, according to an October report by the NY SBA Task Force on the Welfare of Lawyers.

But there is legal protection for employees who seek accommodations or leave for mental health issues, under both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Mariette Clardy said many employees could use the ADA’s safeguards, for example, to seek arrangements for mental health issues, such as trying to negotiate more time for tasks, making flexible work arrangements to seek treatment during work hours, and pushing toward work options. from afar. Davis, a mental health attorney with her own clinic, M.L. Claardi Law LLC. She added that in addition to legal protection, companies can also work with their employees to offer arrangements that suit their needs.

“Just because the right resources may not be available, it doesn’t mean you can’t advocate for yourself with your employer,” she said.

During our reporting period, several attorneys have provided practical advice that readers can find useful to consider when approaching business. Even though they were all different, one theme remained constant: It’s never too late to find something else to do, or even just pick up the phone and ask for advice. They said burying your problems with more work is a recipe for disaster.

Start early and don’t wait

7 Healers and Lawyers Offer Keys to Overcoming the Stress of a Big Law
Gavin Alexander. 
Courtesy photo.

When you’re struggling at work, it only increases stress if you don’t already have an insurance therapist or psychologist, says Gavin Alexander, director of wellness at Jackson Lewis.

“You don’t want to look when you’re in a crisis,” Alexander said.

Alexander recommended that you start talking to a therapist even if you’re doing well, or reach out to your state’s attorney assistance program to develop relationships.

One of the things that helped Alexander when he was at Ropes & Gray as a partner in the company was working to arrange reduced working hours. He said the company was fully supportive of the move.

“They would rather have some of you, than none of you,” said Alexander.

He also said that working arrangements for reduced working hours do not need to be permanent, rather they can be for short periods of time. “I am a huge fan of saying, ‘Hey, I need a month where I will work a little less,’” he said. “I have some depression or some symptoms of anxiety where I need some time to recover.”

He said there are also extensive outpatient programs available for lawyers to learn coping mechanisms to help them deal with stress.

“I say these things, as I really want to stress that these are tools to help you recover and help you become great again. This is not an indication that you are a failure or a lost cause.”

Alexander highlighted the Lawyers Depression Project as a resource for lawyers with mental health issues. It is a non-profit organization that hosts and facilitates free online confidential peer support groups for attorneys and legal professionals around the world.

Finding ways to say “no”

7 Healers and Lawyers Offer Keys to Overcoming the Stress of a Big Law
Ellen Ostrow. 
Courtesy photo

Elaine Ostrow, an executive life coach, says law firms can fill up with lawyers who make an already stressful environment even more stressful. But that doesn’t mean you should allow these people to affect your quality of life.

Ostrow says setting good boundaries, managing expectations, and developing effective ways to say “no” and don’t burn bridges, can help a lawyer deal with a mountain of workplace demands that may exceed your resources.

But if “screaming” is making your life a living hell, Ostrow says it’s important to talk to anyone who supports colleagues in your workplace — the practice group leader or members of the professional development team.

“It’s important not to keep working with people who push you to the ground,” she said.

She also said that it can be helpful to constantly assess whether the work you do is right for you – another factor that contributes to burnout and feelings of depression. “Do you feel bad that work makes you sit alone and write summaries when you manage to be around other people?” She said.

Ostrow also explained that law firms tend to have “punishment avoidance” cultures, in which lawyers spend their energy worrying about not keeping their working hours, not making mistakes, and not irritating someone. But this kind of thinking can be harmful to your health.

She said there are partners who focus more on mentoring and rewarding improvements. “Try to find these people,” she said.

Get enough sleep

7 Healers and Lawyers Offer Keys to Overcoming the Stress of a Big Law
Alejandro Guadarrama 
Courtesy photo.

Alejandro Guadarrama says that not getting good rest is a warning sign of mental health problems. He remembers when he was a co-worker at Skadden, he would often wake up at 3 a.m., his mind groaning about work responsibilities.

“I didn’t think about why I woke up,” Guadarrama said. “I didn’t care.”

Guadarrama said the constant grinding of the big law has desensitized many lawyers to the dangers a serious lifestyle can bring. As a colleague, before becoming a consultant at Skadden in 2017, Guadarrama rarely saw his colleagues on vacation. And when they did, they kept going.

So when Guadarama had to galvanize the courage to tell his colleagues about his depression and multiple sclerosis diagnosis, it was the hardest thing he had done in his life, he said.

Most people think about going to the doctor in terms of physical exams, but Guadarrama said mental exams should be done, too.

But if you feel you need help, Guadarrama stressed the importance of talking to people about it and pointed to secret attorney assistance programs, which he said connect attorneys with assistance.

Understand your agency

7 Healers and Lawyers Offer Keys to Overcoming the Stress of a Big Law
Will Meyerhofer. 
Courtesy photo.

Will Mayerhofer, a New York City therapist and former Sullivan and Cromwell attorney, said he likes to encourage clients to reframe their thinking about work.

Lawyers often feel trapped. But he says to remember that the big law was a conscious choice that lawyers made that they could think of as a stepping stone.

“These partners who work with you to death are not paternal figures who refuse to acknowledge your hard work and deny your appreciation,” Mayrhofer said. “They’re not your fucking parents! They’re just a law firm, working at them to make money, and advance their careers.”

He said that just as lawyers have positioned themselves in senior positions in law, they can also change their minds.

“You don’t control all the variables, but you can make choices, and one of them is to leave and do something else, even if there are obvious challenges in taking that step as well.”

Think about taking a vacation

7 Healers and Lawyers Offer Keys to Overcoming the Stress of a Big Law
Regina Colantonio. 
Courtesy of Regina Colantonio.

Lawyers acknowledge that taking extended leave from work can be a logistical challenge, and that it comes with its own stress about career prospects. But for some, it has offered a lifeline and a vision of what’s possible beyond the stress of billing hours.

Regina Colantonio said she took 12 weeks off in April 2020, after feeling pushed to the brink by a work-related mental health crisis while caring for her two young sons, who were 3 and 6 at the time, all confined to Home in Philadelphia early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Colantonio, who was working at the time at Cozen O’Connor, took some initial steps early on, making the move possible, she said. In 2018, she joined the group Women Interested in Leaving the Law, or WILL, through which she met others who had taken similar leave.

“The will group was very helpful,” Collantonio said. “It helped me have the courage to reach out to the HR official first to tell them, ‘I need to do this,’ and secondly, to ask them, ‘How can that happen?’

She said her company’s HR team helped her navigate the protocols for taking time off under these circumstances, such as filling out paperwork and getting a medical provider’s approval. She also contacted the partner she was working with to inform him. She said the leave then had to be approved for a few weeks at a time, depending on the company’s insurance requirements, and with her Medicare provider still signed.

She said that taking this extended leave helped her get a reprieve, seek help, and take care of her children. It also gave her a sense of professional clarity – she realized that the field of work was not suitable, and she and her company decided to separate from each other.

“It’s a difficult profession that he left despite the terrorism and the mental health problems it caused,” she said. “The money, the years you worked to get there, the level of prestige you feel in the profession.”

“But if I didn’t take this leave, I don’t know where I would be – it gave me the courage to not work as a lawyer since, something I don’t know I could have done,” she said.

Contact the company

7 Healers and Lawyers Offer Keys to Overcoming the Stress of a Big Law
Michael Kasdan, partner at Wiggin and Dana LLP. 
Courtesy of Michael Kasdan.

Michael Kasdan has been a practicing attorney for more than two decades, assuring the profession’s productivity standards and the rules of silence around which version is considered personal. But he said that when a severe mental crisis hit him in June last year, he knew he had to be honest.

He spoke to his partner Wiggin and Dana, who worked with him to come up with a solution — which was on time off work for several months — and helped him connect it to others at the company, he said.

“I would say, find a trusted colleague or supervisor, and go to them and explain what is happening,” Kasdan said. “We think we’re the only ones suffering, but this wouldn’t be the first time that person had heard from someone.”

Kasdan acknowledged that although more lawyers are speaking out about mental health issues, young lawyers in particular may have legitimate concerns about the potential repercussions of speaking up. He said it is the responsibility of assertive leadership and partners to demonstrate an understanding of mental health issues and speak about them themselves.

“There is a lot of pressure on young lawyers, and there are different pressures on senior lawyers,” Kasdan said. “I’ve come to believe after I’ve been through this, that it’s really important for leaders to be open about it.”

See Lawyer Assistance Programs

Joseph Milovitch, partner at Queen Emmanuel, said attorney assistance programs are often associated with state bar associations and are usually led by mental health professionals trained to provide support and resources to attorneys.

In his role as the firm’s director of wellbeing, Milowic encourages attorneys to seek out LAPs, who can refer attorneys to therapists and psychiatrists who work with people in the legal profession. Such programs are also a network for lawyers to meet with others in their profession who have similar mental health and substance abuse issues.

LAP groups also conduct regular mental health surveys of lawyers. In 2016, the American Bar Association’s Committee on LAPs released a report based on a study of 13,000 practicing attorneys, finding that as many as 36% could be described as ‘problem drinkers’ and that 28% were dealing with depression.

Milowic, who is also the co-founder of the peer support network The Lawyers Depression Project, described LAPs as an untapped resource.

“I think sometimes people are afraid that their job will be in jeopardy if they ask for help,” he said. “My general message to young lawyers is to prioritize yourself – your health and well-being are more important than any project or issue you will be working on.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or has had thoughts of harming themself or taking their own life, get help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (dial 988) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations. Help is also available through the Crisis Text Line — just text “HOME” to 741741. For lawyer-specific inquiries, you can find confidential, live assistance through Lawyer Assistance Programs offered through your state bar, as well as through the Lawyers Depression Project.


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