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Mental health, stress have one-in-four women lawyers mulling career change

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  • Women report higher rates of overcommittment and work-family conflict than men
  • Women lawyers also see fewer opportunities for promotion

(Reuters) - Patrick Krill, a lawyer turned substance abuse counselor who for years has advised law firms on well-being matters, is no stranger to the legal profession's mental health challenges.

But even he was shocked by this finding in a report he co-authored that was released Wednesday: 25% of women lawyers surveyed said they were considering leaving the legal profession because of mental health issues, burnout or stress.

That, he said, is "a crisis-level number."

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A smaller but significant portion of male respondents – 17% – are also considering leaving law because of mental health concerns, the report found.

What fuels that gender gap? Women were more likely to be overcommitted and to have work-family conflicts than men, the survey found, but less likely to think that they'd get promoted.

Law firms began discussing mental health more openly after a 2016 report led by Krill showed widespread issues and provided data to back up longtime anecdotal concerns. That report, one of the first major studies on lawyer mental health, found one-third of lawyers were problem drinkers and that 28% had some level of depression, much higher than the U.S. average.

For Wednesday's survey, Krill and psychologist Justin Anker of the University of Minnesota Medical School polled 2,863 people in 2020. All were working legal professionals and members of the California Lawyers Association or the D.C. Bar, and they were split about evenly between women and men.

More than 20% of women respondents said they had moderate to severe depression symptoms, compared to about 15% of men. Nearly 23% of women had moderate to severe anxiety symptoms, compared to 14.5% of men.

Two-thirds of women reported moderate to severe stress, compared to less than half of men. Women were more likely to engage in risky and hazardous drinking.

Nearly 30% of women faced high levels of work-family conflict, while just 21.3% of men reported the same.

Work-family conflict was the top factor for whether a woman was considering leaving law, the report found. Stress was the top factor for men.

The COVID-19 pandemic thrust both of those issues into the spotlight. This spring several law firms announced two-installment bonuses to combat associate burnout, as the pandemic dragged on and deal volume and work hours remained high. Some firms, including Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, are also giving associates extra vacation time.

Firms were forced to evaluate their treatment of working parents in 2020 when the pandemic shuttered schools and offices, leaving lawyer parents to juggle their own remote work with their children's remote learning.

A recent survey from legal recruiter Major, Lindsey & Africa found about one in five respondents are not satisfied with how their firm has supported parents during the pandemic. It also found parents who took parental leave often believed it affected their access to quality work and promotions.

Krill's team found women, in general, see fewer opportunities for advancement than men.

Nearly 39% of women in Wednesday's survey reported a low possibility of promotion, versus 33% of men. Women were more likely to report a major imbalance between work effort and reward.

Krill said his team didn't ask about the affect of gender bias on lawyer mental health, in part because the survey was broad-ranging and not intended to focus solely on gender.

"However, I will say, it was really important for us to understand what's causing people to leave due to mental health, burnout or stress. I don't think it's hard to connect the dots, to extrapolate, and say some of that mental health distress, or burnout or psychological discomfort is probably driven by bias," Krill said.

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