Lawyer mental health suffers when employers value only money, study says

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  • Attorneys who feel they are valued at work for their skills and humanity reported better mental and physical health
  • Those who report feeling unvalued at work have the wost health and wellness outcomes

June 9 (Reuters) - Attorneys who say their employers value them mainly for their productivity and financial worth tend to have worse physical and mental health than those who feel valued for their talent, skill and humanity, researchers said in a new study .

Lawyers who report that their employers do not value them or provide no feedback have the worst health outcomes overall, according to the peer reviewed study published this month in the scientific journal Behavioral Sciences.

The study is the first empirical analysis of connections between lawyer well-being and employer values, said co-author Patrick Krill, an attorney who advises legal employers on wellness issues.

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Krill teamed up with three researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences to gauge the prevalence of substance abuse and mental health problems—which numerous studies have found are especially prevalent among lawyers—and identify factors that can lead to those issues, he said.

“We thought it would generate some really useful insights to ask lawyers what they feel most valued for by their employers,” Krill said. “We wanted to see how that shook out when we compared it to how they were doing with their mental health, their substance use, and whether they were thinking of leaving the profession.”

The researchers surveyed 1,959 lawyers in California and Washington D.C., dividing them into three groups based on what they said their employer values most highly: their ability to produce revenue; their skill and professionalism; or not being valued or receiving no feedback. Respondents were also asked about their stress level, physical mental health, and their likelihood of leaving their jobs, among other questions.

Among the respondents, 62% said their employers value their professionalism and skill; 28% picked financial worth; and 10% reported feeling unvalued or receiving no employer feedback.

A consistent hierarchy emerged within each category, Krill said, with the professionalism group reporting better outcomes than the financial worth group, and the unvalued group having the worst outcomes.

Lawyers working at large law firms were more likely to feel valued according to their financial worth, while government lawyers were overrepresented among the group that reported feeling unvalued, according to the study.

Krill said he hopes the findings will prompt legal employers to assess their own values and how they communicate them to attorneys. Law firm leaders, for example, should ask themselves why lawyers would believe that their productivity and financial worth is what they are most valued for.

“Take a look at your evaluation process, your mentoring process, your work allocation process, your internal communications—all of it,” he said. “What’s the message? Do people feel like you just care about their about billable hours, or do you actually care about how good of a lawyer and a person they are?”

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Reporting by Karen Sloan

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com