Burnout. Depression. Red flags abound in Massachusetts lawyer study

A man walks on a street following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Athens
REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
  • Report is latest to outline a mental health crisis in the profession
  • It found a supportive work environment can improve lawyer wellbeing

(Reuters) - Massachusetts lawyers are burned out and experiencing elevated rates of anxiety and depression, according to a study released Wednesday that adds to a growing body of research documenting mental health problems within the legal profession.

Researchers with the Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers and NORC at the University of Chicago surveyed 4,450 Massachusetts attorneys last year for the latest study. Across the state, 77% reported feeling burned out, 26% reported high rates of anxiety, 21% reported depression and 7% reported suicidal thoughts — all higher than average for U.S. adults.

The survey also found high rates of alcohol consumption, with 42% of respondents reporting unhealthy or hazardous use.

“Almost half indicated they considered leaving their legal employer, and 40% reported considering leaving the legal profession entirely in the last three years due to burnout or stress,” according to the study, Lawyer Well-Being in Massachusetts.

The timing of the survey, which was conducted amid the COVID-19 pandemic, likely contributed to higher rates of reported burnout and anxiety, the authors said. But it was consistent with earlier findings that lawyers have higher rates of substance abuse and mental health problems than the general population and other professions.

A 2016 survey by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found more than 20% of respondents had potential alcohol dependency, with rates of depression and anxiety of 28% and 19%, respectively. More recent pandemic-era studies focused on lawyers in California, Washington and Utah also identified elevated rates of burnout, anxiety, and alcohol use.

Burnout, anxiety and depression was especially high among minority groups, the new Massachusetts study found. The burnout rate among Black and Hispanic lawyers was 86% and 88%, respectively, compared to 77% among white lawyers. Attorneys with childcare responsibilities also reported higher rates of burnout.

The survey found that nearly half of the lawyers who screened positive for depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts did not seek mental health care. The researchers attributed that to stigma surrounding mental health issues, as well as time constraints and fear of professional reprisals.

Lawyers who reported having a supportive work environment where they are treated with kindness and respect, given flexibility and have access to mentorship had higher satisfaction with life and lower rates of burnout, anxiety and depression, the study found.

“These findings highlight the importance of supporting professional autonomy, interpersonal relationships, opportunities for growth at work, and manageable hours,” the report said.

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