Measuring Lawyer Well-Being: What's Wrong with the Status Quo?

Conventional wisdom says that lawyers are uniquely unhappy—but this wisdom rests on a weak empirical foundation, and a large public health dataset provides a more accurate and nuanced story.

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In 2017, the American Bar Association released a 73-page report condemning "the level of toxicity that has allowed mental health and substance use disorders to fester among our colleagues." Concluding that the legal profession "is falling short when it comes to well-being," the ABA report issued over 60 reform proposals and launched a "campaign of innovation to improve the substance use and mental health landscape of the legal profession." A parallel empirical study to the ABA report found that lawyers abuse alcohol and are depressed, anxious, and stressed much more frequently than the general population. The ABA is not alone in its conclusions: headlines ask "Why Lawyers Are Miserable," "Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?," and "Why Are So Many Lawyers So Unhappy?"

Unfortunately, these conclusions rest on a weak empirical foundation, as explained in our recent article, "Measuring Lawyer Well-Being Systematically: Evidence from the National Health Interview Survey". The ABA study's design is representative of the methodology used by most studies of wellbeing among lawyers. These studies have four flaws:

  1. They rely on volunteer respondents, rather than a random sample of lawyers.
  2. They often have low response rates, meaning that non-response bias can pose a problem to interpreting the results. Together, flaws 1 and 2 mean that studies of wellbeing in lawyers draw conclusions about all lawyers from a sample of lawyers who may be unrepresentative of the legal community at large.
  3. They survey only lawyers, rather than the whole population. Because surveys of the entire population may use a different methodology or instrument to measure mental illness, comparing mental illness or substance abuse between survey participants and other populations may not be appropriate.
  4. They only survey lawyers at a snapshot in time, making analyses of trends over time impossible.

Several articles have observed that the "unhappy lawyers" narrative has been driven by a reliance on nonrandom survey data. But they have failed to change the state of the art for studying lawyer mental health. It is easy to see why: surveys of groups of randomly selected lawyers are much more difficult to conduct than volunteer surveys. As a result, they have remained relatively rare and ad hoc, often focusing on unrepresentative groups of lawyers, such as lawyers in a single city or individual law school in a single year.

A large public dataset from the Centers for Disease Control, the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), provides a useful alternative. It avoids the four problems plaguing current data on lawyer wellbeing:

  1. Rather than relying on volunteer respondents, it surveys a random sample of the U.S. population.
  2. Rather than featuring low response rates, it has a relatively high response rate—more than 70 percent—and uses survey weights to mitigate the problem of non-response bias.
  3. Rather than surveying only lawyers, it surveys the entire U.S. population using the same survey, allowing researchers to compare data for lawyers with the general population or other relevant subgroups.
  4. Rather than offering only a snapshot of lawyer wellbeing, it has asked the same questions for many years, allowing comparisons of lawyer wellbeing over time.

Using the NHIS, we find that, contrary to conventional wisdom, lawyers do not suffer from extraordinary levels of mental illness. Rather, they suffer rates of mental illness much lower than the general population's and not significantly different than that for doctors and dentists. However, rates of problematic alcohol use among lawyers are high and have grown increasingly common over the last fifteen years. These sometimes surprising and nuanced findings demonstrate the value of relying on more reliable data such as the NHIS.

These findings do not mean that recent emphasis on attorney wellbeing is misguided. The incidence of mental illness, alcoholism, and suicide is too high for the entire US population, lawyers very much included. By paying attention to lawyer well-being, the profession can reduce the prevalence of mental-health-related maladies and improve the lives of all who practice law or work in a law firm. Nevertheless, we need to be precise about the problems that lawyers face and what remedies we should employ.

Over the next two days, we will elaborate on the NHIS and the unique difficulties it suggests that lawyers do or do not face. Thursday will focus on the NHIS's findings related to attorney mental health and alcohol abuse, and Friday will conclude.

NEXT: Prof. Yair Listokin and Ray Noonan Guest-Blogging About "Measuring Lawyer Well-Being Systematically"

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  1. “Using the NHIS, we find that, contrary to conventional wisdom, lawyers do not suffer from extraordinary levels of mental illness.”

    Great!

    “However, rates of problematic alcohol use among lawyers are high and have grown increasingly common over the last fifteen years.”

    Oh ….

    Look, I’m curious to find out more. But I have some immediate thoughts.

    1. There is an immediate issue with comparing rates of mental illness of lawyers, with the general population. Very briefly- lawyers, by definition, should have MUCH LOWER rates. To be an attorney, you must have successfully completed an undergraduate program and law school. You are weeding out a large number of serious mental illnesses that have an onset that occurs in the teen and early college years. Quite simply, the general population will include some non-trivial number of people that were excluded from every being in the population of attorneys.

    2. Many people would include substance abuse, including alcoholism and drug dependency, as mental illnesses. As such, excluding them in order to say, “not very mentally ill, just a bunch of boozers” seems suspect. Not to mention many people who are reported to be abusing substances often have underlying mental illnesses.

    Eh. Look, I get that we all love to “bust myths” and that the idea of the mentally ill lawyer might be a bit overhyped in the profession, but so far I am not fully convinced- certainly not from looking around at other practicing attorneys!

    Looking forward to more.

    1. My concern is the NHIS dataset. How do they collect this data? I imagine phone calls at random, but guess what, most people don’t put up with phone surveys from random strangers, and I’d bet that especially when said survey is about mental health, there’s a strong self-selection bias towards people with mental problems and away from people who are too mentally ok to have the time to waste on such surveys.

      1. Good point.

        There is an additional issue when it comes to attorneys- both in terms of self-reporting and other surveys.

        Different jurisdictions handle it differently, but mental illness and substance abuse can still be massive professional problems for an attorney depending on the jurisdiction. One example that I am familiar with (anecdotally) is that there are attorneys who did not disclose an issue to the Bar due to the C&F portion, and then refuse treatment (and certainly do not disclose to random surveys) because they don’t want to get dinged because of a “candor” issue.

        This has improved in some jurisdictions, but not all.

      2. Something to that, but on the other side of the coin I wonder about the accuracy of the information people with mental health problems give you about their mental health.

        And of course at some level of illness you’re not going to get answers at all.

      3. alephbet….The data are collected by in=person interviews.

  2. The first thing we do, let’s medicate all the lawyers.

  3. All you have to do is read lawyer blogs to see all the ways that lawyers are full of self-loathing, matched only by their loathing for other lawyers.

    That said? Look at the weekly expected workload. That ain’t healthy, I don’t care how well you’re compensated. It’s obvious to everyone (who isn’t a lawyer) that y’all’s profession is a haven of self-destructive habits reinforced by peer pressure.

    Don’t become a practicing lawyer if you want a happy life.

    1. Some people like their work, and long hours is just more of it. Nothing wrong with those people.

      1. Is it possible that an individual might exist that can do 60+ hours a week, years on end, and be perfectly health in mind and body? Sure. Miracles happen.

        But if you expect me to believe we have over a million such folk in the US, and they all happened to go into law? Well, I’ve got some beach-front property in Arizona to sell you.

      2. Seriously, as someone who worked in Big Law for quite a while, the number of lawyers who genuinely enjoyed their work was somewhere between 5% and 10%. That doesn’t mean that everything was always horrible, but the “enjoyable” things were the exception, not the rule, for most of my colleagues.

        1. And that’s different from the general population how, precisely?

          More relevantly, that’s different when normalized for income, education and other known factors that are independent of profession?

          1. My point (which I should have made more clearly before hitting submit) is that you’ll find the same pattern in IT, medical, law enforcement and pretty much every other profession. “Enjoyable” things are always the exception and not the rule. It’s work. If it were all enjoyable, we’d call it a hobby and not have to pay you for it.

            1. “we’d call it a hobby”

              Lawyers think too much of themselves of course. All of our problems are the worse possible problems.

              The non lawyers who work with me seem to enjoy their work less than I do mine and get a bonus of lower pay.

          2. As a teenager, I once had a conversation with my mother about her assistant at work, whom she was complaining about. Long story short, her assistant was regularly putting in hours and hours of unpaid overtime because she was incapable of getting the work done in normal working hours.

            I asked my mother why this was a problem, because the work was still getting done. To which she responded “it should be getting done by close of business, not open of business”.

            Simply put, if you’re working that much overtime, then either there’s something wrong with you, or there’s something wrong with the job. Pretending that’s normal and acceptable is nucking futz.

  4. Best friend of the lawyer profession, here, if it would listen. Lawyers are regular, intelligent people. The profession itself is atavistic, wrong, in failure, and an outrage. It destroys a $trillion in economic value a year, and is a threat to our nation. Every self stated goal of every law subject is in failure. The worst of all is its inability to control crime, a core mission of government. It allows 15 million common law crimes, 5 million being violent, and billions of federal internet crimes a year.

    It indoctrinates intelligent students into 13th Century beliefs from the Catholic Catechism of that era, that minds can be read, the future forecast, and that standards of conduct should be based on a fictitious character with the personality of Mickey Mouse. It has to be a fictitious character, because the real character being lied about is Jesus. That is illegal in our secular nation. Its laws of evidence were updated in the 17th Century.

    The Rule of Law is an essential utility product like water and electricity. Without those two, we live in the 19th Century. Without the Rule of Law, we live in 10000 BC.

    People are frustrated by the profession’s failure. Its hierarchy is not listening, and is happy with its $trillion rent seeking.

    1. So I am going to put you down in the “Mentally ill, non-lawyer” category.

      1. That’s an insult, not an argument.

        /sarc from a previous blog

        1. Ape. Thank you. Insults violate the Fallacy of Irrelevance.

          1. Fallacies can’t be violated.

            1. Fallacies invalidate the argument. Nitpicking is in bad faith, and should be criminalized.

    2. Less pejoratively here, lawyers, like politicians, are uniquely situated in that while the profession is great when it’s solving problems, surplus practioners (of both law and politics) are able to earn their living by causing problems.

      That is to say, if you’ll recall the “broken window fallacy”, in many cases lawyers (and politicians) are both the window-repair man who gets paid for fixing a broken window, and the kid throwing rocks at windows in the first place.

      And that is where the poor reputation of lawyers comes from. While most people will have need of a lawyer at some point in their life to solve a problem, they will see countless more lawyers chucking rocks at windows.

  5. Successful lawyers become millionaires by kissing the asses of billionaires. I am a law school dropout. In the first year or two after I quit every time I met a lawyer and told him I was a dropout I expected him to sneer at me. Instead, he said “I wish I had had the nerve to do that.” (It was “easy” for me since, thanks to the GI bill and that good, good combat pay I got in Vietnam, I didn’t have to go into debt.) When a lawyer as prominent as David Boies rolls not in mud but shit in the service of an uber slimeball like Harvey Weinstein, you know the profession has its priorities screwed.

    1. I understand making a living.

      I want the lawyer profession to be half its size, make 4 times as much per lawyer, and have 10 fold the public esteem that it does today. If they modernized, ended their failure, they would be worth every penny. The Rule of Law is an essential utility product. Shut it off, and it’s welcome to Fallujah. You spend all your time on personal survival, and get nothing else done.

  6. The nature of the law has been changing in the last 50 years. The purpose of common law was to have a legal code that a person in society with reasonable intelligence could interpret and apply. That is why the common law system is so based upon precedence. If it happened before, had this conclusion, then in the future it will probably also have a very similar interpretation.

    But gone are the days when say a businessman could read a contract, apply a series of principles that were generally applicable, and then sign that contract knowing more or less if he were to end up in court what might happen. The law now has so many exceptions, differences, and interpretations that you have to rely upon a guild (lawyers) to tell you what might happen and then that same guild (lawyers) to get you that result if it comes down to it.

    That is how the law works in many societies but was never meant to be its application in a society that strives for some form of self-governance. How we reconcile this new reality with the place of lawyers in society needs to be answered before we even beginning to figure out the other social issues surrounding lawyers. They have become an extremely important, expensive transaction cost, but at the same time we are not used to paying that heightened cost to complete transactions. That results in lower wages and/or more work hours to achieve the economic success lawyers desire (or need to pay off education debt.)

    1. I’m reminded of that case (last year I think?) about Georgia’s legal code. I’m sure I have some of the details wrong, but the gist of it is that the state of Georgia publishes it’s legal code… and then some other group publishes the legal code with references to precedent. Acceptable enough, I suppose, except that lawyers and judges all accept the privately published version as the “official” version.

      So if you want to know what the actual law is in Georgia, it’s not enough to look up the Georgia legal code, you have to go buy this privately published book.

      So some industrious person thought “well, if this is the de facto law of the state, even according to judges, I’m gonna buy a copy, scan in the pages, and post ’em online”. What a civicly minded thing to do, right?

      Not so fast, says copyright law, that’s protected material!

      Anyway, it went to court, with the argument being that the “legal code of the state of Georgia with references” was the intellectual property of a private company. As I recall, they eventually lost, precisely because the government itself relied on the appended version.

      To make a long story short? One step that would help reduce this nonsense would be giving state legislatures a mandate to actually address court decisions, either to bring it in-line with how the courts are reading it, or to rebuke the courts. People should be able to read a state’s laws and know what they actually are, rather then being expected to cross-reference from court dockets.

      1. I think that demonstrates the problem with our legal code. In order for a self-governing society to work people must be able to understand the laws on which it is founded. That was the essence of common law. For instance, you generally knew what was criminal because it made common sense and if you didn’t know it was criminal then there were defenses to that point. Then you get the advent of strict liability where there pretty much is no defense as long as you violate the statute. That is convenient if you are the government and need convictions. Not so great if you want the law to shape and form behavior so it creates a coherent code of ethics by which people make decisions.

        Silverglate’s Three Felonies a Day highlights this conundrum quite well in that pretty much everyone is a felon just by going about their normal life. That again is convenient if you are the government and need to “get” someone. Just make everyone a criminal and then use your prosecutorial deference to let the “good” people do their thing.

        Societies with complex legal codes and a guild class to work on that body of law do exist, but are generally not self-governing. They really on that bureaucrat class to run the government and interact with citizens (or surfs more likely) when they are required to get involved with the legal systems. This was not meant to be the United States though.

        1. When is the point in history you’re identifying as this golden era of the common law, where everyone understood the law of contracts and knew the elements of every crime and lawyers were superfluous?

          1. That wasn’t my point and you know it.

            1. Well, I certainly thought you were making a claim about legal history: that at its inception (or perhaps some other point in the past), the common law allowed ” a person in society with reasonable intelligence” to understand the law without the assistance of lawyer, so that “a businessman could read a contract” and interpret on his own, or so that “you generally knew what was criminal because it made common sense and if you didn’t know it was criminal then there were defenses to that point”. I’m just asking what point in history you have in mind when you’re saying that’s how things used to work.

      2. That’s not quite right on the Georgia case, but good enough for government work.

        You do realize that what you’re advocating is essentially the opposite of a common law system, right?

        1. You do realize that what you’re advocating is essentially the opposite of a common law system, right?

          You do realize that America abandoned “common law” a long time ago, and we’re sitting high and mighty on “elite law”, and on our way to “high-as-fuck law”, right?

          That said, “advocating” is a few steps beyond me. The worst you can accuse me of “brainstorming”.

          But hey, if you think a legal system that sees nothing wrong with requiring a professional degree and a team of researchers to find out whether or not I can transfer $10k to a family member is a crime, then feel free to advocate for that broken-ass system that makes criminals of everyone. Me? I think we can do better, and the first step is making sure we know what the law actually is.

    2. The purpose of common law was to have a legal code

      I think we’re done here.

      1. It would probably help if you quoted things accurate and in context.

        The purpose of common law was to have a legal code that a person in society with reasonable intelligence could interpret and apply.

        1. If you’re going to double down on your position that the “purpose of common law” is to have a “legal code” of any kind, I maintain my position that we’re done here.

          1. if we are done here stop responding to this post. It is obvious what I meant in that the noun “legal code” was referring back to common law.

            1. I agree that it’s obvious that you think that the common law is a legal code. That kind of says everything we need to know about your understanding of the subject.

              1. It is a legal system that establishes a code built upon precedent and court rulings as part of that code. You are free to look up the actual definition if you like.

  7. “rates of problematic alcohol use among lawyers are high and have grown increasingly common over the last fifteen years”

    I wonder if the tolerance for alcohol use has changed in the last 15 years. Anecdotally the tolerance for drinking in general in business seems to have declined, no more 3 martini lunches etc.

    1. You think there were a lot of three martini lunches in 2005? When I started in 1995, nobody drank at lunch — not a single beer or glass of wine. The only exception was a couple of older alcoholic partners who were being put out to pasture anyway.

      Abusing alcohol after work, on the other hand, was a different story.

      1. My experience – which is not in law firms – is similar.

      2. “Abusing alcohol after work”

        Illustration of the decline in tolerance. “Abusing” or just “drinking”?

        1. I am not making a political statement. But we abused alcohol. And it was a lot of fun.

    2. The recession of 2008 was really the death knell for the waning practice of drinking at lunch of having boozy corporate dinners. The practice was dying already but the “we need to reign in expense accounts” justification put it to bed quickly. I was a mid-level manager at a big corporation back then and my expense account was around $25,000 a fiscal quarter and there was little oversight in how I used it. Part of the expectation of the job was to entertain clients, prospective customers, and take your team out for drinks justifying it as ‘team building’. When the recession hit it was the next morning memos went out basically rescinding all such expense accounts.

      You would still find some big city companies that would still have the practices and some supply closets full of booze. But by 2015, I would say most of these were gone. The expense was one thing, but the liability of a manager getting caught on camera doing something was just too much. That and with “me too” many managers took to engaging in legit business travel alone and the business dinner which was one of the last redoubts for such drinking disappeared then.

      1. I don’t buy your $100k/annum expense account. First of all, there are no expense accounts any more. Second, alcohol can’t be expensed at all since 2016ish. Third, every accounting dep’t I have been with questions every expense over $100 (leaving aside airfare and room charges, but they can figure out when those are out of whack too).

        1. Did you miss the part where I said that this was in the early to mid 2000’s? Or did you just not bother to read what I wrote?

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