Young Lawyers Are Doing Good, But Not Always Doing Well

By Matt Cordell

The Young Lawyers Division recently held its 62nd Annual Meeting in connection with the NCBA Annual Meeting in Charlotte. As the ceremonial gavel was passed across the room from our former YLD chairs, including past NCBA presidents, our current president, and our president-elect, I thought about how the YLD has truly been a training ground for leaders of our profession and our state.

I then looked around the room at the remarkable young lawyers present. What an honor it is to serve alongside such an incredible group of people. The young lawyers who make up the YLD’s leadership team truly represent the best of our profession. They are smart, hardworking, selfless people who give their precious time and abundant talents, and together they are leading our more than 6,400 YLD members to achieve some remarkable things.

I could regale you with examples of our young lawyers providing pro bono services, feeding the hungry, and improving the profession, and I intend to do that over the course of the coming year; but for all the good young lawyers are doing in their communities, young lawyers themselves are not always doing so well.

We all know that the practice of law is stressful. It is rife with conflict, pressures, and deadlines. We are also well-acquainted with lawyers who struggle with anxiety, depression, or alcohol or drug use. Studies have confirmed what we already know: lawyers have significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse, and suicide than the general population.

A study published earlier this year tells us something new: young lawyers are even worse off than our older counterparts. The study, titled “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” was published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

It found that more than one-third of lawyers reported “hazardous drinking or possible alcohol abuse or dependence.” The study also indicates that 28 percent of lawyers experience depression, 19 percent experience anxiety, and 23 percent experience high stress — all higher rates than were reported in earlier studies.

In the case of alcohol use and mental health concerns, younger lawyers were at greatest risk. In other words, when taken as a group, lawyers are suffering significantly more than the general population, and young lawyers are the most likely to be affected.

There are a host of reasons for these problems. The practice of law is inherently stressful; the people who choose the legal profession tend to be pessimistic perfectionists (a problematic combination); the profession fosters macho attitudes about conflict and workloads; recent law school graduates often labor under crushing debt burdens; competition and economic pressures on lawyers are increasing; and other contributing factors help explain why lawyers experience stress, anxiety, or depression, and why they might turn to alcohol or other drugs.

The YLD cannot do much to alleviate most of these pressures, but there are some things we can do. We can help lawyers and law students identify, understand, and connect easily with resources like BarCARES, and there are several ways in which we can and will do those things.

One of the key findings of the study is that the top reason lawyers gave for not getting help was fear of others finding out and general concerns about confidentiality. We can educate lawyers and law students about their privacy rights and the confidential nature of assistance programs, and we can also help reduce the stigma associated with seeking mental health care.

We have mental health professionals and lawyers with firsthand experience who are eager to help us in this effort. Our Wellness Committee will lead the charge, but I hope each of you will think about how you can pitch in as the opportunities arise. We owe it to each other to help those among us in their times of need, and the YLD is eager to take on this challenge.

Matt Cordell is the Chair of the Young Lawyers Division, which consists of more than 6,400 lawyers and law students. Matt has a transactional and regulatory practice at Ward and Smith, P.A. focused on business, banking, and privacy law.

This article appears in the August 2016 edition of North Carolina Lawyer.