POINT OF VIEW: Destigmatizing mental health in the legal profession

It was only October that the legal community lost one of our most vocal champions for mental health. As executive director of Florida Lawyers Assistance Inc., Michael Cohen spent the past 20 years advocating for attorneys struggling with substance abuse and mental illness. He also spent this same time recovering from his own battle with addiction.

Cohen was a safety net to so many in need. My hope is that we can continue his legacy by ensuring attorneys who suffer from mental health challenges have a place to turn – without fear of judgment or rebuke.

The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors in July voted to create the Special Committee on Mental Health and Wellness of Florida Lawyers.

This five-member committee, chaired by Miami attorney Dori Foster-Morales, is already working to identify ways the Bar can destigmatize mental illness within our legal community, and to recommend practices and remedies to improve both the Bar’s rules and programming to provide enhanced support to our members statewide.

We cannot eliminate all of the stresses in our lives. However, we can make a difference by identifying specific tools and mechanisms to help attorneys seek and receive help without fear of scrutiny and ridicule.

Mental health issues touch every facet of our legal community – from solo practitioners and law firm partners all the way down to law school students who feel daily pressure to graduate and become licensed and successful as soon as possible.

According to a report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, between 21 and 36 percent of practicing lawyers qualify as problem drinkers. Additionally, approximately 28 percent, 19 percent, and 23 percent are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.

In this same report, law students didn’t fare much better. Seventeen percent of law students experienced some level of depression, 14 percent experienced severe anxiety, 23 percent had mild or moderate anxiety, and 6 percent reported serious suicidal thoughts in the past year.

The Bar’s own data also raises similar concerns. In 2015, a Bar membership survey found that 33 percent of Florida lawyers saw high stress as a significant challenge and 32 percent of respondents said balancing work and family life was a significant challenge.

Such statistics, although heartbreaking, should not be surprising. On average, many attorneys work 60-plus-hour weeks, not counting weekends. We engage in a profession that is highly competitive and based on results, which can create extreme stress and a willingness to sacrifice our own self-care to pursue victory. We act as sponges, absorbing the issues and traumas brought through the door by clients.

Lawyers also tend to be ambitious, over-achieving Type A-personalities, and many in our profession don’t like to admit or show any sign of weakness – even to a health care professional.

This is in part why the Bar’s special committee is so focused on reducing the stigma that accompanies mental health issues, and creating a forum for people to speak up before it’s too late.


Editor’s note: Michael J. Higer is president of The Florida Bar and a partner at Berger Singerman.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Opinion

POINT OF VIEW: On state taxes, that dog won’t hunt

Congressional members from states with high income taxes claim that the House and Senate tax reform bills are unfair to their states. Their argument is based on the convoluted argument that “we send more money to Washington than it sends back to us.” Quoting Bill Clinton’s line: “That dog won’t hunt.” These members...
Letters My downtown bears no resemblance to Ultima gym owner’s

My downtown bears no resemblance to Platt’s As a longtime business and property owner who will be opening a brand-new business venture, I was surprised to learn that Ultima Gym was moving. Until recently, I had worked out there for years since calling West Palm Beach home over 20 years ago. (“Ultima Gym exits downtown, heads for Flagler...
Opinion: Roy Moore debacle wasn’t all Steve Bannon’s fault

Republican politics was starting to feel like a version of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” In the play, two scammers devise a tax write-off scheme in which they will make a killing by losing money on a Broadway show. They reach for the most grotesque, tasteless musical the human mind can conceive — “Springtime for Hitler&rdquo...
Palm Beach Post editorial cartoon for Monday, Dec. 18
Palm Beach Post editorial cartoon for Monday, Dec. 18

Editorial: Disparity numbers dismal enough to justify set-asides
Editorial: Disparity numbers dismal enough to justify set-asides

Government contracting in Palm Beach County has a color-gender problem. If a recent racial disparity study of the county’s Solid Waste Authority (SWA) is any indication, the odds of obtaining a local government contract almost always favor male, white-owned firms. The findings of the Mason Tillman Associates study show that a favored few firms...
More Stories