The State of Mental Health Among Lawyers


The State of Mental Health Among Lawyers

Early last fall, I logged onto my LinkedIn account to find my feed inundated with posts sharing commentary about one story: the tragic death of Vanessa Ford, a partner at Pinsent Masons, a big law firm in the UK. Ford fell onto a railway line in East London and was struck by a train on September 23, 2023, after consuming a “significant” amount of alcohol and undergoing what the coroner’s inquest had described as “an acute mental health crisis.”

In the weeks prior, Ford had worked around the clock leading up to the sale of the Everton Football Club to a US private equity firm. She was the only woman on the team closing that deal. A mother of two, her husband described that she had been “wracked with guilt” over missing time with her two children. Before her death, Ford had left a note at home that expressed a “degree of helplessness” and had attempted to contact a mental health professional to discuss her mental health and alcohol consumption. The coroner could not conclude whether Ford had intended to take her own life.

Over weeks, reactions to this news story flooded my feed. The posts expressed profound grief, outrage, calls for cultural and structural change, and resounding support for lawyers facing similar pressures at work. Women, in particular, shared stories reflecting upon how Ford’s story resonated, how the feelings of guilt and perfectionism were all too familiar.

The following is not news to anyone: lawyers, in general, are more prone to mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, stress and substance abuse. These issues are strongly linked with an increased risk of suicide. Overcommitment and loneliness are also significant factors contributing to psychological distress, burnout and exhaustion among lawyers. (Krill et al., 2023).

In recent years, employers have taken note. Legal workplaces have increased their focus supporting mental health and wellness among lawyers and staff. Corporate yoga sessions, in-house training on topics related to mental wellness, generous fitness budgets, counselling allowances, and mindfulness apps are in abundance. These efforts are laudable, but the 2023 ALM Mental Health Survey of the Legal Profession still paints a grim picture of the state of mental health among lawyers. Somehow, things seem to be getting worse.

The survey, which encompassed nearly 3,000 lawyers globally, asked questions about their mental wellness and how it related to their firm’s policies and culture. While there was some appreciation that law firms have seemingly made strides to destigmatize the topic of mental wellness, there remains an overarching lack of trust among lawyers who may approach their firms for help. Despite a more open approach to mental wellness, the lawyers surveyed were no more comfortable approaching their firms for help or using mental health and substance abuse programs offered to them by the firm. They reported being hesitant to make use of extended leave policies or even vacation time for fear of negative consequences. An hour spent at a firm mental health lunch and learn workshop is one less hour on the billable clock.

At a systemic level, addressing the root causes of mental health issues within the legal profession requires a fundamental culture shift within law firms. There is no mindfulness app that can fix a prevailing ethos of overwork and perfectionism underlying the mental health crisis among lawyers.

Vanessa Ford did not raise any issues related to stress or work-life balance to the firm, her manager has said. She had access to a 24-hour mental health helpline. She did not use it.

While the news of Ford’s death is undeniably grim, reactions to this story have been powerful and the calls for change have reverberated throughout the legal community. Maybe, just maybe, this will be a catalyst for transformative change the profession is so desperately calling for.

Sources: Krill et al (2023), Stressed, Lonely and Overcommitted: Predictors of Lawyer Suicide Risk (Healthcare (Basel) 2023 Feb 11; 11(4):53)6.