Lawyers know that there’s a mental health crisis bubbling under the surface of the industry. We just don’t do much to get on top of it. Our statistics are all bad, which is even worse news when you consider how underdeveloped they are. Our responses tend to be focused on symptoms — like substance abuse — at best. And our resources put the onus on the struggling lawyer to seek out help instead of reaching out for lawyers who may not even know they’re struggling.
Michael Kasdan and I went to law school together and while I went about making fun of law firms on the internet, he went ahead and became an IP litigation partner. At least that’s a sliver of his job. He’s also an adjunct professor at NYU Law and does a ton of outside writing and speaking. He also deals with periodic depression and last week he published a piece in The American Lawyer detailing how he came to understand what was happening and how to even begin seeking out help.
And like so many of these stories, the helping hand had to come from outside the legal community.
Despite having good relationships with many of my partners and co-workers, I didn’t tell anyone at work what was happening. It was too embarrassing and fraught with risk. Almost 10 years into my legal career, I hadn’t once even heard or discussed the topic of mental health at work. And what would I even say? What would they think? It was terrifying. The stress and fear around these issues only intensified the underlying problem. But, with the support of my younger sister, who literally took me for the first time to get help, I began to see a therapist and work with a psychiatrist.
We’ve talked about this a bit over the years here at Above the Law, but providing access to mental health resources isn’t the same as providing effective mental health support. Banking on a lawyer availing themselves of these resources assumes both that the attorney is emotionally prepared to ask for help and that they even realize what “depression” is in the first place. No one can seek help if they don’t understand the issue itself. That’s why mental health responses have to be proactive and not reactive. It’s also why some of the most important mental health training needs to go to everyone at the firm who isn’t necessarily facing these challenges because they’re the ones in the trenches every day who need to be attuned to recognizing when a colleague needs a hand.
After taking medical leave, Kasdan returned to work determined to be more open about his experiences to challenge the stigmatization that can take over law firms when they avoid mental health conversations:
This time, when I returned to work, I decided to be relentlessly public and open about what happened. I have been speaking to my law firm partners and associates about my experiences, listening when they want to share their own and sharing advice on how we can do better. I have been connecting with as many people as I could find in the legal field who are passionate about addressing mental health and wellness. I joined the Institute for Well-Being in Law (IWIL) and began to serve on their communication committee. I continued group therapy, attending weekly meetings of the Lawyers Depression Project. I also began talking about mental health publicly in front of my colleagues, business connections, and clients on LinkedIn. I feel more healthy, energized, sharp and engaged than at any other point in my life.
But he’s only one guy out there doing his part. To build a better profession, it’s going to take leadership all over the industry:
This will also require strong leadership on a human and policy level. Workers need to know what they should do when they are feeling overwhelmed, what type of help and support is available, and understand that they will not be punished for seeking help.
As he points out, the pandemic managed to break down some of the walls around discussing mental health. Hopefully that momentum doesn’t evaporate as firms transition back to the new normal.
How I Took Leave From and Returned to My Firm to Manage My Depression [American Lawyer]
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.