By Raul Ayala, Esq.
You may vividly remember the time when you decided to pursue a legal career, a moment filled with passion and a desire to be of service to others and your community; however you may have defined it. Many of us wanted to directly tackle issues most affecting our Latino population-poverty; education, voting and civil rights, criminal law and procedure, immigration, housing, employment; the list is long. Others wanted to engage from within the “mainstream,” including leadership positions in business, politics and public institutions, law enforcement, civic organizations, law schools and the judiciary; just to name a few. No doubt, we all wanted to “make a difference” and were willing to endure the necessary sacrifices, first as students and later as working professionals.
Nonetheless, and like my mother has always said, “todo tiene su precio, hasta lo bueno“- loosely translated, “everything, including success, has a price.” We take our work seriously; we work long, hard hours, and we’ve had to struggle against significant odds and challenges to achieve our current positions and accomplishments. For many; that includes taking precious time away from our family and loved ones, the communities that we intended to serve in the first place, and our own self-care. Ironically; this may often leave us with an unhealthy life-work imbalance, leading toward depression, anxiety; substance abuse, and other serious health problems.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that the legal profession, including judges, lawyers, and law students, is facing a threatening crisis. A recent study 1 conducted by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (ABA CoLAP) and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation (HBFF) laid bare a troubling picture of the high percentage of lawyers who suffer from substance use disorders and mental health issues. In fact, our rates are about twice as high as the general population and are afflicting a much younger generation of lawyers than in the past. Another study outlines similar concerns amongst our law student population. 2 The contributing factors behind this state of affairs may be obvious, given the nature and extent of our responsibilities in fast paced, pressure-packed, and increasingly stressful living and work environments. The antidotes to these conditions, however, are more complex and challenging.
In response to these studies, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being was convened by CoLAP, the National Organization of Bar Counsel (NOBC), and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers (APRL). The task force recently published a trail-blazing report. 3 We should pay close attention to its comprehensive research and thorough recommendations for all professional stakeholders – judges, regulators, legal employers, law schools, bar associations, lawyers’ professional liability carriers, and lawyer assistance programs. In their cover letter to the report, task force co chairs Bree Buchanan, Director of the Texas Lawyer Assistance Program and CoLAP Chair, and James C. Coyle, Attorney Regulation Counsel for the Colorado Supreme Court, candidly reflect upon this growing concern:
The legal profession is already struggling. Our profession confronts a dwindling market share as the public turns to more accessible, affordable alternative legal service providers. We are at a crossroads. To maintain public confidence in the profession, to meet the need for innovation in how we deliver legal services, to increase access to justice, and to reduce the level of toxicity that has allowed mental health and substance use disorders to fester among our colleagues, we have to act now Change will require a wide-eyed and candid assessment of our members’ state of being, accompanied by courageous commitment to re-envisioning what it means to live the life of a lawyer.
The ABA House of Delegates has also taken up the issue of attorney well-being. At the 2018 Mid-Year meeting held in Vancouver, BC, Canada, Resolution 105 (2018 MY) was formally adopted as ABA policy Proposed by the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession, CoLAP, the Standing Committee on Professionalism, and the NOBC, it states as follows:
Resolved, That the American Bar Association supports the goal of reducing mental health and substance use disorders and improving the well-being of lawyers, judges and law students; and
Further Resolved, That the American Bar Association urges all federal, state, local, territorial, and tribal courts, bar associations, lawyer regulatory entities, institutions of legal education, lawyer assistance programs, professional responsibility carriers, law firms, and other entities employing lawyers to consider the recommendations set out in the report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. 4
Clearly, there are serious issues facing the legal profession and legal professionals when the largest, most prestigious bar association in the country expressly urges remedial action as a matter of policy.
How do Latin@ Professionals Fare within the Legal Community?
Unfortunately, your guess is as good as mine. There is simply little current research or readily available data to accurately determinate our status as Latina and Latino legal professionals across the United States, 5 much less to assess how we are holding up to the increasing challenges of substance use disorders and mental health issues brought on by the inherent and incessant levels of work-related stress. What we do know, however, is that we remain very few in numbers despite a fast growing population across the United States, that we are still relatively “new comers” to the historically white male legal profession and judiciary, and that we often face an additional layer of stress and pressure as members of a minority or diverse community.
The report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being makes the following generic recommendations for all stakeholders:
- Acknowledge the Problems and Take Responsibility.
- Use the Report as a Launch Pad for a Profession-Wide Action Plan.
- Leaders Should Demonstrate a Personal Commitment to Well-Being.
- Facilitate, Destigmatize, and Encourage Help-Seeking Behaviors.
- Build Relationships with Lawyer Well-Being Experts.
- Foster Collegiality and Respectful Engagement Throughout the Profession.
- Enhance Lawyers’ Sense of Control.
- Provide High-Quality Educational Programs About Lawyer Distress and Well-Being.
- Guide and Support the Transition of Older Lawyers.
- De-Emphasize Alcohol at Social Events.
- Utilize Monitoring to Support Recovery from Substance Use Disorders.
- Begin a Dialogue About Suicide Prevention.
- Support a Lawyer Well-Being Index to Measure the Profession’s Progress.
HNBA as a Catalyst for Change
The task force report also has a number of recommendations for bar associations. A central tenet of the HNBA has always been to foster the professional development and progress of its membership. In fact, a number of years back, our National Leadership and Board of Governors created a Lawyers’ Assistance Committee (HNBA-LAC) to help meet this critical goal by addressing the issue of well-being in the legal profession. While less active in more recent years, the HNBA-LAC promises to again bring this discussion to the forefront of our local, regional, and national agendas. In fact, the committee is hopeful of organizing panel presentations and workshops during our Annual Convention, the Corporate Counsel Conference, and other HNBA-sponsored events throughout the year.
You are all encouraged to read the entire report, and the HNBA-LAC will request that HNBA leadership, board, and staff make a commitment to its stated goals and objectives. As a national minority and diverse bar association, we can also take the initiative to collaborate with other organizations such as the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, the National Bar Association, the National LGBT Bar Association, the National Native American Bar Association, and the South Asian Bar Association of North America, just to name a few.
“The task force report also has a number of recommendations for bar associations. A central tenet of the HNBA has always been to foster the professional development and progress of its membership.”
Through cooperation and mutual assistance, we will be better equipped to address these issues as they may affect all legal professionals of color.
In addition, the HNBA can help lead the way toward change, through these collaborative efforts along with support from the ABA and individual state Lawyer Assistance Programs (LAP), 6 by conducting research on the nature and quality of our well-being and the related challenges to a healthy work-life balance. No legal professional, regardless of their heritage, personal preferences, or station in life, should have to suffer in silence. There are a number of confidential resources that we can turn to for help, and there is much that we can do.
Raul Ayala has been a Deputy Federal Public Defender in the Central District of California for a total of 14 years, and a private criminal defense practitioner for over 22 years. He currently serves as co-chair for the HNBA Lawyers’ Assistance Committee, was a former member of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, and sat on the board of The Other Bar, Inc. He remains active in the ABA Criminal Justice Section, and has been a recovering alcoholic since 2004.
1 See, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorney, Krill, Patrick R., JD, LLM, Johnson, Ryan, MA, Albert, Linda, MSSW, J Addict Med, Volume 10, Number 1:46–52 (January/February 2016); also available at: https:// journals.lww.com/journaladdictionmedicine/Fulltext/2016/02000/ The_Prevalence_of_Substance_Use_and_Other_Mental.8.aspx.
2 See, Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concern, Jerome M. Organ, David B. Jaffe, Katherine M. Bender, Ph.D., J Legal Education, Volume 66 Number 1:116-156 (Autumn 2016); also available at https://jle.aals.org/cgi/viewcontent. cgi?article=1370&context=home.
3 See, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being (August 2017), available at http://lawyerwellbeing.net/.
4 You may find the adopted resolution and full report to the House of Delegates on the ABA website, at https://www.americanbar.org/ content/dam/aba/images/abanews/mym2018res/105.pdf.
5 One notable exception is the article written by the Hon. Cruz Reynoso, retired justice of the California Supreme Court, entitled A Survey of Latino Lawyers in Los Angeles County-Their Professional Lives and Opinion , 38 U.C. Davis L.Rev. 1563 (2004-2005); also available at: https://lawreview.law.ucdavis.edu/issues/38/5/article/ DavisVol38No5_Reynoso.pdf.
6 See, for example, the ABA CoLAP website containing, inter ali, a statewide directory of all Lawyer Assistance Programs along with other valuable resources, available at: https://www.americanbar.org/ groups/lawyer_assistance.html.