Mental Health Efforts Will Support Diversity In Legal Industry
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Law360 (June 9, 2020, 10:09 PM EDT) —
It’s been a tough year. The COVID-19 mantra, “We’re all in this together,” has a nice ring to it, but as the pandemic wears on, so has its disparate impact on varying groups in our society. Then came the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the reminder of the depths of systemic racism in America.
We are fortunate in the legal profession that many attorneys and staff can work remotely and largely sustain our workload. But in the hustle to figure out laptops, Wi-Fi connectivity, childcare and Zoom, we can ignore our mental health. Isolation from our colleagues can make it even more difficult to cope with the trauma of the killings and protests. For black attorneys, the stress may be incalculable.
Society’s general avoidance and even stigma of discussing mental health struggles is especially profound for people of racial and ethnic minorities, and minority attorneys are no exception. Law firms and in-house departments can change the narrative by making mental health a priority for all attorneys and making efforts to even the playing field. Perhaps a new day will meet us.
Mental Health Struggle for Minority Attorneys
Overall, people of racial and ethnic minorities are both disproportionately impacted by economic downturns and less likely to seek mental health counseling. In the 2005-2009 recession, Hispanic and black households lost more than 50% of their wealth while white households lost only 16%. Compared to white individuals, people of racial and ethnic minorities have less access to mental health services, are less likely to receive needed care, and are more likely to receive poor quality care when they are treated.
Professionals are not shielded from these issues. The landmark 2017 report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being examines the depth of mental health struggles in the legal profession. The American Bar Association has reported ethnic minority groups have higher unmet mental health needs than non-Hispanic whites, even after controlling for health insurance and socioeconomic status.
Currently, women are bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s economic impact, both suffering increased job losses and shouldering the majority of childcare responsibilities. Deep-seated discriminatory attitudes, distrust of the health care system, and cultural stereotypes don’t disappear after law school.
In the legal industry, a continued lack of diversity accentuates the stress for minorities. Partnership ranks continue to be woefully homogeneous. In 2019, only one in five equity partners were women and less than 8% were people of color. LGBTQI+ individuals make up about 2% of partners. People with disabilities account for less than 1%.
Many diverse attorneys are not yet partners with books of business. Diverse attorneys may also lack partners of similar backgrounds willing to serve as mentors. The economic threat of this pandemic heightens uncertainty around career progression. This tends to create a barrier, whether perceived or institutional, toward advancement. A minority attorney trying to “prove that they belong” may be significantly discouraged at the possible stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment.
Strong People, Strong Organizations
Overcoming these discouraging statistics is essential to creating strong law firms and in-house departments. A sense of belonging and organizational culture is critical to positive mental health at work. Mentorship and examples of attorneys who come from similar backgrounds and cultures create an atmosphere where not only diverse people, but diverse ideas, are valued.
Personal connections are improved and lawyer isolation is minimized through such relationships. Significant talent can be lost if an organization fails to create an inclusive environment. As it becomes increasingly clear that the pandemic will be here for some time, we would be wise to develop new habits to preserve and improve our mental health.
Change Can Begin Today
It would behoove every organization, no matter the size, to adopt measures to deal with the isolation, alienation and disconnection that can be so prevalent in minority legal circles and which are inescapable in today’s world, especially for our black colleagues. Law firms and legal departments must recognize the unique stressors on minority attorneys.
Some measures can be modest, such as arranging small virtual coffee hours, where attorneys can freely discuss any topics, including not only successes but also fear, anxiety and frustrations. These sessions must be judgment-free zones where minority attorneys do not feel that what they say will be problematic for their advancement.
A leader must steer the conversation so that it does not turn into a complaint fest that leaves everyone feeling depleted. So that all can participate, it is best if this virtual coffee hour can be between seven to 10 attorneys. Making sure that minority attorneys never feel alone is key to success.
Law firms should remind their attorneys and staff of resources available for confidential assistance. Bar associations across the country are recognizing the need for their members to take care of themselves. Florida, where I live, introduced the Florida Lawyers Helpline several months earlier than planned due to the pandemic.
Intentionally and openly committing to diversity and inclusion initiatives takes the burden off the individual to start the discussions about mental health. My law firm recently began a six-week mindfulness program for anyone who wanted to participate. Making topics such as mindfulness part of the institutional schedule destigmatizes discussing well-being in the workplace. Charging a director with oversight of firm well-being can normalize the topic. One individual who focuses on these matters can ensure that mental health remains on the agenda of firm meetings, bring resources to the organization, and ensure all attorneys and staff are aware of opportunities. Initiatives such as these allow everyone, including diverse attorneys, to rise up.
Transparency in partnership requirements would promote confidence in career progression. Younger attorneys may have only a vague understanding of the expectations to become partner, and may be even more in the dark regarding what financial requirements will meet them after the feting is over. This can be more aggravated among minority attorneys who lack examples of partners with similar backgrounds. Clarity in these areas will lessen the stress and anxiety among minority attorneys.
In making a space for mental health in the workplace, we need not place blame on prior practices. Rather, we should celebrate that all attorneys will benefit from transparency and inclusiveness goals. A level playing field where mental health is not stigmatized allows everyone to flourish.
A New Day?
I remain hopeful that positive changes will result from this year. Americans from all walks of life are recognizing the need to have difficult conversations, to self-examine, and to change. Organizations are speaking out against racism and in support of people of color. Support for individuals may become more commonplace as we all realize the fragile balance of our world.
Law firms and in-house departments may find that flexible work situations were more successful than anticipated and allow more accommodations going forward. Focus on mental health cannot fall by the wayside.
Zealous advocacy for our clients does not need to come at the expense of advocacy for ourselves. The optimal balance looks different for each person. New initiatives and programs begun by our companies will mean nothing if we fail to use them. We must all take personal control and find the right mixture of habits and activities that make us the most mentally fit.
Supporting mental health makes better lawyers. Fostering diversity attracts new voices. Doing both will make the profession thrive.
So, yes, let’s work to truly all be in this together.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
 The Recession Trends Initiative, The Great Recession: Implications for Minority and Immigrant Communities, available at https://web.stanford.edu/group/recessiontrends-dev/cgi-bin/web/resources/research-project/great-recession-implications-minority-and-immigrant-communities.
 Thomas G. McGuire and Jeanne Miranda, Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Mental Health Care: Evidence and Policy Implications, Health Affairs (March/April 2008), available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3928067/.
 The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (August 14, 2017), available at https://lawyerwellbeing.net/.
 Jayne Reardon and Bree Buchanan, Lawyer Well-Being: An Uncharted Path to Increasing Diversity and Inclusion, American Bar Association (February 19, 2018), available at https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/diversity-inclusion/articles/2018/winter2018-lawyer-well-being-alcoholism-self-help/.
 Elaine He and Nichole Torres, Women are Bearing the Brunt of the Covid-19 Economic Pain, Bloomberg News (May 8, 2020) available at https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2020-opinion-coronavirus-gender-economic-impact-job-numbers/; Titan M. Alon, Matthias Doepke, Jane Olmstead-Rumsey, and Michèle Tertilt The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality, NBER Working Paper No. 26947, available at https://www.nber.org/papers/w26947.pdf.
 National Association for Law Placement, Inc. 2019 Report of Diversity in U.S. Law Firms (December 2019), available at https://www.nalp.org/uploads/2019_DiversityReport.pdf.
 National Associate of Women Lawyers, 2019 Survey Report on the Promotion and Retention of Women in Law Firms (2019), available at https://www.nawl.org/p/cm/ld/fid=2019.
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