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NJSBA report digs deep into mental health – Recommends path to ease areas of stress in the legal profession

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 10, 2023
Contact: Thomas Nobile
Director of Communications
Tel: 732-937-7527
ENDPRBLOCK
   
NEW BRUNSWICK – A wide-ranging report by the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA) uncovered a troubling decline in mental health and wellness among New Jersey’s legal practitioners, while identifying the primary drivers of stress for attorneys and recommending an action plan to improve well-being. 
    
The report—the largest and most comprehensive assessment ever produced on attorney well-being in the state —is the work of more than 50 attorneys in the NJSBA’s Putting Lawyers First Task Force. Members of the group spanned a wide array of practice areas, who worked diligently over the course of a year with the goal of making an attorney’s life in the profession better and providing the tools needed to survive and thrive in the ever-changing legal landscape.
    
Central to the effort, the task force circulated wellness surveys among the state’s legal community, while also analyzing the sources of stress for attorneys in state’s ethics and fee arbitration systems. The findings of the report are sobering, said NJSBA President Jeralyn L. Lawrence. The Association is committed to not just shining a light on the issue, but looking for meaningful ways to help the entire legal community. 
    
“When the NJSBA mobilizes and puts its weight behind a challenge, it can be an impressive force. There is much work to do, and the work of the Putting Lawyers First Task Force sets forth a roadmap to lead our profession in a much better and healthier direction,” Lawrence said. “I am certain that working together, the Association can play an important role in helping put lawyers first moving forward.” 
    
At the heart of the report are the results of a 90-question survey, developed with assistance from the University of Utah, to gauge the current health and well-being of New Jersey’s legal population. The survey generated 1,643 responses from New Jersey attorneys, judges, paralegals and other legal practitioners, while many shared their own personal stories.
    
“Ours is a hard and demanding profession. We have all read the statistics about the incredible number of attorneys who are depressed, anxious and suicidal. Too many of us have friends and colleagues who face these very real challenges every day,” Lawrence said. “While we are all aware of the national headlines of the decline in attorneys’ health and well-being, our investigation has confirmed that New Jersey lawyers are also suffering. We are a profession in crisis.”
    
The results further revealed that while 51% of New Jersey lawyers feel enthusiastic about being a lawyer:
• 68% reported feeling anxious in the past two weeks;
• 56% reported a high prevalence of alcohol misuse;
• 49% reported feelings of isolation;
• 28% of attorneys considered leaving the profession because of mental health, burnout or stress; and
• 23% reported a high prevalence of depressive symptoms;
• 10% reported thoughts of suicidal ideation.
“Nationally, there is evidence to support a conclusion that attorneys are suffering due to a variety of factors, including mental illness, substance use, financial stress—and in many instances a combination of all three. It is a logical conclusion that if attorneys are not operating at their best, the legal system cannot function at its best,” according to Robin C. Bogan and Matheu D. Nunn, who co-chaired the NJSBA task force. “The public’s access to justice and to our judicial system depends on attorneys and judges, court staff, sheriff officers, and all of the people that are involved in making our system run effectively and efficiently. A deficit in the performance of any one of those groups detrimentally impacts the legal system as a whole. In turn, the public suffers.”
    
A path forward
To combat the troubling statistics, the report recommended immediate and long-term strategies to help. 
    
Key among the recommendations was the idea to create an ongoing working group of the Judiciary and organized bar to promote wellness efforts through education, training and pipeline programs. The report recommends removing Question 12B from the New Jersey Character and Fitness application, which seeks information on an applicant’s mental health conditions or impairments, rather than conduct. Doing so would join New Jersey with 26 other states that have either eliminated, substantially modified or never used mental health status on their bar applications. The question, according to the report, deters applicants from seeking mental health assistance.
    
In addition, the Association will examine ways to help the profession, including looking for opportunities to partner with other bar associations, law schools and firms to work collaboratively and encourage a statewide conversation about well-being. It will also promote ways for attorneys to get assistance with outreach and educational resources with a wide range of partners in the legal community as well as organizations like health insurance companies and mental health agencies. 
    
The Association will present a free virtual program during Well-Being in the Law Week next month. The program will be offered, along with several others from the New Jersey Legal Assistance Program, during the national observance. The NJSBA program will marry an examination of well-being and how that concept interplays with the RPCs. Registration for “Improving Well-Being in the Workplace and Complying with Ethical Obligations” is available at njsba.com.
    
Ethics and fee arbitration systems examined
The report also examined the state’s ethics and fee arbitration systems. After gathering information from a wide range of people who have had experience with the systems, the report highlighted many successful aspects of the system, including the dedicated efforts of staff and attorney volunteers at the state Office of Attorney Ethics. It also examined areas of concern where improvements could be made to help attorneys and members of the public who encounter the systems. The central recommendation was that the Judiciary should establish a commission, with wide representation among the Judiciary, bar and public, to conduct a comprehensive study of both the ethics and fee arbitration systems. Among the other recommendations, the report urged the Judiciary to curb frivolous actions, permit attorneys to enter diversionary programs at any stage of the process if appropriate and limit the number of random audits a single attorney could face to once every five years. 
    
The NJSBA task force examined several other important issues, including malpractice concerns, ways to help and support solo and small-firm attorneys, dealing ethically with online reviews and addressing appropriate ways to relieve attorneys as counsel. It will further study these areas and will continue to share information with the Judiciary, county and affinity bar organizations and law firm leaders with the aim of improving the lives of attorneys and their clients. 
   
The full Putting Lawyers First Task Force report is available on njsba.com.

Contact: NJSBA Communications Department
Tel: 732-937-7527
Email: [email protected]

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