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New Study: One in Four Female Attorneys Has Considered Leaving Profession Over Mental Health Concerns

Woman in meeting with headache
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on May 17, 2021 11:15 AM

No attorney reading this will be surprised to hear that the legal profession is a demanding one. Nor is it surprising, then, that the profession has had long-running struggles with mental health, work-life balance, and substance use. It is a topic that has been covered well, including by FindLaw.

Yet, just because we know that the profession needs to focus on attorney wellness does not mean it is an easy task to complete. Particularly when something unexpected happens that fundamentally alters the day-to-day lives of legal practitioners - like a pandemic, for example.

recent study by Justin Ankor, a professor at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, and Patrick Krill, a former practicing attorney and licensed alcohol and drug counselor, found that female attorneys may be experiencing difficulty in maintaining healthy work-life habits. According to a survey of attorneys in the California Lawyers Association and the D.C. Bar, attrition among female attorneys is significantly higher than male colleagues, and problem drinking may be more prevalent among female attorneys as well.

Pandemic, Stress Is Making Work-Life Balance Harder for Female Attorneys

Women in the profession were more likely than men to self-report issues with depression, anxiety, stress, and risky drinking behaviors. And while 17% of men considered leaving the profession due to these factors, the figure jumps to 25% for women.

Approximately 67% of all attorneys reported working more than 40 hours per week. Men were more likely to be litigating and also in more senior positions, one potential reason they may be more likely to want to stay in the profession.

According to the results of the survey, women were most likely to consider leaving their jobs because of work-life conflict. Of those surveyed, women who said they experienced more stress as a result of COVID were 1.5 times more likely to consider leaving the profession.

Younger attorneys were up to four times more likely to report moderate or high stress compared to older lawyers.

Alcohol's Role

Most of the female respondents (55%) and 46.4% of men reported risky drinking. The study defined risky drinking for men as more than 14 drinks per week and more than 7 drinks per week for women. Drinking is not defined as "hazardous" for women unless they consume more than 14 drinks per week (and 21 for men). Fewer women (34.6%) self-reported hazardous drinking.

To be clear, then, risky drinking is not the same thing as showing up intoxicated to a client meeting. Considering the number of alcohol-related events at law firms, this number is not as surprising as it may initially appear. Still, the number reflects the often large emphasis placed on alcohol at law firm events and the stress of the job.

Attrition Is a Problem

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the study is the number of female practicing attorneys who are or have considered leaving the profession. Hopefully, as the pandemic gets under control, some of the those who have experienced heightened stress will go back to normal levels. Certainly, it is difficult to be a lawyer, a parent, and a teacher all at the same time - something many of us experienced during this past year.

Until we get some semblance of normal back, however, it is clear that the entire profession must continue to be focused on maintaining a healthy workplace to the greatest extent possible.

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