Justin W. Earley was “the picture of stability and success” early in his legal career, having graduated at the top of his law class at Georgetown, passed the bar in his home state and landed a job at one of its biggest firms.
But just a couple of weeks into the new job, he woke up in the middle of the night in what he described as “a state of existential terror.” He was unable to go back to sleep. The same thing happened the next night. After 48 hours without sleep, Earley went to the emergency room and was diagnosed as suffering from clinical anxiety.
“I assured them they had the wrong guy,” Earley said, speaking at the first annual Virginia Law Student Wellness Summit, which was held Feb. 5 at the University of Virginia law school. “I was high capacity and low stress, and I had the resume to prove it.”
Opening a dialogue
While Earley has taken measures to deal with his anxiety, his story is not uncommon within the legal profession. Statistics published by the Virginia Bar Association show that 36 percent of lawyers qualify as “problem drinkers,” 28 percent experience some level of depression, and 11 percent experience suicidal thoughts.
The statistics may be discouraging to many in the profession. But others, including the VBA’s Public Service Committee, are taking action to combat the problem.
VBA leaders recently introduced what they are calling their Duty to Care Initiative. To help raise awareness, the VBA handed out pins at its January meeting. The idea is to get attorneys to reach out to one another and make it easier to talk about it when work gets in the way of their health.
“As a profession, we tend to not want to talk about ourselves,” said Rudene Mercer Haynes, who leads the VBA’s Public Service Committee, which worked on the initiative. “We wanted a gentle way to normalize conversations about mental health, physical health and emotional well-being.”
‘Can we help?’
While the VBA used the social media hashtag “RUWell” as an example of how to begin wellness conversations, the initiative is also about paying attention to co-workers, identifying when they need help and offering it.
Seth J. Ragosta of Charlottesville also served on the public service committee and was involved in creating the Duty to Care Initiative.
“It is not just about asking a simple question,” he said. “It’s about sitting down and paying attention. If somebody was in the office until midnight the past three nights, start asking questions like, ‘Is there anything we can do to help?’”
While stress is an unavoidable part of the profession, one of the goals of the initiative is to get in front of problems before they escalate into bigger ones like drug addiction, depression or clinical anxiety.
To do this, attorneys must maintain a life outside of their work, which can be especially daunting for young lawyers working to prove themselves.
“It’s important to hit a life balance that includes the important things like faith, family and friends,” said Alison M. McKee, president-elect of the VBA. She emphasized forming positive habits early in one’s career to get away from work, whether that be exercise, time with family or social activities like participation in a bar organization.
Sometimes, it also means using good judgment to know the difference between when work is necessary and when work just feels necessary. Ragosta used the example of how modern technology allows attorneys to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“There are times when it’s appropriate to take a phone call during family time and times when it’s unnecessary,” he said. “Hopefully, if your firm isn’t supportive of what you need, you can leave, which is not an admission of defeat, but an acknowledgment you have different priorities.”
In addition to getting lawyers to look into and ask about the well-being of their fellow attorneys, the Duty to Care Initiative has more concrete aspirations, including plans for CLEs and roundtable discussions to cast an even wider net and reach more attorneys. The VBA also has a wellness task force, which is working on creating new programs to increase wellness in the profession.
But as important as these programs are, McKee said the most important way to create wellness in the legal profession is for attorneys to take it upon themselves to care for one another.
“A lot of this is one-on-one conversations and mentorship to help young lawyers be happy in their profession,” she said. “It’s a daily conversation we should be having with those within our law firms. We have a duty to care about others, and keeping the conversation going is the best way they can participate.”
For his part, Earley said things are better now. He sought professional help in the form of counseling, but also found help in his relationships with his friends. They, in turn, helped him to develop new habits to avoid falling into the same rut that caused the anxiety. Those include turning his phone off for an hour each day, having an hour-long conversation with a friend at least once a week and taking a whole day off from work every week.
He said he considers himself lucky, relative to others in the profession who faced similar mental health problems.
“You may think there’s no way to fix it, but you are wrong,” he said.