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Survey on burnout in the legal field underway

A 2016 study supported by the American Bar Association confirmed elevated rates of “problematic alcohol use and symptoms of depression” among 13,000 participating practicing lawyers.

Five years later, the non-medical condition of “burnout” is getting a similar look.

The Institute for Well-Being in Law is sponsoring a research study to help understand burnout, or unmanaged chronic workplace stress, in the legal profession and what factors contribute to it. The IWIL is collaborating with Claremont Graduate University, a small graduate-level school in California, to conduct the survey.

The IWIL emphasized the importance of this research in the study details, writing that the institute “could locate no study in the U.S. seeking to determine the frequency of burnout among lawyers or their support staff.”

“Although burnout has a significant relationship with depression, substance use disorders, and suicidal thinking, burnout itself is a non-medical, more socially acceptable label that has limited stigma,” the IWIL wrote. “This could make burnout prevention a useful complement to legal employers’ efforts to prevent mental health and substance use disorders, which tend to be stigmatized.”

In order to be eligible for the study, survey respondents have to be either a practicing lawyer or a staff member working at a law firm, in-house legal department, government position, non-profit or judicial chambers. Responses are anonymous and individual and organizational identifying information are not collected.

Eligible people are encouraged to volunteer to take the survey, which can be found at https://bit.ly/3yhwmvA. The IWIL says the survey takes about 10 minutes to complete.

The deadline to participate in the survey is May 31. Results of the survey will be distributed by the IWIL at a later date. The institute says survey results may also be published in academic journals or technical reports and will contribute to the institute’s future program planning.

Claremont Graduate University wrote that the data gathered “will be used to provide law firms with recommendations for enhancing employee well-being.”

The IWIL was initially created as the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being shortly after the 2016 study was released. Over the years, the organization has remained active in attempting to “lead a culture shift in law” by promoting wellness. The organization, desiring to create a more permanent model, became the IWIL in 2020.

Research on the conditions surrounding burnout has been done in recent years. A 2015 American Bar Foundation Study found the median lawyer worked 50 hours a week, with 41% of lawyers at large law firms working 60 hours or more each week. In addition, a 2018 Vault survey found only 31% of attorneys use all of their available vacation days each year. The task force that later became the IWIL released a report in 2017 stating that “the number of vacation days taken was the strongest predictor of well-being among all activities measured” in a 2016 study.

“To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer,” the task force wrote. “Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being.”

“This research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust,” the task force continued.

The end of the burnout survey caps off a busy May for the IWIL. During Mental Health Awareness Month, the institute organized Well-Being Week in Law, which saw participation at the state level in Virginia through a trio of CLEs hosted by the Virginia Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program. VJLAP said last month that their CLEs, which were held in the first week of May, had “a fairly healthy number of people” pre-register.