The United States Law Week

INSIGHT: BigLaw and Mental Health—What Can Be Done?

Nov. 14, 2018, 9:43 PM

Before Joanna Litt’s painful recounting of her husband Gabriel MacConaill’s suicide arrived in my inbox, ironically I had just submitted for publication the following article that discusses what my firm is doing to address the challenges of mental illness.

Litt’s conclusion that BigLaw didn’t actually kill her husband is of course accurate, but it resonates with me that firms can do more and can act more proactively to care for the incredibly talented individuals in our firms who fight every day for their clients. We don’t have all of the answers and this article is not meant to suggest that we do, but I hope it offers some ideas to those who want to try and make a difference.

Everyone knows BigLaw is tough—and its getting tougher. As legal markets contract, clients demand more for less, and alternative legal service providers open new avenues of competition, attorneys may feel stretched beyond their coping limits. Research tells us they may be at high risk for ill effects, including depression, anxiety, and sometimes substance abuse.

In 1990, Professor John Eaton of Johns Hopkins University published a first of its kind study analyzing the prevalence of depression among people in various occupations. Attorneys had the most statistically significant elevation in depression rates. Recent research confirms that attorneys not only suffer higher than average rates of depression, but also experience higher rates of substance abuse and anxiety. A 2016 ABA/ Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Study found that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys are problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with depression, and 19 percent report symptoms of anxiety.

For large law firms, mental illness is both a business and a human issue. Mental illness has a direct impact on business, resulting in reduced service levels and productivity. It is estimated that one in five U.S. employees have a diagnosable mental illness. Untreated mental health issues increase the costs of health benefits and present risks when competence is in question. Firms face significant challenges managing both the human and business costs of mental illness.


So what can firms do to deal with this increasingly challenging issue? Winston & Strawn has made a commitment to have an intentional impact on the well-being of our employees, including their mental health. The firm initiated a three-pronged approach to meet mental health challenges head on:

  • Education
  • Environment, and
  • Tools.

Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are complex and often overlapping constructs. Solutions to address them must be equally sophisticated and adaptable.

The foundation of our program is education. Lack of knowledge undermines individuals’ ability to assess personal or family risk factors. People need clear information that leads to understanding of causes, symptoms, and treatments. Winston chose mental health as the focus of our 2019 wellness initiative to ensure that our people learn about mental health, understand resources available to support them, and find ways to get help if they need it. The annual Winston Wellness Campaign—Year of Mental Health will offer monthly informational sessions. Our kick-off meeting is a firmwide videocast featuring Brian Cuban, author of The Addicted Lawyer.

The central building block is an array of policies and programs designed to create an environment that fosters well-being. No one program or policy will be a panacea, so Winston offers a variety, including the following.

1. Work-Life Balance

  • Winston led the law firm market by being the first to offer gender neutral family leave of 20 weeks for attorneys, with ramp-down and ramp-up time and return from leave coaching.

  • Attorneys have a vacation as needed policy and there are flex-time and flex-place work options.

2. Developing Coping Skills

  • We work individually with people returning from leaves to develop successful return to work plans.

  • Professional coaching and development support are available in-house, as well as mentoring programs.

  • We offer mindfulness training firmwide. In one session, Jeena Cho, consultant and author of The Anxious Lawyer, introduced the firm to a six-minute meditation approach that blends with attorney time management habits. Additional training provided in-house includes sessions on other forms of meditation, stress and time management, resilience, and learned optimism.

  • We include wellness activities at all of our larger in-person programs, such as drop-in mindfulness, yoga, fun races, and spin classes.

3. Connecting with Colleagues and Finding Meaning at Work

  • We hold in-person meetings to deepen connections, including new associate orientation, 3rd and 6th year intensives, new partner orientation, women partner and diverse attorney retreats, and biennial partner retreats.

  • Our Corporate Social Responsibility and Pro Bono Programs offer opportunities to work with colleagues to make meaningful differences in our communities. We also offer paid time off for personal volunteer activities.

4. Creating an Energizing Work Environment

  • Our newly renovated offices feature fully windowed offices for maximum light exposure for internal spaces, spaces for gathering informally, and adjustable desks.

  • We offer healthy food and snacks at events and in our cafes and signature mocktails at associate events.

5. Giving Individuals a Voice

  • The firm conducts a biennial engagement survey to gather input on Winston as a place to work and we report on the results, as well as program and policy changes driven by the feedback.

Finally, we offer tools to those who need help. The firm has excellent health and welfare benefits, including an Employee Assistance Program offering a broad array of mental health services. More directly, we have professional staff leaders who have been trained as Mental Health First Aid Responders and Instructors. They understand risk factors and warning signs, strategies for helping someone in crisis, and where to get appropriate help. Winston Mental Health First Aid Responders are a resource for firm members who need someone to talk with who can listen and help. The long-range plan is to train additional attorneys and staff in each office.

The stresses of practicing in BigLaw are not going away, but law firms can provide meaningful education, an environment in which people can be their authentic selves, and practical tools for those in need. This is the right thing to do for our people, but it is also the right thing to do for our business.

Author Information

Susan G. Manch is the chief talent officer at Winston & Strawn LLP in Washington, D.C. She collaborates with firm leaders to devise talent strategies that allow the firm to attract, hire, and prepare lawyers and professional staff to provide the highest quality service to clients and to help them build successful and satisfying careers. Manch has been a thought leader in the legal talent development and management field for the past 30 years.

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