Alcoholism, substance abuse and depression; these three afflictions usually receive the most attention at CLE programs and in legal publications. This makes sense in light of the continuing (and alarming) rise in the numbers of attorneys suffering with these impairments.

What we don’t hear as much about, statistically or otherwise, are the more subtle impairments that many people have. A few root causes of the more subtle impairments to our mental (and physical) health include: chronic workaholism; addictions to our high tech tools; ongoing sleep deprivation; obesity; food allergies and intolerances; irregular or no exercise regiment; sexual or other harassment such as office bullying; burnout; long-term excessive stress loads; and the stubborn denial skills many folks have regarding all of the above.

Thinking right now how lucky you are NOT to have any addictions? Good for you unless of course you’re overlooking being overly attached to your tech “tools”. With brutal honesty, think back to your out of the office hours last night or last weekend. How frequently did you check your mobile phone, Blackberry or PDA for messages? How many work-related text messages or emails did you send? How often do you check for messages while supposedly “listening” to others?

Acknowledging and taking steps to address mental health concerns can be very difficult for many people. Instead, they resort to out-dated mindsets that push these types of problems under the rug, too embarrassing or sensitive to be discussed and certainly not shared with others. That traditional and naïve mode of thought feeds the destructive fires of denial and contributes to the damages caused by ignored mental health addictions and other impairments.

Do you personally have any problems with alcohol, other drug abuse or depression that you are not squarely facing? What about the quality of your diet, exercise regimen and sleep? Are there any exhausting stresses on your plate that have been there for a long time? Do you want those same stresses on your plate this time next year? If not, make a list today (for your eyes only) of what steps you can start taking to ensure they won’t be.

Is there anyone in your office showing signs of an existing mental impairment or at a high risk for developing an addiction? What is being done to help them, to ensure clients are not harmed in any manner, and to protect other employees?

Office Impairment Policies

Do you have a written impairment policy in your office? If so, is it current, followed, known and understood by all attorneys and staff?  How do you hold attorneys and staffs accountable if they fail to comply with your policy?

An effective mental impairment policy includes many basic components. First, it defines the mental impairment issues that the policy addresses. Second, it teaches about and explains the signs of mental impairment. Third, it tells employees how to handle a situation when they suspect or know of a co-worker’s or a client’s addiction or problem. Fourth, an office policy outlines how employees will be held accountable if they fail to report mental impairment incidents which could harm a client’s matter, another employee or do other damage. Fifth, the policy should include what resources, if any, the firm offers to employees with mental impairment challenges along with information on local external resources. Finally, the policy should address the firm’s confidentiality policy regarding these types of matters. Of course, the policy can be much broader than the minimal inclusions discussed above.

A written firm policy on mental impairment raises the awareness level of all employees, reflects the firm’s commitment to maintaining the highest level of legal services and ethics, acknowledges the firm’s intolerance for drug or alcohol abuse and the efforts and resources it offers employees needing assistance with mental impairment issues. Here’s just part of what a well written mental impairment policy says about your law firm: our integrity, commitment to clients and respect for them and our high standards for providing excellent services will not under any circumstances be compromised.

Plentiful Resources

The resources available for help with these matters are plentiful. From bar association programs to private therapists to online help and community outreach options, we have an endless number of resources from which to choose. A good place to start is with your local community, your state’s bar association and the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (COLAP) at or by calling 1-800-285-2221, Ext. 5359. Also, ask other attorneys how they handle these issues and if they would share a copy of their firm’s impairment policy.

Two More Reminders …..

(1) Firm leaders should consider making at least a portion of employees’ vacation time mandatory for all employees each year. Likewise, they need to set good examples of the importance of living balanced professional and personal lives.

(2) Firms should hold stress management/quality of life/mental health workshops at least twice a year for all employees or send them to quality programs offered by other groups. The firm will benefit tremendously from providing this type of education to employees (e.g. higher productivity, fewer absences, reduced stress and improved morale to name a few). In addition, your professional liability and medical insurance providers will applaud you and hopefully offer discounts for your efforts. And if not, check out their competition before applying for re-issuances of your policies.

Courage, fortitude, persistence, awareness, initiative, respectfulness and wisdom. By honing these characteristics in our own lives, we can be a part of the solution rather than keeping our heads in the sand or worse, our becoming one of the statistical nightmares.

Only some of our colleagues suffer from the more serious mental health challenges. But “some” is way too many. Each one of us is responsible for protecting ourselves, our employees and our great profession from the dangers of ignored mental health impairments. A great place to start is with the creation and implementation of a well thought out firm policy on mental health impairment. Equally essential is that we all take an honest, complete look in the mirror and that we get busy “fixin” whatever needs attention in our own lives and lifestyles.

An NBJ article on this same subject was published in 2008 by Lawyers USA

About the author 

Nancy Byerly Jones

Nancy Byerly Jones and her husband reside on their mountainside ranch (“Little Hee Haw Farm”) with an energetic “family” of horses, donkeys (large and miniature), dogs and cats. Their favorite pastime is sharing the joy and fun of their animals and ranch life with their family, friends and clients.

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