On Stress

Issue January/February 2021 February 2021 By Jason E. Armiger
Young Lawyers Division Section Review
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Jason E. Armiger

The 2017 American Bar Association report on lawyer well-being concluded that “[o]ur profession is falling short when it comes to well-being. [S]tudies . . . reveal that too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance use. These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession . . . .”

In December, the Massachusetts Bar Association hosted an impactful program on managing stress and anxiety, featuring stories and advice from attorneys that have suffered from depression, discrimination and substance abuse. These issues are real and present among our colleagues — more than one in three attorneys experience them — but a pervasive stigma against seeking help causes many to suffer in silence. As summarized below, three practitioners and a clinician from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) sought to challenge those stigmas, offering advice and sharing their personal stories.

Gavin Alexander, a former senior associate at Ropes and Gray and current fellow on the Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, began experiencing symptoms of depression in his early teens. Gavin discussed the relative ease with which he “was comfortable ‘coming out’ about my [bisexuality] at age 16” compared to “not ‘coming out’ about, or even seeking any counseling or treatment for, my mental illness until age 30” due to the stigma against mental illness and treatment. Gavin suffered in silence for years because he “didn’t see anyone in the profession, in the jobs I aspired to, talking about these issues and their own experiences.” He described how his illness “drove me to achieve, but it also nearly drove me to my death.” After coming seconds away from ending his own life, Gavin finally sought medical treatment, and with the support of various health care professionals, he “realized that my life meant more than my job.” He disclosed his illness to his employer and was surprised to find them “incredibly supportive . . . . People thought I was brave and thought I was taking the steps I needed to actually succeed at my job.” He requested and was granted long-term reduced-time medical leave, which helped him succeed more than ever both in his life and at the firm. Gavin recommended seeking treatment from health care professionals (including at the emergency room if necessary) and noted that “when I did prioritize [myself], my job wound up thriving as well.”

April English, a 17-year veteran of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, opened her presentation asking, “[h]ow many of you have wondered how oppressive it must be for Black attorneys and attorneys of color in a predominately white profession . . . , what anxiety, depression and feelings of isolation me as a Black lawyer, and my other brothers and sisters who are part of the bar, must feel?” With incredible detail and from her own lived experience, April described the systemic discrimination attorneys of color experience in the courtroom, the board room, the conference room, in bar associations, and now on Zoom calls. The theme of her presentation: “We are exhausted.” April said she counsels attorneys of color to “speak up and speak out” when subjected to discrimination and microaggression, and reiterated the importance of self-care. “Take time off to reset; take time to rest.” She asked employers, organizations and white people to “care, be empathetic and listen,” as well as to “read — please read! Knowledge is power. Do not put that on the backs of people of color.” She emphasized that being an ally is a “lifelong membership, commitment and journey” and concluded with a question: “The color of my skin will forever define me, so I ask you, how will your allyship define you?”

Laurie Besden, executive director of LCL Pennsylvania, encountered her first mind-altering substance at age 8 in a dentist’s office and “chased that feeling . . . until I landed in jail at age 29 as a licensed attorney in two states.” Laurie graduated college with a 3.97 GPA but “was a drinking mess,” and after a car accident in law school and her first dose of prescription pain medication, Laurie drove “100 mph straight into a drug addiction that I thought I was immune from.” During two post-graduation clerkships, Laurie was taking 40 pain pills a day “just to function.” She maintained nine false identities to acquire pills from an unscrupulous doctor in Texas, and she entered 2004 with five felony arrests and ultimately her third incarceration. That night, which is now her sobriety date, Laurie was visited by an LCL volunteer who introduced himself saying, “You don’t know me, I’m 31 years clean and sober, and I’m going to help you.” Today, Laurie leads LCL in Pennsylvania, and after extensive rehabilitation and service to her community, has been fully reinstated to practice law and recently received a full gubernatorial pardon. Laurie’s message is clear: “If anyone thinks the legal profession is not about rehabilitation, think again . . . . Our profession cares about your wellness. They want you well. They are not going to penalize you for reaching out and getting help.”

Dr. Tracey Meyers, licensed clinical psychologist at LCL Massachusetts, explained the impact of stress on our bodies, the consequences if unmanaged, and the ways we can reduce our own stress and anxiety. She explained that heightened “levels of stress can contribute to anxiety, anger, depression and feeling overwhelmed,” but that those feelings are normal: “This is a nervous system response to trauma and stress, so it’s not your fault . . . . I think this is really helpful to understand so that we destigmatize this idea that we’re doing something wrong and look at it from a nervous system recalibration standpoint.” To recalibrate, we can learn skills to “increase our window of [stress] tolerance.” Dr. Meyers emphasized the “necessity to look at mental health and mental health services much like you would look at going to your primary care doctor.” Improving mental health can include working with a practitioner, talking to a clinician, attending support groups or investing in self-care. She suggested clinically proven methods to increase happiness, one of the most accessible and effective being mindfulness meditation, which she notes “is one of the most potent things we can do.” She concluded with the observation that “[s]elf-care can feel selfish, but in actuality, we go into this profession . . . to help people, and by helping ourselves, we actually are more capacitated to help others.”

The full recorded program is available for free on the MBA’s website here.

Jason E. Armiger is the chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division and a senior associate at Gesmer Updegrove, where he tries complex commercial lawsuits and practices employment law for technology startups.