The University of St. Thomas School of Law has partnered with the American Bar Association (ABA) and pledged to improve lawyer and law student well-being. This step is in response to research that found lawyers struggle with health and wellness problems at levels well above both the general population and other highly-educated professionals. St. Thomas Law is one of the first schools in the country to make the pledge.

“These issues are central to the future of our profession and, as gatekeepers to the practice of law, we have a responsibility to ensure that our graduates understand that their own well-being is a non-negotiable element of professional excellence,” said Robert Vischer, dean of the St. Thomas School of Law.

In 2016, the ABA’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published their study of nearly 13,000 currently-practicing lawyers. The results showed that between 21 and 36 percent qualify as problem drinkers, and that many were struggling with depression (28 percent), anxiety (19 percent) and stress (23 percent).

“To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being,” the ABA states on its website. “These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence. This research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.”

In response to the research findings, the ABA has formed task force committees and working groups aimed at combating the health problems within the legal community. Last fall, the ABA’s Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession launched a campaign asking law firms, judges, state bar associations, law schools and others to pledge their support and adopt a seven-point framework, which identifies the areas on which stakeholders should focus.

In the coming months, Dean Vischer will appoint a faculty-staff committee to oversee the law school’s efforts to develop and implement wellness initiatives.

A focus on well-being is not new for the law school, however. Student wellness has long been a priority for the institution. Using innovative engagement models, faculty and staff foster a school environment where each student feels connected and supported. St. Thomas Law also has an active Wellness in Practice student organization that provides resources for classmates and promotes wellness, balance and collegiality within the law school.

Despite the research, Dean Vischer says he feels the legal culture is changing in positive ways. He emphasizes, however, that long-term change will need to come from all areas of the profession, including law schools.

“Efforts will only be successful to the extent that the entire profession moves forward together,” said Vischer. “We must collaborate closely and creatively if we hope to give rise to a profession that is attractive to future generations and respected by those we serve.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing anxiety or depression, struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, or simply needs support, please contact a health professional or Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a free, confidential assistance program for lawyers, judges, law students and their immediate family members.

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