Health and wellness for our legal community

Aug. 30, 2019
President’s Message By Lori McMaster

In my career services role, I regularly attend meetings and conferences with my law school counterparts from across the country. We share information and best practices and discuss trends we are experiencing in our student counseling roles. Regardless of whether the law school is public or private, large or small, we are all seeing law students suffering from stress and depression. Nationally, law students are reporting high rates of depression and/or anxiety, and drinking excessively. “Suffering in Silence: The Survey of Law Student Well-Being and the Reluctance of Law Students to Seek Help for Substance Use and Mental Health Concerns,” 66 J. LEGAL EDUC. 116 (2016).

For those of you interested in the generational explanations for increased expressions of stress, I strongly recommend the book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy- and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood” by Jean Twenge, Ph.D., who analyzed several longitudinal studies of Americans born between 1995 and 2012 (the “iGen”). Drawing from four large, nationally representative surveys of 11 million Americans, Dr. Twenge concluded that members of iGen “are at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades.” Id. at 3.

Legal industry experts are likewise very concerned about the mental health and wellness of attorneys. A 2016 study titled “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys” by Patrick R. Krill, JD, LLM, Ryan Johnson, MA, and Linda Albert, MSSW found that levels of depression, anxiety, and stress among attorneys are significant, with 28%, 19%, and 23% experiencing mild or higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively. Fully 61% of respondents reported concerns with anxiety at some point in their career and 46% reported concerns with depression. The authors found considerably higher rates of mental health distress among attorneys than has been found in similar studies of physicians and surgeons.

To its credit, in 2018, the ABA’s Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession launched a campaign to address these issues among lawyers. The campaign seeks to raise awareness, facilitate a reduction in the incidence of substance abuse and mental health issues and improve lawyer well-being. As of June 2019, the number of signatories included 90 law firms and more than 20 corporate legal departments.

Law student and attorney wellness are issues of key concern to the profession, our justice system, and to the ACBA, which recently hosted an informational meeting for members interested in starting a Health and Wellness Committee. Please contact Christina Daub at if you’d like to participate. The bar association is eager to hear your thoughts regarding how we can address this challenge.

Would you welcome speaker programs? A move to de-emphasize alcohol at bar association events? Strategies to recognize and respond to a colleague’s distress? Events featuring Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL), an independent, non-profit corporation run by judges and lawyers for the benefit of the bench and bar?

ACBA member Aleksandra (Sasha) Phillips of Reed Smith’s Pittsburgh office established The Art Wellness program to focus on mental health and wellness within the legal profession. “It is built on extensive research showing that drawing, painting, dance, music, crafts and other creative activities all provide a way to alleviate and reduce stress, and on unique individual experiences of legal professionals who use art to improve their well-being”, Phillips said. On May 15, 2019, a Pennsylvania bar-wide art exhibit opened at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, featuring artwork created by judges, attorneys, legal professionals, law students, and supporting staff, as a means of relieving stress and achieving better mental health and overall well-being. The exhibit included multiple artistic mediums, together with statements explaining how the legal professionals used art as a wellness tool.

“There are several Art Wellness programs now in place that will allow us to continue the discussion and raise awareness of mental health issues as well as provide different ways to cope with the stress and other issues often associated with a fast-paced legal career,” says Phillips. If you’re interested in becoming involved with The Art Wellness Program, please contact Sasha Phillips at

Law schools are increasingly adopting programs to address student wellness. Alison Lintal, director of Career Services & Internship Programs at Dickinson Law, describes the school’s “Mindful Mondays” and “Wellness Wednesdays.” “On Mondays over lunch there is a 30-minute drop-in meditation available to all faculty, students, and staff. On Wednesdays, I offered a 1-hour yoga class in the late afternoon. Additionally, as the faculty instructor for the externship program, I incorporate 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation at the beginning of each externship class. Students explore mindful breathing, mindful listening, body scan, compassion meditation, mindful consumption, and other techniques. They are encouraged to take up the practices on their own and reflect on what mindful lawyering means to them.”

Ella Kwisnek, Associate Dean of Students at Duquesne University School of Law, includes wellness topics during first-year student orientation. “Students hear from speakers from the University’s office of Counseling and Wellbeing that includes our counseling center, health services, and fitness center. Someone from LCL is also on the panel. We also host a Wellness Day in early- to mid-October where representatives from various University offices are available, we provide information about community resources, and there are healthy snacks and chair massages. In addition to the above events we have a mindfulness and meditation room where weekly yoga is hosted and have monthly music therapy and therapy dogs. Also, once per semester someone from the counseling center comes to the school of law and hosts a program on mindfulness. For the upcoming academic year, the counseling center will have a mobile unit in the School of Law one day each week.”

Tina Jernigan, Assistant Dean for Student Life at West Virginia University College of Law is also focused on student wellness and is pleased that the West Virginia Board of Law Examiners voted unanimously in 2019 to remove question 33 regarding mental health diagnosis for the West Virginia Application to Practice Law. WVU Law’s student orientation also focuses specifically on mental health and wellbeing.

WVU Student Life and the West Virginia Judicial and Lawyers Assistance Program will sponsor a sober tent at the annual homecoming tailgate and the law school will continue to have monthly programming focused on reducing stress, including free chair massages, puppy days, and coloring/other stress-busting activities. “WVU Law will continue the use of the Wellness Room in the Student Services Suite. This room holds activities to help reduce stress, snacks, supplies, and resources for anyone struggling. It’s a quiet place for students to collect their thoughts and rest when needed,” says Jernigan.

Vice Dean Haider Ala Hamoudi of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law emphasizes that “student wellness is a high priority at Pitt Law, and one on which we have placed a great deal of emphasis over the past several years. Our wellness program begins at student orientation, where we highlight different forms of support that exist within the law school, as part of the broader University, and in the Pittsburgh community generally. Within the law school, our support includes faculty and staff with decades of experience in wellness, including Professor Theresa Brostoff, who has a medical background and regularly leads a meditation session for the Pitt Law community, Dean of Students Kevin Deasy, who has a background in social work, and Rob Wible, Director of Academic Success and Bar Exam Services, who is a member of a state-wide task force dealing with wellness in the legal profession.’’

ACBA member Mary McKinney Flaherty will also be teaching one-hour yoga classes at Pitt Law this year. Students at Pitt Law utilize the University’s Wellness Center and the Counseling Center. Pitt Law has a strong relationship with LCL, which holds student hours once per semester for students dealing with substance abuse issues.

“Most importantly, the Law School has trained select faculty as well as staff with significant student contact to identify students facing wellness issues, and to engage such students early. The Law School is also quite excited that Pitt Law alum Brian Cuban has generously contributed to a student wellness fund that will provide additional forms of programming and student support. Our aim is very much to be on the frontier in this vitally important area, and to continue to innovate and develop whatever programming we can to help our students maintain wellness during their entire tenure at Pitt Law,” says Hamoudi.

Finally, my Golden Doodle, Toby (whose full name is “Toby McMaster, JD” – just dog) regularly comes to the law school during study and exam periods to provide students with stress relief and canine kisses. (Toby has his own email address at Pitt Law and regularly sends selfies to students; his typing skills and pronoun usage are horrible but the students always know what he’s saying.) Pitt students in need of more than one adorable dog can visit the Cathedral of Learning every Tuesday to play with about 20 therapy dogs brought by volunteers from the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.

Please do share your thoughts with me about how the ACBA can support the health and wellness of our members at or 412-648-2359.

All my best, Lori.