Mental Health Awareness in the Legal Industry: A Conversation with Gina Passarella

Passarella, Gina 2020.jpgTo commemorate Mental Health Awareness Month in May, LMA’s New York Local Group discussed this poignant issue with Gina Passarella, Editor-in-Chief of The American Lawyer. Gina and her staff recently completed a remarkable series of articles, Minds Over Matters: An Examination of Mental Health in the Legal Profession. 

The year-long investigation covered mental health across every sector of the legal profession. Over the course of 12 months, Am Law, Law.com, and its related publications shined a light on mental health, addiction, stress, and well-being to destigmatize the issue, and identify methods to effectuate change. Gina shared her insights about what she and her Am Law colleagues discovered and how their findings relate to legal marketing professionals in a conversation with our New York Communications Chair, Tom Mariam. 

Why did you decide to produce this major series on mental health in the legal industry? 

We were increasingly writing about the tragic effects of ignoring mental health and heard enough examples of people who felt they had no resources or a safe place to express concerns or ideas. As a media company, we felt our best use was to create awareness in an effort to destigmatize the conversation and make way for progress to be made. We don’t want to run another “Big Law Killed My Husband” article. 

What were the main themes you learned? 

Isolation, exhaustion, the billable hour, and the 24/7 work environment were consistent, palpable themes throughout our coverage. Those issues were at the core of what many identified as the biggest impediments to mental health in the profession. 

What did you learn that was unexpected? 

What struck me was the complexity of this issue. It’s nothing any one firm or profession can solve. It’s deeply personal and requires input and work from employers, families, and the individual. There is also a disconnect between the efforts of the employer to improve mental health and the employees who often view those efforts as lacking or insincere. 

How difficult was it to get lawyers, staff, and others to discuss such a sensitive topic? Did any one group stand out in its willingness to cooperate or not cooperate? 

The response to this project was overwhelming. We were taken aback by the number of people across all levels and pockets of the profession who reached out wanting to be a part of the project and share their story, or just thank us for doing this. Firm leaders, associates, business professionals, judges, litigators, deal lawyers, professors, in-house counsel--you name it, we heard from them. I was probably most surprised by the number of younger lawyers who reached out, many of whom were informally working on mental health in their own networks. I think that bodes really well for the future of the profession. 

What was the most poignant part of the series? 

Wow. This is a hard question. There are two moments that stand out to me as representative of the highs and lows of addressing this subject. The first was when we reviewed the results from our Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey. The results were staggering in terms of revealing how deep the problems run in the legal industry. It was a bit disheartening at first, honestly, because we want to feel like there is progress. But really, the progress comes from the fact that so many people were willing to admit to these struggles in the survey. That’s the first step. 

The second poignant moment was when we honored Joanna Litt, the author of “Big Law Killed My Husband,” with our Attorney of the Year award. Her courage in sharing the story of her late husband Gabe MacConaill and her message to the industry on how we can do better was so inspiring. The courage and conviction of Joanna and others like her makes me believe the industry is moving in the right direction. 

Did you find anything different concerning mental health from legal marketing professionals than you did from lawyers? 

The legal marketing community is as deeply impacted by mental health issues as any other segment of the market, and often has fewer avenues for speaking out or changing their circumstances. There is also the real concern of mental health programs or other employee benefits only being available to lawyers, not staff. The caste system we have written about is real for business professionals in firms, though to varying degrees depending on firm culture. 

The fear to speak out highlights the broader issue of not always having a voice in the firm on a range of issues. I do think the concept of a rising tide lifts all boats applies here. As firms meaningfully look to implement a culture of well-being, all members should benefit. Shame on those firms who would treat factions of their members differently from others, particularly when it comes to caring for their mental health. 

What reactions did you receive from your series from lawyers and firms when they read your articles? 

The reactions from individual lawyers at all levels was astounding and so positive. In a way, it felt like they felt free. Finally, a place to talk, even if just off the record. It was immensely gratifying, detailed the true depth of the problem and gave hope for a better future. Firms were equally supportive. They weren’t all equally forthcoming, but they saw this as an important initiative to be a part of. After all, this is a talent business. To ignore this issue is bad business. It’s also inhumane. 

How different, if at all, did you find mental health issues in the legal industry from other professions? 

There is no doubt that mental health is first and foremost a societal issue that needs to be destigmatized and supported at all levels of society, health care, government, and industry. But there are reasons the legal profession sees increased numbers of mental health and substance abuse issues. It can’t solve for all of those factors, but it can meaningfully work to eradicate exacerbating factors, particularly those tied to antiquated ways of how employees are viewed and how business is done. 

What impact do you think the changes being caused by the coronavirus pandemic will have on the mental health of legal industry professionals? 

Many of the experts we have worked with on this project expect the virus to have a positive impact in bringing the discussion on mental health to the forefront. Feelings of anxiety and depression have become more universal. Mental health is something more people are thinking about and talking about. Leadership needs to understand that doesn’t go away when the pandemic goes away. They also should be sure to check in on people working remotely as isolation--a key contributor to mental health problems in the legal industry--is all the more prevalent now. 

Another positive change may come from the lessons learned through remote work. More flexible schedules, more creative pricing to meet clients’ needs in a tough economic environment and just generally more attempts to break free from historical ways of operating the firm could have the side effect of benefitting mental health.

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