The recent National Judicial Stress and Resiliency Survey offered insights into the overall well-being of judges and the strategies they use to handle stressors in their work. On Balance hosts Molly Ranns and JoAnn Hathaway are joined by Joan Bibelhausen and Judge David Shaheed, who recently co-authored an article on the survey’s results. They share how and why the survey was created, its findings on mental health and coping mechanisms, and what they recommend for stakeholders to help support judges in their roles.
Joan Bibelhausen has served as Executive Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers since 2005.
Judge David Shaheed’s legal career spans more than 30 years, including 20 years as a judge in both criminal and civil courts.
Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Michigan’s on Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management and lawyer wellness for a thriving law practice here on Legal Talk Network.
Molly Ranns: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I’m Molly Ranns.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I’m JoAnn Hathaway. We’re very pleased to have Joan Bibelhausen, Executive Director of the Minnesota State Bars Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers Program and the Honorable David Shaheed, a semi-retired Trial Judge from Indianapolis, Indiana join us today as our podcast guests. Both JoAnn and Judge Shaheed were recent co-authors of Stress and Resiliency in the U.S Judiciary and are here today to talk about the national judicial stress and resiliency survey. Joan and Judge Shaheed, could you each share some information about yourselves with our listeners?
Joan Bibelhausen: Well this is Joan Bibelhausen, and I’m very happy to be here. I’m the director of the Minnesota Lawyer Assistance Program which is an independent organization. Some are part of the bar association; some their course and some are independent and we’re one of the independents. And I’ve been here for about 15 years and I’ve been involved in judicial stress research in Minnesota for much of that time. And I’ve also served on the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and several of its committees.
David Shaheed: My name is David Shaheed. I’ve been a Judicial Officer since 1995 and I am currently serving as a senior judge, a part-time judge in Indiana. I’ve been involved in attorney wellness for a number of years beginning with the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program in Indiana. And then also on the Commission of Lawyers Assistance Programs COLAP for the American Bar Association.
Molly Ranns: All right, thank you both so much for being here. Joan this first question is for you. What’s the background on the national judicial stress and resiliency survey? Perhaps can you talk a little bit about why and how it was conducted.
Joan Bibelhausen: Absolutely, there have been two other surveys that were published prior to this one. One was a study of lawyer impairment which is a collaboration of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. Then there was a study of law students that was a comparison with graduate students across the country and both of these found significant levels of impairment. Then the task force on lawyer well-being was created which included representatives of ABA COLAP as well as some other organizations and they did not wish to just have this research sit on a shelf. And so they decided to create a report on the path to lawyer well-being. And one of the recommendations in that and these discussions had been taking place for quite some time was that there should be a survey of judges. And in fact there had been some individual state surveys but never a national one. And so a group was pulled together at one of the COLAP meetings and I was part of that. I’ve been on the commission as well and people volunteered to step forward and be involved in this and conduct research and so on. Prior to that, I’d been working with a professor at the University of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota who was very interested in this topic and I’ve been developing a survey with him for Minnesota judges. So that survey became the basis of the national survey and it was distributed. It was voluntary so it was something that people could choose to do or not. It was distributed through lawyer assistance programs which sent it to their chief judges as well as through the national judicial college. And we had over a thousand judges across the country who participated. We did go through a process which is required for any kind of research which is that it’s reviewed by a board to make sure that the questions are not going to be traumatizing. That they’re going to be appropriate et cetera. So we met all of those standards in preparing the survey.
JoAnn Hathaway: Judge Shaheed, what did the survey show about judicial stress and as a judge yourself, was there anything that surprised you?
David Shaheed: Yes. One of the things that we hear about whenever judges get together at conferences and so forth are the frustrations of judges and some of those frustrations came out in the study itself. One of the couple of the complaints of judges in the survey were the heavy docket, a heavy case load, having to work with unrepresented litigants as well as unprepared attorneys. And then also the stress associated with family law issues and isolation. One of the important aspects of the survey especially over the last year with COVID and dealing with the global pandemic is the increase in self-represented litigants and contentious family law issues.
Those were issues that were identified pre-pandemic so I’m sure that we’ve probably seen an uptick in some of those frustrations with judges. One of the more alarming parts of the survey, keep in mind that as Joan mentioned there were over a thousand judges that participated in the survey, one of the effects of stress even though it was the last one mentioned at 2.2 percent was thoughts of self-harm or inflicting self-harm. Even though it was the last one mentioned, the fact that approximately 22 judges have considered self-harm as a part of just doing their job indicates that there is significant work for us to do in terms of judicial wellness and helping our colleagues. So this is something that I believe is an important outcome from the survey because it gave the judges an opportunity to point out that some of the frustrations of the job are causing thoughts of self-harm to themselves.
Molly Ranns: Wow! Yeah, that self-harm piece is certainly alarming. Joan, what did the survey show regarding substance use and other issues? And how does this compare to lawyers and how does it compare to the general population?
Joan Bibelhausen: Thank you for that question. We were really curious what we were going to find on this survey and what we used was a test called the audit which is alcohol use disorders identification tests developed by the World Health Organization. It has 10 questions. They have to do with frequency, amount and also self-impressions about one’s use. Overall, the general population, it varies from year to year but you’re going to see between six and eight percent of the population is seen as using alcohol at a level that would be considered problematic and possibly indicating dependency or being diagnosed with a substance use disorder. So the shorthand for that is using more alcohol than the doctors think we should. The general recommendation is no more than 14 a week or two a day for men and no more than seven a week and one a day for women. And more recently that research has been updated to suggest that men and women both should not consume more than one drink a day or seven a week for optimal health. And so alcohol use in excess of that, we used the higher number is seen as possibly problematic. For lawyers, the percentage of lawyers who drink at a level that indicate that it might be a problem is 20.6 percent. So one in five. And the percentage of lawyers who are under 30 and in their first eight years of practice who meet that same criteria is around a third. So you can see that there’s a concern in the lawyer population. For judges, what the number was, was 9.5 percent. So approximately one and a half times that of lawyers but lower than lawyers. And we thought about that. We thought about what those reasons might be. Some of the suggestions we made in the study in the article were that sometimes those who are in their earlier years of practice who have the higher rates, they either deal with it and attend to it perhaps enter recovery or change their use. Or the profession is one that does not fit them and so they might leave. At the point where somebody is at a place in their career where becoming a judge of course is prestigious, it’s a career capstone, most people retire as judges although some do return to other things. But generally, you’re going to kind of have made some decisions about how you’re going to manage your stress and things like that. Alcohol is one of the ways that we use to manage our stress so it’s reasonable that the rate would be lower and it’s quite concerning actually that it’s as high as it is. And so those were the results that that we found. We’re looking at 9.5 percent as being at any kind of risk. And then smaller subsets of that were at of significantly higher rate of risk where if there were an assessment based on what the person said, it might be suggested that they needed to be abstinent.
JoAnn Hathaway: Thank you for that Joan. Judge Shaheed, this question is for you. What do you believe is helpful to manage stress and more importantly, why is there a difference between what people believe is helpful and what they actually do?
David Shaheed: Yes, well the survey showed that there were some very simple measures that judges are using in terms of resiliency and coping with stress. And the very simple one of the highest was just walking and just casual exercise about 82 percent mentioned that as a way that they coped with stress. And then 88.7 percent recognize good nutrition as a practice used to cope with stress. So just those simple measures were reported by judges as ways of coping or trying to cope with stress. One of the disconnects that we saw was the disconnect between isolation as one of the issues that concerns judges. About 50 percent of the judges mentioned isolation of judicial work as a source of stress. But then when they were asked about sources that they use for resiliency and coping with stress only 36 percent mentioned asking for peer support. So what judges say is an issue doesn’t seem to connect with what they’re looking for in terms of trying to address that particular problem. But one of the recommendations and we’ll get to this that we’ve been able to identify that is a great source of relieving stress are judicial roundtables. And judicial roundtables are simple enough and we’ve used them with some of our annual judicial meetings is we just advertise and make known that we’re going to have a round table so judges can voluntarily come to those roundtable discussions. And it’s not about the law per se or making judicial decisions, but it’s just about what it’s like to be a judge. For example we start out with those things that we like about being a judge and those things that we dislike just to get a conversation started. And we found that the judicial roundtables are greatly-greatly appreciated by judges whenever those sessions are offered. And in some situations, when meetings are going to be held of judges for example, juvenile court judges, they ask that JLAP, the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program actually put on a roundtable session so that the judges have an opportunity just to chat and talk about what it’s like being a judge and to kind of share their experience and learn from each other as to the best ways to cope with the stress of doing the judicial work.
Molly Ranns: I can see how judicial roundtables could be hugely beneficial. There’s so much research that shows you know offering support to one another and how beneficial that is. This next question I’d like both of you to answer if possible. I’m wondering if you can comment and Joan perhaps we can we can start with you, on what specific recommendations to stakeholders can come out of this survey?
Joan Bibelhausen: I think that the recommendation came from what we found which the disconnect that you heard about where people valued certain ways to reduce their stress but yet they weren’t actually engaging in them. And so from the big picture perspective we can say these are the reasons that some of these recommendations are here. I think that what I didn’t mention earlier is that there were also some results that talked about the kinds of things that might be seen as contributing to having depression or anxiety. And so almost four in ten judges talked about having fatigue and low energy after several cases. One in five preoccupation with negative thoughts and 15 percent being in a depressed mood. So that’s a lot of judges who are feeling these things with this trauma that they are constantly exposed to. With the people who are having sometimes the worst days of their lives and a judge is hearing this information. And so in order to support the judicial officers who are trying to have this system work as it should and listen to people patiently and provide the kind of environment that is appropriate. It’s I think up to everybody that’s involved with this system to provide that foundation for the judges to be able to do their best work. So there were recommendations for different groups. One was who are the court leaders, all right? So this would be your chief judges et cetera but then also the regulators. Making sure that those who are doing the discipline work understand that stress and can take that into account.
The people who are doing judicial education, it’s just not about the new rules of evidence. The membership organizations themselves, the lawyer and judges assistance programs and then judges individually. So that’s kind of an overview and I’m wondering Judge Shaheed if you want to address specific recommendations that resonate with you as a judge, then I can pick on probably some things that in addition to the round tables that we’ve seen in the study.
David Shaheed: Yes. Thank you Joan. One of the areas where it seems that a lot of progress can be made especially since most judges, most judicial districts and courts are organized with the presiding judge and administration by those judges is for those presiding judges or chief judges to share the results of this survey and discuss some of the results of the survey. We were very pleased that we were able to get over a thousand judges to participate in the survey and this is the first time that this has been done. So I think it’s important to share those results with the fellow judges and also to have discussions about them. And also to include some aspect of well-being discussions when you have those meetings of judges. Typically at the end, it’s optional for those who want to stay, they can because some judges will not want to be engaged. But I think it’s important to offer that so that there can be discussions about wellness. So much of our life has been around content, legal content, but just the wellness of lawyers is important. And the final point I would mention in particular as it relates to new judges, most court systems in most states have some training for new judges. But once that training is over, the job is very isolating. In some states and the Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs has been very helpful in trying to match judges, especially new judges with mentors and they don’t have to be in the same court system that they’re in. But it’s important to have somebody to talk with about some of the stresses and some of the aspects of being a judge. But I think those are some options and recommendations that stuck out to me.
Joan Bibelhausen: I would note that we thought it was critically important that the example has to be set from the top. That part of leadership is to say, it’s important to take care of yourself. It’s important to pay attention to colleagues. It’s important to be aware of things that might make an impact on you being able to do the job that you want to do. And if those people at the highest levels are saying this is the right thing to do, this is okay, I support this. That’s going to be one of the things that makes it okay for the rest of the judges within the system to do so. And so it’s by example, it’s by supporting programs, it’s by putting together a task force or other committee that was originally recommended by the well-being report. It also involves leave policies and providing opportunities for people to take the time they need to, to get the help they need if they do need to step away. One of the proposals that is fairly specific that I know is being implemented in some places, is that I know retired judges are often used or senior judges to cover cases when somebody needs to be away. It might be a vacation; it might be any number of reasons. And that instead of just using them when the judge is away, when that judge comes back they’re going to have some catch-up time. So building in some senior judge support so that someone has chambers time so that they can catch up. Because otherwise, what is the point of taking that vacation. And the top sources of stress, the heavy docket of cases. Have there been good caseload studies, so from the top that was an important recommendation.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well I think one of the next things that we wanted to address was, and this is for both of you. And Judge Shaheed, let’s start with you. If you could comment on what’s next and if there are any ensuing initiatives in the works.
David Shaheed: Well one of the concerns because just about the time we were launching and looking at the publication of the survey results, COVID and the pandemic set in. And so the life for lawyers and judges, law students, you know, radically changed almost overnight. So one of the kind of next steps that we’re thinking about is perhaps a follow-up to see if the adjustments that have been made over the last year in particular have changed or altered any of these results.
I know that with respect to self-represented litigants, that has been an issue in Indiana and probably in other places. And then I would just mention this just as a comment, when you think about the courtroom as a setting, there are so many subtle impacts on the public as to the role of the judge in that process. But as we have gone to Zoom court sessions, remote sessions in many parts of the country, the informality has set in and so the judge has a difficult time sometimes maintaining the order that is typically maintained when you’re in a large room with an elevated judge and sometimes deputies around to enforce the role of the judge in making decisions. So I think that this is a good opportunity for us to kind of assess where we are now with some of these issues that we dealt with in terms of stress for judges and resiliency. And then what has changed and what the future holds with respect to judicial work.
Joan Bibelhausen: I would add to that that the legal profession is on the front lines of all of the things that are most stressful in our society. That’s the way it’s always been but right now there’s a lot going on. There’s certainly the pandemic, there’s social unrest including what happened in January 6 in Washington DC and what happened less than five miles from where I am, when George Floyd died. And in addition we have the economic downturn. So all of those things are showing up in the legal system. And so lawyers are experiencing more stress and judges are exposed to more stress and more trauma. And so I think going forward we’re not only looking at ratcheting up the support that is available and talking about the importance of support, but also looking at subgroups. When we look at the demographics, we did not separate out answers based on race because of the size of the sample. But would there be some value in making a specific effort to survey by judges. We might want to look at doing more work on gender and looking at the impact of some of the things that have been implemented and have they made changes so that we would have evidence to say, this is working, this is a model you can use and I think the judicial roundtables are an excellent example of that. There are groups meeting and talking and looking at what else we can do and lots and lots of ideas are being discussed.
JoAnn Hathaway: Such valuable information and we thank you both so much. Well, it looks like we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guest today, Joan Bibelhausen and Judge David Shaheed for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: Yes. Excellent information shared today. If our guest would like to follow up with either of you, what’s the best way to reach you?
Joan Bibelhausen: I have an easy email, which is the word help h-e-l-p @mnlcl.org which is short for Minnesota MN and then LCL Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. mnlcl.org.
David Shaheed: My email is probably the best way to make contact, and that is judge j-u-d-g-e-d-a shaheed s-h-a-h-e-e-d, that’s all lower case with no space or gaps @gmail.com.
Molly Ranns: Thank you both again. This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan on Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I’m JoAnn Hathaway.
Molly Ranns: And I’m Molly Ranns, until next time. Thank you for listening.
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