Unique stressors that frequently accompany the life of a legal professional can still be major triggers for depression and other mental health issues. What work still needs to be done to address legal industry health and wellness? On Balance hosts Molly Ranns and JoAnn Hathaway welcome Daniel Lukasik to discuss the current landscape of well-being in the profession and his insights on how to reduce stigma and support the health and wellness of legal colleagues.
Daniel Lukasik is the Judicial Wellness Coordinator for the New York State Office of Court Administration and the founder of lawyerswithdepression.com.
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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 are very pleased to have Dan Lukasik, New York State Judicial Wellness Coordinator and creator of the nationally award winning website lawyerswithdepression.com join us today. Dan, would you share some information about yourself with our listeners, please?
Daniel Lukasik: Sure. Well, I was a trial lawyer for almost 35 years. I live in Buffalo, New York. Three years ago, I was appointed by our chief administrative judge in the of Court Administration to be the judicial wellness coordinator, which started out just helping our 2,000 state supreme court judges. And now it’s expanded throughout the whole system, including court attorneys and administration staff. There’s about 15,000 of them across New York State. It’s like a large corporation. That’s my vocation.
And in terms of why I’m here today, I’ve lived with major depression for about 20 years now, a third of my life. I was diagnosed when I was 40 years old. It was a very difficult thing to go through. And I think that at that time, I didn’t know anybody with depression, let alone any lawyers with depression. And I think the stigma was very high at that time. It’s gotten better, but it still exists, but very high. And I also didn’t know when I was going through this, what was happening to me. I’d always experienced stress as a trial, or sometimes anxiety, but never full-blown clinical depression. And something was going on with me at the time and biggest symptoms I had where I was sad all the time, really despairing, which wasn’t my personality. I’m a people person, and I was crying every day in private and sobbing, and just sad all the time. This went on for months. The other thing, my sleep became fragmented. I couldn’t sleep no matter how much I tried. I’d wake up at two or three in the morning exhausted from dealing with depression, and for a while I tried watching TV. That didn’t work. So about 3:00 a.m., this went on for months. I shower, shave, get in my car, and go to an all-night coffee shop.
I was the only one there every night at that time, 3:00, 4:00 a.m. and I drink coffee, I’d look out the window and I’d read old newspapers. I tried to and I waited for the sun to come up. And then I drive to work and walk in the front door like nothing had ever happened. I think where the rubber met the road, where it really became a serious issue is when my productivity in the workplace fell, because the depression had affected my ability to concentrate, to read, to write, my energy levels plummeted. I tried to hide that as long as I could from my fellow partners and law firm, but eventually I just couldn’t function. So, that was the turning point — painful turning point, but turning point.
Molly Ranns: Dan, thank you so much for being here today and for sharing your story with us. What do you see as some of the biggest mental health challenges facing the legal profession today?
Daniel Lukasik: It’s twofold. I look at this from a perspective over 20 years, and I’m very fortunate to be here with you today to talk about this. But I think that in my mind, where a significant crossroads is what our law firms, law firm leaders going to do about the situation. The reason I say that is until pretty recently, the last few years, it was really seen as a lawyer’s individual problem. The thinking is you take care of that before, afterwork, law firms, law firm leaders didn’t see any responsibility or role they had to play in creating a healthy workplace that supported wellbeing and mental health. The other thing that I think is still impacting a lot of lawyers is the sense of stigma. Some of it comes from — we think of stigma as outside of oneself, disparaging remarks or snide remarks. And I experienced a lot of that 20 years ago. But I think more often than not, what we tend to see is people are much more educated about conditions like depression because it’s everywhere. It’s in the popular media. Many people know someone with depression.
It might be a fellow lawyer, it might be a fellow law student or judge, or it might be either wife or adult, child or elderly parent. So, the general culture has made things a lot better. But I think stigma remains because it doesn’t go along with the cultural image we have of lawyers as strong, successful, making a lot of money. They’re wearing their body armor; they don’t have problems. They’re supposed to solve people’s problems. So, there’s still a lot of stigma in that regard. So, along those two points, I think the challenge now going forward is getting a lot of legal organizations to buy in, the leadership buy in that they have a role to play and then to follow through and implement some of those changes. And then I think the other thing which is gaining – and that needs to happen is continuing dialogue, not just about things about stress management and mindfulness. Those are good things. And I teach it at our UB Law School
But also, about these tougher subjects like anxiety, depression, problem drinking, which typically are not discussed. So, I said to our dean when I proposed the course, they said, “If we don’t address those tougher topics, what message are we sending to these young people, these law students?” I mean, they know it’s a problem. We’re not fooling anybody. But it sends the wrong message to law students as it does to lawyers if we don’t deal with this.
JoAnn Hathaway: So, Dan, what are some of the causes that give rise to the mental health problems we’re seeing today?
Daniel Lukasik: Well, when we think about chicken and egg, or along those lines as becoming aware, cause your depression, this is the way I kind of look at it. There are a number of risk factors that people have before they step foot in law school. Two biggest ones are, I think, genetics, family history, and along with that, a history of dysfunctional family, neglect, abuse, those kinds of things. I myself had both risk factors. My family tree is populated with mental health and addiction issues. My dad was an alcoholic who died of alcoholism when he’s 56, 40 years ago now. So, I grew up, and he was a very angry, abusive, alcoholic.
So, I went into the law with those risk factors, and I think what happens is then sort of like a perfect storm. You have people with those risk factors who then collide with the unique stressors in the law, I think chronic stress. I still think it’s a win loss game, even though we’ve had efforts in mediation, arbitration, people aren’t coming to see you typically because they’re happy. So, you deal with a lot of negativity. You’re always on. And I think my view — one of the biggest barriers we talk about is lawyers feel they don’t have enough time to take care of themselves. They don’t have the time. It’s not that they don’t know it’s important, or they want to, they’re never off.
Molly Ranns: Dan, it’s been a difficult few years, to say the least. How do you think the pandemic has affected these problems?
Daniel Lukasik: I think quite a bit, and I think the latest surveys bear that out. In the general population, depression, anxiety rates were double or triple what they were before, and I think that’s fallen on lawyers pretty heavily, because you already have a staggering amount of lawyers nationwide who deal with depression and other problems. You know, the ABA study in 2017 said that 28% of lawyers in the last 12 months from when they were surveyed had a problem with depression. That’s four times the general population. But I think the other significant number, and it was a survey of 13,000 lawyers, so a big one, I think it was about 42%, said they had had a problem with depression over their legal career.
So, almost half the lawyers, I think double the lifetime risk factor, deal with depression. So, there’s something unique about the legal profession, about the people maybe who going to law that explains that. What explains that to these high rates is the unique. Well, oftentimes lawyers are very perfectionist. We’re rewarded for being perfectionist as lawyers and we’re detail orientated. But also, pessimism is a big problem.
We learn to see things pretty negatively and problem solving. So, those things are part of being aware. But if you have other risk factors that could spell trouble.
Molly Ranns: We are here today having a wonderful and vital conversation with Dan Lukasik, and we are now going to take a short break to thank our sponsors.
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JoAnn Hathaway: Welcome back. We’re pleased to be here with Dan Lukasik, Judicial Wellness Coordinator for New York State, as he talks with us about mental health within the legal profession. So Dan, a question, do you believe the stigma surrounding mental health problems is an issue for lawyers today?
Daniel Lukasik: I do. But I would say this. I think as I’ve talked to law firms around the country or different CLEs, I think that there’s a generational collision where people, law firm leaders, even group leaders or lawyers over 40 kind of not, are as open to this dialogue and grew up in a different time where the stigma load was much higher, like me, but younger people, I think especially below 30 their first 10 years, but are much more open, feel less stigmatized in terms of getting help. I gave a talk to first year lawyers and one came up to me afterwards and said, “This is great, Mr. Lukasik and everything, but I want you to know me and my friends don’t have a problem taking medication, don’t have a problem going to therapy, talking about it amongst ourselves. We do have a problem in the workplace.” So, that’s where we get the rubber meets the road about what firms can do to create a healthier culture. Because you could do all the self-help things you can and that’s necessary. But if you walk into an environment that is toxic or does not support these principles, you’re not doing the lawyers a favor, you’re not doing your firm a favor.
Molly Ranns: Dan, what self-help tips do you have for lawyers who might be dealing with too much stress, too much anxiety, or experiencing their own depression?
Daniel Lukasik: I think that a lot of lawyers are sometimes, especially lawyers over 40 low to go to psychologist, the therapist or psychiatrist. What I suggest in that instance is they go to their family doctor who are trained to diagnose these conditions. And I think that that’s a good starting place to have that honest conversation with your family doctor. Counseling is often a good first step to begin to unpack exactly what the problems are. And I think that from there, some people benefit from medication. I certainly did.
So, I think from the next step beyond, once you feel better, I think you can’t maybe do some of these things in the throes of depression or anxiety, but things such as how to stay well, I think that’s where wellbeing comes in. And for me, clearly, it’s mindfulness meditation has played a big role. The second thing is the practice of gratitude and there’s a specific way to do that that I talk about when I give lectures. I think the other thing in the last six months that’s been important to me is the practice of self-compassion. There’s a whole arm of research about this that we don’t need to be self-critical, as lawyers usually are, to be productive. And then finally, I’ll say support group. I started a support group for lawyers 15 years ago, whereas with depression support group, and now it’s still going strong.
And I think the advantage there is that these conditions can be very isolating and lonely, and when we feel nobody understands, it actually fuels depression and anxiety. So, we come together confidentially. It’s all lawyers. They’re all dealing with these issues. So, I think there’s kind of that immediate connection that is important. So, those are my top five or six months.
JoAnn Hathaway: What can law firms do to help?
Daniel Lukasik: That’s a good question, and I think it’s like what can individuals do for self-help. I mean, we have to start with plotting out what makes most sense for not only individuals. Different things work for different individuals, but also law firm cultures.
What works for a solo might not work for a big firm and vice versa, or medium sized firm, but I do think it’s true for the firms beyond where the medium to large firms is creating the infrastructure in the form of a wellbeing committee. And as I’ve talked to firms, I say, “Listen, you have to have that because that is what’s going to carry the ball moving forward. It has to be a structured, strategic approach because, if I come in and I do a CLE for the firm and you check that box and then nothing happens, it’s not going to do much good.” In my experience, it’s demoralizing to a lot of the lawyers. They get their hopes up that the firm cares about this, but then someone like me or another presenter leaves and it’s back to the same old, same old.
So, I think it has to have the same importance as other committees at the firm, tax committee or commercial real estate committee, given its level of importance and its impact on lawyers in the firm. So, what would those people do? They would take an assessment or the temperature of the firm, what’s working now, what’s not working, what other major stressors, and then they would begin meeting, I suggest every month. But if they can’t do that quarterly and then trying to determine what would be realistic, practical, what would make sense for that firm, it’s different for every firm, but without the infrastructure driving it forward, nothing changes. And that requires leadership because leaders are the ones that have the power to create these committees. And the committees have to be populated not only with young lawyers, but management, people who have some real skin in the game and power to drive change.
Molly Ranns: Dan, I think it’s really interesting that you mentioned wellbeing committee and firms because I’ve had young lawyers tell me as their job seeking that that is something they’re actually looking for on a website or asking about in an interview to help determine how passionate the firm is about their wellbeing and what that might look like going forward. Do you have any final thoughts to share with our listeners today about this really important topic?
Daniel Lukasik: This is what I’d like to say. I think I’m cautiously optimistic in the sense that I think on an individual level, lawyers have more resources and tools and discussion on this topic globally and nationally. It seems everywhere you turn there’s a new article or podcast or presentation on this important topic. So, I think that’s great. I think that the more difficult issue, but vital issue is what our legal organizations do. Not only law firms, but lawyer assistance programs which are critical in helping lawyers, law schools, bar regulators, the judiciary. I think that that is the next big lift we’re going to see going forward over the next five years, because people need both. You need to both, number one, psychologist said one friend of mine said the best thing, he goes, “You’re not to blame for your depression, but you are responsible for getting better.” I think that’s true because you could have an organization that you work at who cares a lot about you and mental health, but if you don’t do anything about it, you’re not going to go very far.
And also, if you have lawyers at your firm who are doing what they can to stay healthy, but you don’t care about this topic, you’re fooling yourself that it doesn’t have an effect on your bottom line, on your lawyer’s productivity, retention, recruitment. So, I think going forward, that is the next big change coming, hopefully over the next five years.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, it looks like we come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guest today, Dan Lukasik, for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: Dan, if our listeners would like to follow up with you, what is the best way to do so?
Daniel Lukasik: How people usually contact me? Is there’s a contact button on my website, lawyers with depression or if you Google lawyers depression, it will come up on the first page of a Google search and on there, I block about my experiences. I have podcasts and I have guests. There’s a section to contact me and that’s the easiest way to do it.
Molly Ranns: Dan, thank you 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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