In August of this year, the Michigan Task Force on Well-Being in the Law released a comprehensive report outlining current recommendations for supporting law student, lawyer, and judicial wellness. JoAnn Hathaway talks with co-chairs of the task force Molly Ranns and Justice Megan Cavanagh about their efforts to address common struggles in the profession, including high rates of depression, anxiety, and substance use. The task force also aims to form an ongoing Commission on Well-Being in the Law which would focus on promoting a healthier culture within all spheres of the profession.
Read the full report here: MICHIGAN TASK FORCE ON WELL-BEING IN THE LAW
And find more information on the commission at: onecourtofjustice.org
Justice Megan K. Cavanagh is an Associate Justice on the Michigan Supreme Court.
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 Justice Megan Cavanagh join us today, who is an Associate Justice on the Michigan Supreme Court. Along with my co-host for the State Bar of Michigan On Balance Podcast, Molly Rands, Justice Cavanagh co-chaired the task force on well-being in the law, issuing a final task force report in August 2023 with an overarching recommendation that a commission on well-being be formed. We are thrilled to offer this podcast to hear more about the work of the task force, the report, and what lies ahead today. So, Justice Cavanagh, could you share some more information about yourself with our listeners?
Justice Megan K. Cavanagh: Sure. Thank you for having me, Molly and JoAnn. I’m happy to be here. Yeah, I am Megan Cavanagh. I’m one of seven Justices on the Michigan Supreme Court. I was elected in 2018, took the bench in 2019. Prior to being elected, I was practiced as an appellate attorney in both state and federal courts for most of my career. So that’s a little bit about me.
Molly Ranns: Thank you. We are so grateful to you, Justice, for joining us here today. It’s been such a pleasure to be able to work alongside you on this task force and to see your passion for law student, lawyer and judicial well-being. You’ve really been an inspiration in just demonstrating that leaders such as yourself are committed to this effort. And before we talk specifically about the work of the task force and really what brought us here, I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about the Michigan Supreme Court. So, most people are familiar with the work the Court does in deciding cases and issuing legal opinions. But what’s less well-known is the role the Court and the Justices take on with respect to administration of the trial courts. Can you talk about the Court’s administrative functions generally and then maybe more specifically how that relates to the well-being of the legal profession?
Justice Megan K. Cavanagh: Sure. So you accurately relate, I think, what the situation is. Most people are very familiar with the way in which the Court works to decide cases, right? We sit in a term, have oral argument. We issue opinions that then are controlling on the lower courts in our state. But another equally as important role or function of the Court is to support and administer all of our trial courts. Michigan has over 550 local trial judges sitting in about 242 local trial courts. And in my opinion, and many on the Court, it’s such a critical role because not many people will get their case up in front of the Michigan Supreme Court but where most people interact with our judicial system is in these trial courts, in the district court and the circuit court, probate court.
And so, it’s very important that those courts have support to do that work and to serve the public well, to be accessible, to be transparent, to be efficient. And so, each of the seven Justices have various, what we call administrative liaison roles and that’s really where the individual justice works with either our State Court Administrative Office or some of our other partners in the judicial system to provide that sort of support and pathway to getting in contact with the Court. So we all have different roles. Mine are I am the liaison for our tribal courts. Michigan is really fortunate and unique in that we have 12 federally-recognized tribes in Michigan, each with their own independent, sovereign tribal court. And there’s a lot of interaction and collaboration between our state courts and our tribal courts. And so I am the liaison for that. I am also the liaison, along with Justice Kyra Bolden, to child welfare and helping, you know, in that incredibly important and very complicated area of law, making sure that our courts are serving the interests of kids and parents in the legal system.
And then I also have some roles sort of relevant to what we’re talking about in well-being is with judicial and attorney discipline. So I’m the liaison for the Judicial Tenure Commission, the Attorney Grievance Commission, and the Attorney Discipline Board. And as I’m sure we’ll talk about more, and the listeners can look at when reading the report, those discipline bodies have a significant role to play in lawyer well-being.
What those systems and what those bodies can do and how they can work alongside the State Bar and alongside the Court to have a well-being mindset is very important. And we are fortunate that our partners there at JTC and AGC and the Attorney Discipline Board have all partnered with us on this well-being venture that we’ve all been undertaking. So, it’s a little bit about the administrative role.
JoAnn Hathaway: Molly, I understand that the task force on well-being in the law was a joint effort between the Michigan Supreme Court and the State Bar of Michigan. As someone who specializes in lawyer well-being, can you talk about the events that prompted this effort in Michigan and what brought us here today?
Molly Ranns: Absolutely, JoAnn. So I began to work for the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program in 2011 as a clinical case manager. And those of us in the LAB world or the Lawyers Assistance Program world at that time, we knew that the legal profession was struggling in many ways. B,ut I think what really brought us here happened in 2016, which is what I’ll refer to, really as the Well-Being Movement. And that movement happened in 2016 with the publication of two pretty groundbreaking studies. So the first, now famously referred to as the lawyer study, and the second, the law student study, were both undertaken in 2016.
The ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation published their study, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys. And this was really the first study published since data was collected on the well-being of lawyers in 1990. So a considerable period of time had passed. It was a nationwide study, and it surveyed nearly 13,000 practicing attorneys in the country. And we found some pretty startling and troubling statistics. Nearly 30% of the lawyers identified struggling with depression at the time of the survey, nearly 20% indicated that they were struggling with anxiety, and 23% of the lawyers surveyed acknowledged that they were struggling with stress. Between 21% and 36% of the attorneys that were surveyed were positive for hazardous, harmful, or potentially alcohol-dependent drinking.
So these were some pretty startling statistics that are much higher than the general population. And it wasn’t just at the time of the survey we asked lawyers, what about throughout your career? And over 60% of the attorneys reported concerns with anxiety at some point in their career and nearly half said the same about depression to the point that they were impacted functionally. They showed that respondents aged 30 and younger, or those within the first 10 years of the practice of law, were at the greatest risk. So we had this information, and we were able to really put it in black and white and get it in front of stakeholders. And we had the second study that came out around that same time, the law student study, which showed us very similar things, right, that law students are struggling with statistically and significantly higher rates of mental health and substance use issues than the general population, but also higher rates than others in high-stress grad programs.
So, one of the startling statistics out of that law student study was that 6% of the students indicated that they had thought about suicide within the past year. And when this study was replicated in 2021, that number grew to 11%. Granted, we had had the pandemic, global pandemic in there, which I’m sure impacted mental health.
So this information allowed us to say, you know, something really has to be done. And so a National Task Force was formed and a national report was issued. And that report, which was called ‘The Path to Lawyer Well-being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change,’ really identified all the stakeholders in the field and challenged them to start to make some changes. Regulators, bar associations, law schools, lawyers’ assistance programs, judges, right? That list goes on. And one of the challenges that they called to stakeholders was to start a task force in your state on well-being, to start to address some of these issues. And so I’m so grateful to Justice Cavanagh for leading this charge. She contacted the State Bar in 2021 and really said we know that something needs to be done about the struggles in this profession.
And so, Justice Cavanaugh, you answered that call, and can you talk about then the makeup of the task force and the work that transpired, really prior to the final report being issued in August of this year?
Justice Megan K. Cavanagh: Sure. So, as you indicated, I had been seeing a number of things about lawyer well-being. I had talked with our then-Chief Justice, Bridget McCormack.
She offered some insight of what other states were doing. That sort of led me to the Institute of Well-Being in law, where you could really get a pretty good understanding and wide snapshot of what’s going on across the country. So in looking at that and seeing the charge of the National Task Force recommending that each state take up the issue, as you said, I contacted the State Bar and was so fortunate to be connected with you and all the great work that you are doing. And so we put our heads together and thought, “What would a task force in Michigan look like?”
And so we invited and got tremendous response from sort of modeled after the National Task Force, right, where we had representatives from sort of all of the stakeholders in that. We had representatives from each of Michigan’s five law schools. We had some of the regulators, right, the disciplinary bodies that I mentioned earlier. We had mental health professionals; we had representatives from the Board of Law examiners, judges from all types of different levels of trial court and tribal judge. We had lawyers from solo, small, large firm, as well as a law student to sort of just get that broad picture and look at the different issues, right? Because some of the well-being issues, not only the problems and the hurdles to well-being in the law, are different between law students, lawyers and judges, but those solutions look different as well. So we really wanted to get a broad perspective.
So we put together the task force, and we launched that in August of ‘22 where we all came together and had a meeting to really start talking about these ideas and these issues. And then we broke up into three different sort of work groups or subcommittees, one dedicated or focused on law student well-being, one on lawyer well-being, and one on judicial well-being. And so those individual groups then met over the next coming months and discussed specific issues that they could recommend specific to those practice groups to make recommendations to improve well-being, and then also come forward with actual, you know, concrete boots-on-the-ground implementation strategies for those recommendations.
And so, we combined and put together all of those recommendations and implementation strategies into a single report. And as you mentioned, the overall recommendation is for the Michigan Supreme Court to establish an ongoing commission on well-being in the law, because we obviously know this is not something that just, you know, you talk about once or a couple of times and put it in a report and you’re all done and everything’s fixed. Obviously, that’s not how this works. We are all human beings. This is a continual process. And so we recommended establishing a commission that would be an ongoing priority of the Court to look at these issues. So that report was issued, as you said, in August of ‘23, and with all of the different specific recommendations specific to law students and lawyers and judges.
Molly Ranns: Wonderful. I look forward to hearing more about that in just a moment, but we are now going to take a short break from our conversation with Michigan Supreme Court Justice Megan Cavanagh to thank our sponsors.
JoAnn Hathaway: Welcome back. We are thrilled to be here today with Michigan Supreme Court Justice Megan Cavanagh to discuss the task force on well-being in the law and the resulting establishment of a commission on well-being. So, Justice Cavanagh, the final report was issued in August, and can you share some information about that report and the recommendations made in it?
Justice Megan K. Cavanagh: Sure. So the report, as I mentioned earlier, the number one recommendation is the creation of an ongoing commission on well-being, and we can talk a bit about that and the progress of that in a minute, but also if you look at the report, which you can find on the Court’s website, which is One Court of Justice, the recommendations in the report are broken down along the lines of the various different sort of focus areas, and so there are a number of recommendations and implementation strategies specific to law students, a lot of them directed towards law schools of, you know, really promoting law students success and retention, offering more robust, sustainable, long-term mental health resources to their students.
An important one, or a really interesting one, which is sort of simple but novel, sort of in its simplicity, it’s just the recommendation of normalizing the ability to make mistakes as part of the learning process. I think, particularly in law school, the stress and the anxiety that comes from having to perform and perform perfectly, I don’t think really translates that well into how we live our lives or how we practice. And so, I think acknowledging that, recognizing that people make mistakes that, you know, that you can overcome them, you can come back from them, I think would go a long way to improving well-being for law students.
One of the recommendations directed towards lawyers is for legal employers and the Bar and other associations to offer regular wellness seminars to all members of the State Bar. I think normalizing that, acknowledging it as a priority, acknowledging that it’s a shared concern across the bar, whether you’re a solo practitioner or an attorney in a large firm or attorney in house, whatever your practice area may be, that having training and seminars on the topic, wherever you can reach those lawyers, is really important to normalize help-seeking behaviors, and hopefully it helps attorneys recognize that they’re not alone, that we all go through this, that we all need support, and that we can all work together to support each other.
With respect to judicial well-being, judges, by virtue of their role, are very isolated. There is a perhaps greater stigma associated with help-seeking behaviors or acknowledging mental health issues or substance abuse issues. You know, the judges are supposed to be the ones that pass judgment on others and decide all these heavy issues and make important life-changing decisions in other people’s lives. And the stigma associated with needing help themselves or needing support or struggling with anxiety or depression or substance use is just a very significant hurdle, and so I think that creating opportunities for judges to talk to each other and to support each other, be it judicial roundtables or through judicial associations training new judges’ school, to acknowledge that these issues exist and that judges are going to confront them.
All of these things, just talking about it, I think, really helps to reduce the stigma and then also looking across the board, whether you’re a law student, a lawyer, or a judge, looking at discipline, what the discipline system is for when mistakes do happen or ethical breaches happen, how we can address those and remedy those with a well-being mindset. You know, our courts are really leaders here in Michigan in the prevention sphere of problem-solving courts, treatment courts of recognizing issues sort of upstream before they become significant problems. And I think that if we can turn that focus, we do that, right? As courts and lawyers for our clients, I think we need to turn that mindset inward and also look at that of what type of prevention, treatment sort of mindset, as opposed to punishment can be utilized in this space as well. So there’s lots of great ideas sort of across the board, but then also specific to individual practice groups.
Molly Ranns: Thank you, Justice Cavanagh. As we’ve talked about, the Michigan Supreme Court did issue the order on the commission on well-being in the law last month. Can you talk a little bit about the purpose of the commission, the duties that are going to be carried out, and perhaps the makeup of the leadership and membership?
Justice Megan K. Cavanagh: Sure. So yes, the overarching recommendation was to establish an ongoing commission. Just last month, the Court approved that, voted to support the creation of an ongoing commission on well-being in the law through adoption of an administrative order.
That outlines really very specifically the makeup of the commission and the leadership and how that will operate. And so, the leadership will continue to be like it was in the Task Force from the Supreme Court and the State Bar of Michigan Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program. So Molly and myself, and then we have leaders from the State Bar and from the State Court Administrative Office on the leadership team, and then the commission itself will be comprised of individuals from across practice groups very similar to that of the Task Force. So we’ll have representatives from the law schools, of law students, of mental health professionals, of lawyers from all different types of practices, representatives from the judicial associations, magistrates, referees, all of those sort of areas to make sure that we’re hearing the voices and perspectives of all different areas and all different practice groups within the practice of law.
So, that commission really will be charged with implementing some of these recommendations that have been put together in the report. And so the commission will start putting these sort of things into action and figuring out how to do that and utilizing these implementation strategies that have been recommended by the group already. And so that is the initial charge of the group. I’m hoping that with all of these great interested minds who are really committed to this movement and to improving the well-being of lawyers and judges here in Michigan, that these initial recommendations in the report are just that, they’re initial, and that the commission will continue to develop and see what more needs to be done and what more can be thought of to improve well-being in Michigan. So it’s a starting point, and there’s a lot to work with here in the report. A lot of people have put together some really good ideas, but I think as the commission continues to progress and we continue to talk and we continue to promote the importance of well-being as to protect clients, to improve ethics, to just support the profession and the people that are in that profession, that I’m hoping that we can really make a real change in Michigan to improve the practice of law.
JoAnn Hathaway: So, Justice Cavanagh, what is being done to change the reality that discussing mental health struggles leads attorneys to be frowned upon in the workplace?
Justice Megan K. Cavanagh: I think some of it is just talking about it, right, acknowledging that it’s a shared human experience to try and reduce the stigma associated with it. I think the Task Force and the ongoing commission are a good start. I think having conversations from the highest court in the state that says that this is a priority for us allows employers and law students and law schools and everyone else working within the system to say, “This can be and should be a priority for us as well.” So my perspective has always been that it needs to start from the top to prioritize it, and so I’m really hoping that the commission and the Court’s support of the ongoing commission sets that tone.
I think it was in 2019, the Court took a first important step of removing some of the mental health questions from the Bar license application that I think had the effect, unfortunately, of discouraging or preventing people from thinking that they could apply to be members of the Bar if they had had mental health or addiction issues, that those were a barrier to getting there. And so I think the Court removing those questions and saying that you can be a good member of the Bar, a good attorney, do good work, provide a good service to people in Michigan, even if you have had a history of struggle with addiction or mental health issues. I think that sets the right tone. So I think there are a lot of things that, from my perspective, obviously, I see what the Court can do to set that tone, and I think when we are able to send that message, it allows other courts, employers, law schools to set that same message.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, it looks like we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guest today, Justice Megan Cavanagh, for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: Justice Cavanagh, if our listeners would like to follow-up with you, what is the best way for them to reach you?
Justice Megan K. Cavanagh: The best way to find out information about the well-being, and actually, the applications are currently being accepted for the well-being in law commission is to go to the Court’s website, the onecourtofjustice.org, and you can always reach me by email, which is [email protected].
Molly Ranns: Justice Cavanagh, thank you so much again for joining us here today.
Justice Megan K. Cavanagh: Thank you, Molly and thank you, JoAnn for having me and for letting me share some information and devoting some time to this important topic that I know is near and dear to all of us.
Molly Ranns: It certainly is. This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan On Balance Podcast.
JoAnnn Hathaway: I’m JoAnn Hathaway.
Molly Ranns: And I’m Molly Ranns. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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