Press Releases

City Bar Urges Legal Community to Support Mental Health/Substance Use CLE Requirement

Citing “mounting evidence that lawyers are suffering from mental health and substance use problems at heightened rates in comparison to people in other professions,” the New York City Bar Association has issued a report urging lawyers, law firms, corporate law departments, legal services organizations, judges, law schools, and state and local bar associations to support the inclusion of programs regarding mental health, substance use and well-being in the legal profession (“Mental Health/Substance Use CLE”) as a separate required credit for New York attorneys.

Attorney disciplinary committees, bar associations and lawyer assistance programs have long seen anecdotal evidence of significant mental health and substance use issues in the legal profession. Eileen Travis, Executive Director of the City Bar’s long-standing Lawyer Assistance Program, notes an exponential increase in the number of requests from law schools, law firms, and the judiciary for presentations and training sessions on these issues. The current public-health crisis precipitated by COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem.

A breakthrough came in 2016, with a study commissioned by the American Bar Association, in conjunction with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, revealing data that caught the attention of the public, particularly in regard to the young lawyers who represent the future of the profession. One-fifth of the nearly 13,000 lawyers surveyed reported signs of problem drinking, with the percentage rising to over 30% for lawyers under 30. Among those who used drugs (both legal and illicit), 74.1% used stimulants, 51.3% used sedatives, and 21.6% used opioids. Notably, only a fraction of respondents (6.8%) stated that they had sought treatment for drugs or alcohol – and many cited concerns about confidentiality as the main obstacle to seeking help. The study also found that 28% of lawyers suffer from depression, 19% reported problems with anxiety, 23% suffer from stress, and that lawyers exhibit increased levels of suicide, work addiction and sleep deprivation.

The ABA subsequently launched a campaign to promote recognition and treatment of mental health and substance use problems through a pledge that calls upon signatory legal employers to prioritize and implement a seven-point framework to raise awareness, address substance use and mental health issues, and improve lawyer well-being – with the number one commitment being to provide “enhanced and robust education to attorneys and staff on topics related to well-being, mental health, and substance use disorders.” As of May 2020, there were 181 signatories, including law firms, law schools, and corporate entities.

In February 2017, the ABA adopted a resolution amending its Model Rule for Minimum Continuing Legal Education to include one hour of Diversity& Inclusion (D&I) programming every three years, and one hour of mental health/substance use disorder programming every three years. Several states are already requiring mandatory mental-health/substance use/well-being CLE, and the ABA, the City Bar and the New York State Bar Association all offer robust one-off programs in these areas.

“As professional problem solvers, it is difficult for lawyers to admit to themselves, or to others, that they themselves may have a mental health or substance use issue,” the City Bar’s report notes. “Such an admission feels tantamount to professional failure; and in a profession where reputation and toughness are often essential elements of the job, we may fear such admissions signal weakness, incompetence, or worse. We also may be reluctant to identify such problems in others, perhaps for the same reasons – viz., not wanting to besmirch their reputations, especially if we are not sure how best to intervene or what resources may be available to help that person.”

In an environment where lawyers affected by such issues are the least likely to feel they can openly seek information or help, “requiring all New York lawyers to complete a stand-alone mental health, substance use and lawyer well-being CLE each biennial reporting period will go a long way toward disseminating much-needed information, training, and support to practicing lawyers across the state and in all areas of the profession,” the report states.

The report adds that mental health or substance use issues are concerns not just for lawyers and their families, “but because of the harm such impairment can cause to the level and quality of legal services we provide to our clients – which, in turn, may seriously affect our clients’ lives and livelihoods.” For this reason, a stand-alone mental health/substance use CLE is “eminently appropriate” for MCLE certification because their “primary objective [is] to increase the professional legal competency of the attorney in ethics and professionalism, skills, law practice management [and/or] areas of professional practice.”

For all these reasons, the report states that the City Bar “stands ready to assist in whatever way will help garner support and ultimately encourage the CLE Board to implement this important addition to New York State’s CLE requirements.”

The report can be read here: