Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

The courage to change the things we can …

Courage, serenity and wisdom are the three gifts commonly sought by many in those recovery programs that have embraced the serenity prayer as a guidepost. Those qualities are useful for all of us in many facets of living. They also provide helpful guidance as we consider the findings and implications of the recent ABA/Hazelden study that is addressed in much greater depth elsewhere in this issue.

A couple of months ago I wrote a column entitled “Minding the Balance” in which I addressed work-life balance issues and coping with stress. I did not expect to have to revisit this issue, but the recent study findings warrant some further consideration. While my prior writing addressed the importance of each of us taking steps to manage our own stress and to be more understanding and helpful to colleagues who may be suffering with substance or mental health issues, this recent study raises some other questions that are more systemic and suggest the need to do more than talk about the steps we can take for ourselves.

Patrick Krill, one of the study’s authors, was recently quoted in MinnPost about the implications of the high rate of mental illness and substance abuse found in our profession: “These findings are worrisome for anyone who’s used an attorney or will hire an attorney in the future. The profession has an obligation to take better care of its members…. You can’t have someone who is a problem drinker and is not in full control of his or her mental abilities in charge of handling key life issues.”

Reflecting on our profession

What is it about our profession that seems to make us more vulnerable to mental health and substance use problems? Are there things we do as a profession that have the unintended consequence of making things worse? Whose responsibility is it to address these questions? Are we to restrict our response to treating or encouraging assistance for those particular individuals in distress? Or should we consider whether there are ways of changing the characteristics and values of the profession that seem to contribute to such problems?

Among the findings of this study that have drawn some attention is that the rates of problematic substance use are highest among less experienced attorneys. Those in the first 10 years of practice report the highest rates of problematic use (28.9%) while those in the 11 to 20 year category are next highest (20.6%).

While stereotypes of substance abuse as being more common among older persons may lead some to claim this is a surprising finding, I think it is not so surprising. Aside from the obvious considerations—such as the “great recession” and excessive law school debt, which have hit the younger cohort much harder than the rest of us—there are other factors that explain this finding. Newer attorneys tend to have less autonomy and control of their life choices, and therefore have fewer options for managing stress. They typically have less compensation, while also facing greater financial responsibilities in getting established or growing a family. Since the study was limited to active practitioners, this may have had the effect of winnowing the pool of older attorneys to the “survivors” who have not opted to change careers.

As I reflect on my own experience and career, I can see with 20/20 hindsight some changes that have affected my professional satisfaction and happiness. Some have led to improved satisfaction, and some have led to less satisfaction. Fortunately, the balance has tilted in the positive direction.

Early in my career I made a choice to emphasize pursuit of my “passions” over my pocketbook. That was a liberating choice, and has probably been the single greatest cause for professional happiness and stress reduction. (It helped to have a lawyer spouse so that it was possible for both of us to make such choices at different times along the way.) Over time I also gained more professional and economic autonomy. This eventually culminated in the ultimate autonomy of the solo practice. That too has been a very good thing. These two choices fall into the category of “changing the things I can.”

On the opposing side of things there has been some loss of autonomy as a civil litigator. My life has become much more ruled by external forces, deadlines, paperwork requirements, and a loss of uninterrupted vacation time. Most of these changes have been a consequence of changes to the way civil litigation is conducted and governed. Similarly, the rules of competition for business have changed, and I have seen the competitive aspects of my practice area become much more daunting. For the most part, these changes have fallen into the “serenity” category—things I can’t change and need to accept.

The challenges to our professional lives that make the incidence of mental illness and substance abuse unacceptably high do require a significant response. I believe we can change many of the factors that contribute to the stressors of our profession. But lawyer assistance programs and the bar association can’t do it alone. This is a problem that requires all hands on deck.

Law firms, lawyers, law schools, the Office of Lawyers’ Professional Responsibility, CLE providers and the courts all have a role to play as well. The public depends upon lawyers to make our system of justice work. We need to try to improve the conditions that make it more likely the public will be well served by our profession. I think each of the players I have identified can begin by simply asking themselves, as they go about their work: How is what we are doing likely to impact the lives of lawyers? Will it make their professional lives more manageable? Paying more attention to this concern is the first step toward gaining the wisdom to know when we can make a difference.


Mike Unger


Michael W. Unger is President of the Minnesota State Bar Association. He is a Certified Civil Trial Specialist at Unger Law Office in Minneapolis, representing negligence victims for serious injuries and wrongful death.  He is also on the adjunct faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School.   

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