Trailblazing Toward Better Mental Health & Well-Being in Law: Q&A with Gavin Alexander, Well-Being Advocate | Practical Law

Trailblazing Toward Better Mental Health & Well-Being in Law: Q&A with Gavin Alexander, Well-Being Advocate | Practical Law

Q&A with Gavin Alexander, the first-ever Fellow of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Well-Being (Committee), where he focuses on the intersection of well-being and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Practical Law Senior Legal Editor Jessica Cherry asked Gavin to discuss the ways in which his personal experiences, including his own mental health challenges, shaped his perspective on well-being in law; how his clerkship, seven years as a BigLaw associate, and extensive bar association work prepared him for his current role; the importance of engaging with affinity bar associations and amplifying their voices to make the profession better; the results of the Committee's reports on lawyer well-being; and the importance of people speaking out about their mental health challenges.

Trailblazing Toward Better Mental Health & Well-Being in Law: Q&A with Gavin Alexander, Well-Being Advocate

by Practical Law
Published on 26 Apr 2022USA (National/Federal)
Q&A with Gavin Alexander, the first-ever Fellow of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Well-Being (Committee), where he focuses on the intersection of well-being and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Practical Law Senior Legal Editor Jessica Cherry asked Gavin to discuss the ways in which his personal experiences, including his own mental health challenges, shaped his perspective on well-being in law; how his clerkship, seven years as a BigLaw associate, and extensive bar association work prepared him for his current role; the importance of engaging with affinity bar associations and amplifying their voices to make the profession better; the results of the Committee's reports on lawyer well-being; and the importance of people speaking out about their mental health challenges.
Education: J.D., Harvard Law School, 2012, B.A., Wesleyan University, 2007.
Clerkship: 2012-2013: Ralph D. Gants, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Career in Brief: Gavin is an experienced and passionate advocate and thought leader in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and mental health in the legal profession and beyond. He is also a courageous storyteller. To help break the stigma surrounding mental health in law, and to catalyze positive cultural change, Gavin openly shares his personal experiences navigating law school and his legal career while struggling with mental health challenges. These experiences have shaped the lens through which he views his advocacy work. In his current role as the full-time Fellow of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, Gavin focuses on the intersection of well-being and DEI. From 2013-2020, Gavin was an associate in the corporate department of Ropes & Gray LLP's Boston office. 
Gavin serves on:
  • The American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs' DEI Committee.
  • The ABA Legal Opportunity Scholarship Fund Committee.
  • The Institute for Well-Being in Law's DEI Committee.
  • The Boston Bar Association's DEI Section Steering Committee.
  • The Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants Access to Justice Fund Advisory Committee.
  • The Board of Directors of Leadership Brainery, which works to eliminate systemic barriers to master's and doctoral degrees and workforce leadership opportunities for underrepresented talent.
  • The Board of Directors and the Executive Committee of the Lawyers Depression Project, which hosts regular online peer-to-peer support group meetings for legal professionals around the world who:
    • are suffering or have suffered from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or any other mental health issues; or
    • just want to talk about what they are experiencing.
Gavin has previously served as a:
  • Board Member and Co-Chair of the Massachusetts LGBTQ Bar Association.
  • Board Member of The LGBTQ+ Bar (formerly known as the National LGBT Bar Association).
Gavin has been recognized as:
  • One of the Best LGBT Attorneys Under 40 by the National LGBTQ+ Bar Association in 2017.
  • One of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly's 25 "Up & Coming Lawyers" for 2019.
  • A Massachusetts Super Lawyers "Rising Star" for 2018-2020.
In 2020, Gavin was named a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation for his outstanding dedication and leadership in the legal profession and in service to society. In 2021, he graduated from the Boston Bar Association's Public Interest Leadership Program and received the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys' Leadership Award, where he was described as "by far one of the most committed allies in the area of inclusion, equity and social and racial justice."
Disclaimer: The responses in this Q&A were prepared by Gavin Alexander in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed herein are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, its Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being, the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers, Ropes & Gray LLP, or any other organization, group, or institution with which Gavin is or has been affiliated.

Can you provide a brief description of your current role and the work you do?

I am currently serving as the Fellow of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being (the Committee). My work is two-fold:
  • I support the work of the Committee as a whole, including that of Committee Director Heidi Alexander, with whatever it needs. For example, I collect research, reports, and news items addressing well-being in law from around the country and develop and maintain our publicly available website highlighting many of these resources.
  • I lead the Committee's work on researching, developing, advocating for, and assisting with projects relating to the intersection of DEI and well-being in the legal profession. For example, when I first transitioned into my Fellowship role, I led the Committee in developing its DEI Statement, which is one of the two core documents guiding the Committee's overall work (the other being the 2019 Report issued by the predecessor to the Committee, the Supreme Judicial Court's temporary Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being).
The DEI Statement focuses on three core commitments, which are to:
  • Focus. We committed to:
    • ensuring that DEI would comprehensively inform the Committee's work, paying special attention to the additional stressors, burdens, and barriers to entry faced by systemically oppressed legal professionals; and
    • working to address those challenges through our programs, proposals, and recommendations.
  • Communicate. We committed to establishing and maintaining open lines of dialogue and collaborating with affinity bar associations and other groups throughout Massachusetts focused on DEI among lawyers and law students.
  • Create change. We committed to developing short-term, medium-term, and long-term projects aimed specifically at mitigating the added burdens faced by lawyers and law students from underrepresented groups, with the goal of improving their long-term well-being.
Importantly, I also ensured that, before the DEI Statement was finalized, key stakeholders and leaders, including Massachusetts affinity bar leaders, academics focused on structural racism and systemic bias, and other legal DEI leaders had an opportunity to review and provide meaningful input and feedback.

What are the factors that led you to pursue this Fellowship?

The best way for me to answer this question is to share my story, which I often start by highlighting that I felt safe enough to come out as bisexual at the age of 16, but I was not comfortable mentioning to anyone that I thought I had a mental health issue until I was 30. During high school, when I was struggling to understand my sexual orientation, I contemplated suicide nearly every night, even going as far as holding a knife to my wrist on countless occasions.
Clearly, I was suffering from major depression, but I was terrified to share that information with anyone. Disclosing my depression seemed more terrifying to me than the possibility of ending my own life. I thought that admitting that I had a mental health problem would:
  • Thwart my ambitions.
  • Cause everyone around me to see me as a failure.
  • Make it impossible for me to find any long-term happiness or stability.
My family did not believe we had access to therapy. In their view, rich people had therapists, whereas poor people had friends. Because we were not rich, therapy was not an option that seemed available to me, despite how much I thought it might help.
I somehow made it through high school and went off to college at Wesleyan University, where things got better. I found a community that supported me. I had the freedom to experiment with my identity and passions. I was happy for a while. From there I went to New York where I pursued theater and dance, before deciding to apply to law school in search of a more stable career that relied on both my creative and analytical abilities.
In law school, things got bad again, especially during exam periods. The stress was overwhelming, in large part due to financial pressure. We were in the middle of the subprime mortgage crisis, and I financed my entire legal education with loans. I was convinced that if I did not graduate at the very top of my class, I would:
  • Be unable to pay my debt.
  • Wind up in dire financial straits.
I also struggled with law school's draconic educational methodologies, including:
  • Cold calling.
  • The grading system, including:
    • grades being based 100% on final exams; and
    • the grading curve, compelling you to view your classmates as competitors instead of collaborators.
I contemplated suicide almost every night of every exam and study period, particularly during my 1L year. I again managed to survive, and even succeeded academically. I wound up with the highest GPA of my section, enabling me to transfer from Boston University to Harvard. I share this not to brag, but to illustrate that even people who show many external signs of success still may be severely suffering inside.
After graduation, I clerked for the Honorable Ralph D. Gants, at the Massachusetts Supreme Court (a great first legal boss), before joining Ropes & Gray as a corporate associate. My first few years at Ropes & Gray actually went incredibly well. I loved the work. My colleagues were kind and smart. My clients were interesting. I did not love the long hours, but I felt that the upsides of the job were absolutely worth the hours tradeoff.
It was during my transition to becoming a mid-level associate that things got really bad again. Around the time of my transition from third year to fourth year associate, I suddenly had to:
  • Make decisions on my own.
  • Manage people and teams with virtually no formal training in leadership or management.
I was struggling, and so were senior associates and partners who supervised me, who in some cases seemed to lack compassion and empathy. We were all overwhelmed due to:
  • Stress.
  • Lack of leadership skills training.
  • Instances of bias that those of us from underrepresented communities faced far too frequently.
Those of us who really needed help failed to seek it out due to:
  • Stigma.
  • Lack of role models who had sought help and shared their stories.
  • A culture in which seeking help may feel as if it is viewed as weakness.
In September 2016, I wanted to leave the firm and therefore interviewed for an in-house position at a hedge fund. In my mind, the interview did not go well. Immediately after the interview, my thoughts spiraled. I thought there was no way forward for me. I could not bear the thought of going back to the firm, and if I could not find a job in the one area in which I felt qualified, it seemed like there was no way out. And so, on the way home from the interview, I leaned in front of an oncoming train, thinking that was it, this was the end for me. A random stranger grabbed my arm and stopped me, saving my life.
I made my way home and told my partner what happened. I knew that I had to make real changes, and I did. The first step was to say "I just almost ended my life. I am pretty sure I have depression. I think I need help."
When I approached my firm mentors and the partners in my practice group about going on a reduced time medical leave, I was shocked to find that they were actually incredibly supportive. They clearly realized that:
  • I added value to the firm and to our client teams.
  • Keeping me around at 80% of a full associate billable workload was a much better option than losing me entirely.
After my near death by suicide, I made these changes with the complete support of my firm. I continued to work at Ropes on a reduced time schedule for three more years.
A few months later, I shared this story with Chief Justice Gants, who was at the time working with Retired Justice Margot Botsford on setting up a structure for Massachusetts to advocate for well-being in law. He asked me to share my story at the first plenary session of the Steering Committee on Lawyer Well-Being and each of its subcommittees, which I did. Sharing my story publicly for the first time was terrifying and unbelievably cathartic. That day, and in the days that followed, I received countless questions from law firm partners, law school deans, and others. They wanted to know how they could do better, how they could encourage change. I realized then that when it comes to mental health, there is tremendous power in storytelling.
In 2019, that initial Steering Committee published a report making key recommendations regarding well-being in the Massachusetts legal community. One of those recommendations was to create a more permanent Standing Committee, which was established in January 2020. I was appointed as one of the Standing Committee's inaugural members due to my:
  • Lived experience with depression and suicidality in a large firm practice setting.
  • Extensive work with the Massachusetts affinity bar associations.
In the fall of 2020, Ropes & Gray offered me the opportunity to do a public interest fellowship, and I pitched the idea of working with the Committee full-time, focusing on the intersection of DEI and well-being, and I ended up with that role.
So, a combination of factors led me to my current role, including my:
  • Lived experience—my personal story.
  • Passion for creating positive change.
  • Commitment to supporting the development of law students and legal professionals from underrepresented and historically excluded communities.
  • Desire to help others so they do not get to the dark place I experienced.

Did you have any idea what type of work you wanted to do when you went to law school?

I definitely had no idea that I would be doing what I am doing now! As an undergraduate, I majored in theater and dance, which I pursued in New York for a few years after graduating from Wesleyan. I thought when I went to law school that I would combine my theatrical and analytical sides by becoming a trial lawyer, and given my passion for social justice, I planned on becoming a public defender. But I got steered away from that when I started getting good grades. There was a lot of pressure to go to a big firm from:
  • My family.
  • The law school career services office.
  • Bar associations.
  • Fellow students.
Also, given the over $200,000 in student loans that were looming large over my head, the law firm entry-level salary was too hard for me to pass up. So, I did not end up applying to any public agencies. Whether or not that was the right decision, I do not know.
One thing that I now understand about myself is that I am very ambitious, but not at all competitive. I rarely heard people making this distinction when I was in law school, and I think it is something that law students should think about when considering their path. Whereas litigation is at its heart adversarial, working on corporate transactions is more about collaboration to reach a result that all parties will celebrate. Given that I prefer collaborative problem-solving to confrontational interactions where there is a winner and a loser, litigation would likely not have been the right fit for me.

What have been the biggest challenges you have encountered in your legal career? How have they shaped your view towards legal professional well-being?

Without a doubt my biggest challenge was the stigma against seeking help for mental health issues. I wholeheartedly believe that if I had sought help sooner, I would have:
  • Not ended up in such a dark place that day at the train.
  • Been a much happier and more successful law student and lawyer.
I genuinely believed that any paper trail suggesting that I suffered from a mental health problem would or could:
  • Put a cap on my career ambitions.
  • Impact my ability to pass the character and fitness review required to be admitted to the bar.
  • Lead to my legal license being suspended.
  • Damage my relationships with my friends, family, mentors, and others who had invested time in my career development.
In terms of how the stigma against help-seeking behavior that I experienced has shaped my view, I believe that well-being in the legal profession has two components:
  • An individual component. We need to ensure that law students and legal professionals:
    • feel comfortable talking about mental health;
    • have opportunities to learn about self-care practices that can improve their well-being, such as therapy, mindfulness, positive psychology, and self-advocacy; and
    • know that there are resources available to help them, such as local Lawyer Assistance Programs (LAPs) (here is a state directory), and utilize these resources.
  • A systemic component, which is even more important. The legal profession must:
    • break down the stigma against discussing mental health challenges openly and seeking help, and ensure that law students and legal professionals can seek help without jeopardizing or adversely impacting their careers;
    • ensure that all law students and legal professionals, despite their financial circumstances, have access to services that can help them improve their well-being, address any mental health challenges they may be facing, and thrive in the profession;
    • ensure that the resources that are available to support law student and legal professional well-being are culturally competent and particularly understand the added barriers, burdens, and stressors that legal professionals from underrepresented and historically excluded communities frequently experience; and
    • shoulder the burden for change by taking responsibility for altering the culture so that it does not unnecessarily contribute to poor mental health, which requires recognizing that while there will always be stress in law, current norms add to this inherent stress in harmful ways.
One of the critical problems with focusing solely or even primarily on self-care strategies for improving well-being is that it places both the blame for the problem and the burden of finding a solution squarely on the person who is suffering. This ignores the significant role that organizational and professional culture, policies, and structures play in influencing well-being. This is not to say that self-care strategies are not important. They are. But it has long been recognized that the culture of the legal profession contributes significantly to the current mental health crisis. The profession must, therefore, take on at least some of the burden to change.

Reflecting on my own experience in the time leading up to my near-death by suicide, I do not believe that positive psychology or mindfulness would have helped me when I was already in a state of crisis. Further, suggesting that I should have been doing more of those things would have reinforced the notion that:
  • I was failing.
  • My depression was my own fault.
  • The systems around me bore no responsibility and felt no obligation to change.

How did your prior experiences, including activities or courses in law school, your role as an associate at Ropes & Gray, and your bar association work, prepare you for your current role?

My greatest preparation for my current role was my lived experience, of course.
My law school experience prepared me by:
  • Allowing me to understand that there are people out there who are really struggling, regardless of their GPA or other outward signs of success and achievement.
  • Highlighting how dangerous certain modern legal education structures can be for students.
My clerkship was a unique experience in that I had the opportunity to work in the state's highest court, and therefore got to consider issues of first impression, and think through issues at both theoretical and practical levels.
Working for Justice Gants and having him as a mentor was significant in several ways:
  • I got to observe and learn from someone who demonstrated his commitment to equity and making the legal profession and systems of law more just for all participants, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, every day.
  • I learned how the courts could shape a fairer world, and also about the areas in which the courts themselves perpetuate bias.
  • I learned what it means to be a public advocate, beyond just representing individual clients. It was through my high court clerkship that I realized my penchant for advocating for change at the systemic level.
My bar association work has been deeply important to me and has also shaped my perspective in meaningful ways that are relevant to my current role. I have been active in various bar associations since day one of law school. This participation has put me in contact with law students and legal professionals with different:
  • Backgrounds.
  • Practice areas.
  • Identities.
  • Lived experiences.
  • Perspectives.
I am a cisgender bisexual white male, and while I am of course a member (and former Co-Chair) of the Massachusetts LGBTQ Bar Association, I am also proud to be a dues-paying member of:
  • The Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts.
  • The Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys.
  • The Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association.
  • Massachusetts Black Women Attorneys.
  • The South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston.
  • Other affinity groups.
I attend each of these organizations' events, participate in their communities, and hear their lived experiences. Being in community with legal professionals from different backgrounds than my own enables me to:
  • Learn from them and about them.
  • Maintain a diverse network of legal professionals who I can collaborate with on various types of projects, thereby avoiding the need to consult a generic list of attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds who I do not know (which can come across as deeply tokenizing and comparable to the "binders full of women" approach to diversity).
  • Continually improve my efforts at allyship and understanding.
I believe all of these are necessary to make the profession more inclusive and better.
Working at Ropes & Gray gave me the experience of working for a large, global organization doing complex, international legal work. But more relevant to the role I am in now is that I got to see the cracks in the systems of large firm practice up close. For example, I saw first-hand that exceptional legal analysis, negotiation, drafting, and client advocacy are very different skills than those required to be a good leader, supervisor or manager of people and teams, and far more lawyers (myself included) need meaningful and ongoing training on the latter.
Like many other types of institutions, many law firms seem to prioritize income generators over individuals who serve as the glue that holds the firm together—those who make their colleagues feel valued, supported and proud to be a part of the team. This has serious implications for retaining talent, which is one of the most, if not the most, critical issue facing law firms today.
  • Law firms across the US lost almost one quarter of their associates between November 2020 and November 2021, despite pay increases of up to 15%.
  • While only 27% of the associates in the American Lawyer's 2021 Midlevel Associates Survey indicated they would consider leaving their firm for higher compensation, a whopping 60% of those surveyed said that they would consider leaving their firm for better work-life balance (which is not just about working less).
In my current role, I do a lot of systems-level advocacy that is a critical part of supporting legal well-being and DEI, and ultimately retaining talent. My BigLaw experience helps me understand both the strengths and flaws of that sector when it comes to supporting the lives and development of those advancing through its ranks.

You are passionate about the intersection of DEI and mental health. Can you explain some of the ways they intersect in the practice of law?

I mentioned earlier that my first fellowship project was working with the Committee on its DEI Statement. My second project was working with the Committee to set up a series of Town Hall meetings with affinity bar associations in Massachusetts.
We knew that it would be ridiculous for us to show up at these meetings and tell these groups how we were going to solve their problems. Instead, our goal was to meet with each individual affinity bar association and listen, to hear what it was truly like for law students and legal professionals from the represented populations in Massachusetts in 2020. We engaged in careful planning to create meetings that would:
  • Operate as open spaces where participants would feel comfortable and safe enough to speak their truth.
  • Enable us to amplify their voices while mitigating the risk of exposing any individual lawyer to express or subtle retaliation.
We held seven meetings over six months. Over 115 lawyers, law students, and judges participated. We then published a report aggregating, anonymizing, and highlighting what we heard. The results were devastating and clearly and painfully illustrate where DEI and well-being intersect:
  • The overall conclusion was that being a member of the Massachusetts bar from a historically excluded population results in significant to extreme challenges on top of those faced by all attorneys and law students.
  • We repeatedly heard that people from underrepresented groups were continually faced with recurring identity-based challenges and discrimination, no matter how far they had advanced in their career.
  • The participants shared that these experiences were exhausting, continually impairing their mental health and well-being as members of the profession.
The report highlighted three broad areas of concern:
  • The court experience, where participants reported that, among other challenges:
    • BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) attorneys routinely had their bar licenses heavily scrutinized and were asked for additional forms of identification while their White counterparts were consistently waived through after a brief glance, if asked for identification at all;
    • BIPOC attorneys were often assumed by many court officials and personnel, including some judges, clerks, court officers, and even pro bono attorneys volunteering at courthouses, to be in court because they were either criminal defendants or translators; and
    • BIPOC and gender non-conforming attorneys experienced an unwillingness by some court officers, clerks, and judges to address them by their full names, correctly pronounce their names, or use their correct pronouns, often because the individual court official made no effort to learn or ask how to pronounce the attorneys' names or what their correct pronouns were despite that the attorneys were appearing regularly in the same courts.
  • Inadequate representation in the profession as a whole, such as:
    • Participants who became discouraged when they saw very few people who looked like them in the positions to which they aspired, leading them to strongly desire either abandoning the profession entirely or moving to other jurisdictions where there were more legal professionals with similar experiences and backgrounds;
    • Participants from every affinity bar association who were displeased with the significant lack of diversity in the equity partnership ranks of private firms based in, or with offices in, Massachusetts, particularly among the largest and most prestigious firms. This gap impacted the experiences of associates, counsel, and non-equity partners from systemically oppressed populations at all levels, including their ability to secure the mentors and sponsors they needed to succeed. The message that these firms implicitly sent when each year's partner promotion decisions were made was that those from underrepresented groups were welcome to stay, but that their chances of making it to the top ranks were infinitesimally small; and
    • Participants who were the first lawyers or law students in their families and personal networks feeling that they did not know the unspoken rules of the profession. One attorney described trying to succeed as an attorney from a historically excluded population as being like trying to find your way through a maze where you cannot even see the walls until you run into them.
  • Consistent micro- and macro-aggressions which included:
    • receiving comments about how articulate BIPOC attorneys or law students were, as if it were a surprise;
    • suggesting that BIPOC attorneys and law students take Juneteenth off from work, but not providing them with any support in arranging coverage for their matters or in communicating with their clients and teams about their absence;
    • repeatedly suggesting or requesting that members of these populations present on panels, attend recruiting events, appear on marketing materials, and even take on leadership roles in internal and external affinity groups, while not providing these attorneys or law students with any billable or curricular credit for this work—work that is not asked of straight, White attorneys, whose billing potential is not similarly compromised; or
    • utilizing biased language in both informal and formal performance evaluations of lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds, such as repeatedly telling a Black, female associate that she was aggressive and not taking direction well, essentially calling her an angry Black woman via various euphemisms, which ultimately resulted in her being told that it was difficult to staff her on projects, and that the firm was afraid to put her in front of clients, despite clients often providing extremely positive feedback on her work.
The Committee's Report ultimately concluded that:
"The legal community cannot make real changes to the profession that will materially improve the well-being of attorneys and law students from underrepresented, historically excluded, and systemically oppressed populations until the members of the Massachusetts bar actually examine and attempt to understand the experiences that these legal professionals currently face nearly every day of their lives," and that "[t]o engage in this process of examining and understanding, we must listen to these experiences," and "believe their authenticity."
The goal of this initial project was to illustrate:
  • The current experiences of lawyers and law students from these backgrounds in Massachusetts.
  • How these experiences impact their well-being as members of the legal profession.
Our next step, which I am leading in my capacity as Fellow, will involve four sector-specific working groups, comprised of lawyers and legal professionals from:
  • Large law firms.
  • Small- and medium-sized law firms.
  • In-house legal departments.
  • Public agencies and legal services organizations.
Each of these working groups will work to develop concrete lists of structural, systemic, and process-oriented ideas that legal organizations from each of these sectors might consider implementing to both:
  • Mitigate the problems identified in step one.
  • Improve the well-being of lawyers and legal professionals from underrepresented and historically excluded populations.
These ideas will go far beyond having a few discrimination prevention trainings every once in a while. They are expected to address topics such as:
  • Compensation structures.
  • Performance evaluations.
  • Transparency.
  • Key performance indicators and responsibilities.
  • Hiring strategies.
  • Biased incident reporting structures.
This process is ongoing, and we are hoping to release these lists later this year.

You have been very open about your own mental health challenges. Why do you believe it is important for lawyers and others to speak out about their mental health struggles?

The key point here is to break the stigma. By speaking openly about our mental health challenges and saying, "I got help and now I am a better lawyer," we encourage others who are struggling to seek help and become better lawyers. We need the many exceptional lawyers and law students out there who have gone through mental health challenges to say things like:
  • "I am better now because I have taken advantage of the help that is out there."
  • "I go to therapy."
  • "I take anti-depressants."
  • Or even: "I have engaged in self-harm or attempted to end my own life."
The message the profession should be sending, in my opinion, is that the best lawyers are those who take advantage of all of the tools available to them to practice at the top of their abilities, including by seeking out and utilizing mental health treatment and resources.
From a client's perspective, I cannot imagine that they would want their lawyer to suffer in silence in ways that could affect their ability to provide them with exceptional representation. Rather, they would surely want the lawyer representing them to be at the very top of their game. We should be incentivizing law students and legal professionals to get help, and not shaming them from seeking help by exposing them to few, if any, professional role models who have openly sought and received mental health support.
Of course, people need to feel safe and ready to share their stories, and if someone is not ready, if they do not feel safe, that is okay. They should only share their story when they are ready.
There may be people reading this interview who are not ready to speak out publicly, but are ready to speak in a private, safe environment. These individuals may want to consider contacting their local LAP. (Some LAPs cover law students while others do not, but LAPs are always a good place to start, because even if they do not cover law students, they should be able to point law students in the right direction.)
The Lawyers' Depression Project is also a terrific resource, offering online, completely free peer support groups every month for law students and legal professionals who may be struggling and want to talk with others who are also struggling or have struggled in the past. Law students and legal professionals from all over the world attend these meetings regularly, including me.
Finally, any law students and legal professionals reading this who are struggling with their mental health should feel free to reach out to me directly on LinkedIn or at [email protected].

What do you think will be some of the more challenging well-being issues with the planned return to the office?

The Committee has published recommendations on this topic. The key takeaway is that we encouraged legal organizations to adopt work structures where flexibility is the norm, rather than the exception, and not simply to view the return to office as an opportunity to go back to the way things were before. That is not what people want.
As an example, a study from Future Forum published in March of 2021 found that:
  • Only 3% of Black knowledge workers in the US wanted to go back to the office full-time after the pandemic.
  • A higher, but still small, 21% of their White peers wanted to return to full-time co-located work.
Most legal professionals, especially up-and-coming lawyers and lawyers from populations that have experienced bias in the workplace in the past:
  • Care significantly about their well-being.
  • Desire increased flexibility.
Legal organizations should be asking themselves, "When do people really, truly need to be in the office, and when can they effectively do their job from anywhere?"
The challenge for legal organizations will be to continue to invest in developing:
  • Formally adopted and publicly accessible work from home policies.
  • Technology that supports flexibility.
  • Mentoring for attorneys who elect to utilize available flexibility.
  • Work allocation models that equitably assign growth opportunities to those who utilize available flexibility.
  • Training opportunities to improve more senior lawyers' skills at managing and leading hybrid teams.
These investments are essential to ensure that those who avail themselves of opportunities to work remotely all or part of the time (which, for a variety of reasons, including those highlighted in the Committee's report, often include law students and legal professionals from underrepresented groups) do not fall behind.

What do you say to the lawyer who does not believe that legal professional well-being is an important part of practicing law? What things might motivate them to start caring about these issues and seeing them from a different perspective?

For those in private practice, the biggest concern for most is profitability. Therefore, when making the case in the private sector, it may be useful to highlight the primary cost of poor well-being, which is attrition. While a certain amount of attrition is expected and acceptable, law firms should consider who they are losing, that is, are they losing the people who they do not mind losing? Or are they losing their best people—those who keep the firm running and hold their practice groups together—because they burned out?
For those in the public sector, it is imperative for lawyers to continue to believe that they are contributing to the mission they signed on for, and not just in a grind to process as many cases or clients as possible. If their well-being suffers, they may dissociate from that mission-driven caring, in which case:
  • Their work could suffer.
  • They could burn out.
  • They could leave.
If they do leave, this will mean that the organization will be able to process even fewer cases and clients than before, as they will be even more understaffed than they likely already were.
Overall, to those who assert that there is no need for change because the profession has sustained itself this way for a long time, I would say this: Rather than putting others through unnecessary suffering because you may have gone through something similar, shouldn't we try to improve things for those who come after us? Things have been running the way they have at great cost. Organizations and the legal profession as a whole have lost some of our best, most talented people due to:
  • Exhaustion.
  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Stress.
  • Burnout.
Further, we have all read far too many articles about the deaths by suicide of lawyers who saw no path forward. In the past three months, I am aware of two extremely talented BIPOC women lawyers, each 30 years old, and one highly respected 65-year-old White male litigator, who each died by suicide. I almost died by suicide. We cannot afford, nor should we overlook, these tragic losses.

Is there any other general advice that you would like to share with individuals who may be struggling with their mental health or may be interested in finding out more about the intersection of DEI and well-being?

Find and establish a relationship with a mental health or lawyer support professional, including a LAP representative, as soon as possible. You do not want to have to go through the challenge of searching for support for the first time when you are already in a state of crisis.
Find ways to connect with others who share their vulnerabilities with you and encourage you to share your vulnerabilities with them. Those are mentors who will invest in you as a whole person.
Take a look at our website for all kinds of free and publicly accessible resources, articles, reports, connections, programs, and more that may help you:
  • Improve your well-being.
  • Learn more about legal well-being and DEI advocacy.
  • Become the best lawyer you can be.

About the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) created the Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being to help all Massachusetts law students and legal professionals achieve a healthy, positive, and productive balance of work, personal life, and health.
Former SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants announced the formation of the Committee in his annual State of the Judiciary address on October 30, 2019. Gants stated that "the formation of the Standing Committee on Lawyer Well-Being will allow a continued and sustained focus on attorney well-being at a time when too many attorneys are struggling with serious health issues that are exacerbated, if not caused, by the way that law is practiced today. The practice of law has always been demanding, but it is especially challenging now, fraught with ever-increasing financial pressures, client demands, and work expectations that are taking a terrible toll on many of our most resilient attorneys."
The Committee has developed a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statement, which explains that the need to support "systemically oppressed attorneys, judges, and law students – that is, attorneys, judges, and law students from under-represented, historically excluded, and systemically oppressed populations" – is critical. These attorneys "encounter countless barriers to entry, confront structural challenges to success, and must navigate daily micro- and macro-aggressions regarding their identities in the legal profession that are not faced by those outside these groups," and part of the Committee's goal is to "effect real, meaningful change in the profession to not only ensure that systemically oppressed legal professionals in Massachusetts receive equal treatment, but that they receive the support they need to achieve equitable access to, and success in, the profession, and that the barriers, challenges and slights they face every day are reduced, mitigated and, ultimately, eliminated."