Volume 34

“To Be a Good Lawyer, One Has to Be a Healthy Lawyer”: Lawyer Well-Being, Discrimination, and Discretionary Systems of Discipline

by Nicholas D. Lawson

In 2017, a National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being comprised mostly of representatives from lawyer assistance programs (LAPs) issued a report recommending “modify[ing] the rules of professional conduct to endorse well-being as part of a lawyer’s duty of competence.” This Article evaluates one of the premises underlying the report’s recommendations: “[t]o be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer.” A review of medical studies and evidence offered by LAPs and others in support of these claims indicates that there is no empirical evidence that substance use and other mental health disorders “are leading causes of malpractice suits and ethical disciplinary actions against attorneys.” Further, medical evidence strongly suggests that many lawyer well-being interventions currently being proposed offer little to no mental health benefits and are more likely to prevent than encourage treatment engagement.

This Article then evaluates professional well-being (or wellness) policies, communications, and ideology, focusing specifically on discrimination based on mental health disorders and disabilities. It contends that lawyer well-being policies and communications are likely to result in biased appraisals of lawyers under the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct 1.1, 1.16(a)(2), and 8.3(a), and act as a subterfuge for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. It also discusses the potential for well-being policies to create and sustain hierarchy, and result in discretionary systems of discipline and social control over the private conduct of legal employees. Finally, it concludes with recommendations to reinforce the employment rights of legal employees; eliminate the role of LAPs and associated entities in providing education about mental health and well-being; improve protections from unwarranted mental health inquiries and evaluations; and reject lawyer well-being policies and derogatory rhetoric that put people with mental health disorders and disabilities down.

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