Wellness Unplugged: Technology’s Impact on Attorney Mental Health
The Bencher—March/April 2022
By John G. Browning, Esquire, and Jan L. Jacobowitz, Esquire
It’s no secret that rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide are at unheard-of levels in the legal profession. But to what extent does lawyers’ reliance on technology and the resulting feelings of being digitally tethered and always electronically available contribute? As it turns out, our increased dependence on and use of technology—higher than ever since the pandemic and the advent of working remotely—has a significant impact on attorney wellness.
According to the American Bar Association’s “2021 Legal Technology Survey Report”, a disturbingly high percentage of lawyers are choosing constant availability over rest, with only 47% of those surveyed regularly or occasionally taking time away from electronic devices to perform other activities in order to relax. Younger lawyers are even less likely to engage in a “digital detox,” with 76% reporting that they never or rarely take such a break (a dramatic increase from the pre-pandemic figure of 60%).
The New York State Bar Association Task Force on Attorney Well-Being released its own survey results in October 2021. The factor ranking as having the greatest impact on respondents’ well-being—greater than financial pressures, client expectations, or the COVID-19 pandemic—was the “lack of boundaries regarding ‘down time’ or ‘never off,’” a condition exacerbated by the feeling of being unable to “disconnect” due to technology’s reach.
This is not a feeling unique to American lawyers, either. According to the International Bar Association’s (IBA’s) 2021 report “Mental Wellbeing in the Legal Profession: A Global Study,” lawyers around the world are reporting the same problem. Employer demands and client expectations, driven by technology that renders attorneys available 24/7 on a variety of platforms, have attorneys experiencing greater stress than ever. Even worse, at the same time that this work-related stress is eroding attorney well-being, lawyers are increasingly hesitant to voice their mental health concerns. The IBA study found that at least 41% of attorneys responding would not discuss their mental health with their employer, whether out of concerns that they’d be treated differently, not taken seriously, or that their employer doesn’t sufficiently recognize mental well-being issues.
It’s certainly true that technology, particularly the increased use of videoconferencing platforms for depositions, court proceedings, and meetings with clients and colleagues, has helped many lawyers and law firms maintain, and even grow, business during the pandemic. But without clear boundaries and realistic expectations about accessibility, technology—ranging from text messaging to videoconferencing platforms—is accelerating the already formidable challenges the legal profession faces in promoting wellness and combating burnout.
Dena Lefkowitz, Esquire, founder of executive and lawyer coaching firm Achievement by Design, notes that “the 24/7 nature of legal work is what is contributing to the burnout problem and well-being, depression, and suicide [issues]. … If anything, the digital platform has increased accessibility, and that will increase the problem.” While conceding that collaborative platforms are “fantastic if used properly,” Lefkowitz says there must be “boundaries and rules of engagement” for any kind of technology. “It’s built to support you and make you more productive, but it often becomes the opposite and takes over your life.”
Technology’s impact on attorney wellness is hardly a new phenomenon; while virtual lawyering during the pandemic certainly accelerated reliance on technology, it’s a concern that has been around for a while. And, of course, it’s an issue that affects our society at large. In fact, a September 2013 LexisNexis white paper, “In the Zone: Is Technology Helping or Hindering Lawyers’ Decision Making?,” discussed the “paradox of technology” and the consequences of information overload that may “actually be hindering [lawyers’] decision-making capabilities, causing stress and leading to suboptimal outcomes.”
Even before the pandemic began, UnitedLex Founder and CEO Dan Reed cautioned lawyers about the impact that legal technology has on lawyers’ mental well-being. In an October 2019 op-ed marking World Mental Health Day, Reed noted that lawyers’ “risk of feeling under strain and developing mental health issues has not necessarily been reduced in a meaningful way by the evolution of legal technology, just changed.” To improve wellness among younger lawyers, Reed stated, “We should be encouraging those entering the profession to switch off and digitally detox as well as work hard.”
Looming over the issue of lawyers’ increased reliance on technology and its impact on wellness, of course, is the societal impact of technology—particularly social media—on mental health and well-being. Even internal surveys by tech companies acknowledge the detrimental effects. Facebook researchers, for example, found in 2021 that 1 in 8 of its users reported engaging in compulsive use of social media that affected their sleep patterns, work, parenting, or relationships. And Instagram made headlines for suppressing “likes” in an effort to curb comparisons and hurt feelings associated with attaching popularity to sharing content.
How social media has affected lawyers’ well-being, particularly anxiety and the effects of “doomscrolling” during the pandemic, has yet to be fully explored. However, we, the authors, have discerned an uptick in ethically problematic uses of social media by lawyers and judges since the pandemic began. In some ways, the urge to comment on current events and controversial issues may be a reaction to the feelings of isolation and uncertainty many lawyers have experienced while working remotely.
In one instance, a 56-year-old lawyer in California received a viral backlash—including death threats—following a “glib” March 2020 tweet about “tanking the entire economy” to save 2.5% of the population he deemed “expensive to maintain” and “not productive.” The lawyer expressed regret over the tweet, saying, “Had I been a little bit more thoughtful of the situation people were going through, I wouldn’t have said it.”
“A little bit more thoughtful” may reflect the essential need for enhanced self-awareness in the midst of a digital world. Meta awareness, or thinking about your thinking, and time for self-reflection are critical components of both performance and mental health. In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman discusses cognitive overload and explains that “people who are cognitively busy are … more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.”
Superficial judgments resulting in remorse over posts like the tweet above are increasingly common. Lawyers as gatekeepers for the rule of law and zealous advocates naturally may want to express their anger or outrage about a current event; a 2018 study found that sharing anger about an event is the primary motivation for posting on Twitter and Reddit. No wonder that technologically over-wrought lawyers and judges lack both the momentary self-awareness and self-control to avoid social media landmines. Momentary gratification sought from a place of burnout ignites yet another mental health fire.
How to Unplug Occasionally
So, with long nights at the office giving way to lawyers constantly checking their device screens for updates and notifications and communicating largely via technology, what can be done on a practical level to address how technology is affecting attorney wellness? For one thing, lawyers and firms need to set clearly defined boundaries to allow lawyers to disconnect from work, de-stress, and clear their heads.
Earlier this year, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP introduced “unplug Fridays” to combat Zoom fatigue, designating Fridays as free from scheduling internal meetings. Such steps by firms are likely to be welcomed. In fact, the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Attorney Well-Being reported that respondents’ top requests in a 2021 survey were for concrete wellness measures such as discounted fitness memberships and free or low-cost counseling.
Additional positive steps that can be implemented include providing education about the effects of being connected 24/7 and providing methods to increase self-awareness, such as offering a mindfulness program. Mindfulness programs have increased in popularity among legal professionals over the past decade. Mindfulness increases individuals’ awareness of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in a manner that not only allows for a cognitive pause before responding (to an event on technology or in real-time), but also may enhance overall well-being. In other words, a mindfulness practice naturally requires one to unplug and internally check in, thereby not only causing a technological break but also perhaps increasing the likeliness that the person may realize the need to take additional steps to maintain well-being.
Experts such as Patrick R. Krill, Esquire, founder of attorney well-being consulting firm Krill Strategies, also suggest incremental steps to reduce device addiction and improve wellness. “Try to reduce your usage, your scrolling, your device checking, by a small percentage and go from there,” he says.
Roberta Tepper, Esquire, State Bar of Arizona lawyer assistance programs director, agrees. She says lawyers should take smaller, consistent breaks from technology, scheduling “a reasonable amount of time where they say, ‘I’m just unplugging for this amount of time and it won’t involve anything electronic,’ such as going for a walk or reading a book.”
For many, taking such steps in the context of a profession in which clients and employers alike expect and reward people for their availability may seem counterproductive. It may be perceived as even tougher for solo practitioners or young associates at large firms who face daunting billable hour requirements. However, lawyers should clearly express expectations for communication, even something as minor as sending an email to an associate in the morning rather than at night so as not to convey a misplaced sense of urgency.
Ultimately, lawyers need to recognize that clients and employers demand high-quality work product and not just the increased accessibility that technology offers. Without taking the time to power down, unplug, or digitally detox, lawyers risk not only heightened stress and greater risk of depression, anxiety, and burnout, they also jeopardize their ability to deliver quality legal services.
John G. Browning, Esquire, is a partner in the Plano, Texas, office of Spencer Fane LLP. He is a national thought leader and frequent author on the subjects of social media and technology and the law. He is a member of the William ‘Mac’ Taylor American Inn of Court.
Jan L. Jacobowitz, Esquire, is the founder and owner of Legal Ethics Advisor and an adjunct professor at University of Miami School of Law, in Miami, Florida. She is nationally known for her expertise in the areas of legal ethics, social media, and technology.