Over the past 15 months, three members of the Michigan Law community served on the state’s Task Force on Well-Being in the Law, which released a comprehensive report on August 21 with recommendations to address depression, anxiety, and substance use in the legal profession. The report emphasizes that improving well-being is critical to professional performance, client service, and the public's trust in the legal system.
Margaret C. Hannon, '05, clinical professor of law, Matthew L.M. Fletcher, '97, the Harry Burns Hutchins Collegiate Professor of Law, and 3L Adriana López-Torres were among the 28 members of the task force, a collaboration of the Michigan Supreme Court and State Bar of Michigan. The report provided recommendations for lawyers, law schools/students, and judicial officers.
“There are higher incidences of mental health and substance abuse problems for law students and lawyers as compared to the rest of the population,” said Hannon. “It's hard to draw one conclusion as to the cause, but it’s clear that [addressing it] needs to be a priority.”
The state report follows the report of the American Bar Association's National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, released in 2018, which was a first step in addressing mental health problems in the legal profession.
“The work was guided by the goals identified by the national task force in its report, so our report takes that work a step further,” said Hannon. “We also focused on how to incentivize stakeholders to work toward lawyer well-being. And then, of course, time has passed and there are things that have changed since the national task force did its work.”
López-Torres, the sole law student on the task force and co-president of Michigan Law’s Latinx Law Student Association in 2022–2023, said she drew on her own experiences and those of other students during their 1L year in her work with the task force.
She cites anything from the stress of cold calls during class to looking up every legal term that comes up to knowing that an entire grade rests on the final exam. While the causes of mental health problems might vary, she said, “I’m very passionate about making sure that there's a space for students to be heard.”
She applauds the recommendation that reassures law school students that “seeking mental health treatment will not create an obstacle to bar admission or their practice of law.”
”People might not necessarily want to look for help, thinking that they have to report it when they're applying to be a lawyer,” she said.
Another recommendation for law students is “normalizing the ability to make mistakes as part of the learning process,” which López-Torres stresses as important.
“Realizing that we can make mistakes and embracing that is really helpful,” said López-Torres. “There are professors here that are so candid and say, ‘These are mistakes that I made when I was in law school or throughout my career.’”
Beyond casual conversations with students, faculty members at Michigan Law also have participated in “Faculty Failures,” a popular panel hosted by the Office of Student Life.
Recommendations of the Michigan Task Force on Well-Being in the Law
The task force developed the following recommendations for the law school/students stakeholder group. Assistant Professor Margaret Hannon served in the stakeholder category for law schools and 3L Adriana López-Torres for law students.
For law schools/students
- Reassuring law school students that seeking mental health treatment will not create an obstacle to bar admission or their practice of law
- Encouraging and incentivizing law schools to follow American Bar Association standards on curriculum and student learning, including use of structured assessments, providing reasonable notice to students when they may be asked to provide responses during lectures, and incorporating cross-cultural competencies
- Offering more robust, long-term, and sustainable mental health resources to law school students
- Delivering well-being messages to law school students throughout their studies
- Normalizing the ability to make mistakes as part of the learning process
Fletcher, who in addition to being part of Michigan Law’s faculty serves as a tribal court judge, said the dockets of many hundreds of tribal court systems are flooded with child welfare, juvenile justice, and other cases directly arising from poverty and colonialism. As a member of the task force, he provided the perspective of tribal prosecutors, presenting officers, and social workers.
“They find themselves embedded in the lives of tribal citizens who are facing the worst experiences of their lives,” said Fletcher. “To say that tribal justice is difficult is the understatement of the century. The impacts on judges, lawyers, court personnel, and other professionals who work in this area are deeply consequential.”
Even while tribal justice personnel are facing these challenges, tribal nations are dedicated to restoring traditions designed to heal tribal communities.
“At the core of this project is wellness, recovery, and resilience,” said Fletcher. “Tribal justice personnel also appear in state courts on many of the same issues, so this task force is particularly important in that regard as well.”
The next step in the process is implementation of the task force recommendations. Each one includes strategies to alleviate mental health stressors, combat the stigma around seeking help, educate legal professionals about well-being, and enhance overall well-being within the legal community.
“I think the overall goal is trying to help people do a job that's very difficult in a way that balances with their well-being,” said Hannon. “It's hard to be a great lawyer. It's even harder to be a great lawyer if your well-being is suffering.”