Alarmed by high levels of depression, anxiety and stress among practicing attorneys, the Minnesota Supreme Court is leading the charge against what it calls a crisis of well-being among Minnesota lawyers.

“The practice of law in the 40 years since I went to law school has become more stressful and, in some ways feels more toxic,” said Justice David Lillehaug, who is leading the court’s effort. “So the court feels an obligation to deal with that. There’s also a moral dimension to this: The real failure is the rest of us saying ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ ”

Lillehaug and his fellow justices were stunned by findings in a recent study of the profession that documented the fallout of the pressures facing practicing attorneys, many of whom struggle with drugs and alcohol.

Now, the Supreme Court is applying its stature to a mission to draw attention to the issue in Minnesota.

Lillehaug put this new focus on a par with the court’s longstanding roles of regulating the practice of law and disciplining attorney misconduct in the state. Last week, the court convened a seminar in Minneapolis to shine a spotlight on being more mindful of healthfulness. The seminar drew hundreds of attorneys from across the state’s legal community.

Attorneys working in small private firms on up to their peers representing some of the country’s biggest corporations listened as justices and legal experts warned of the stakes of letting one’s health lapse in a job that can demand long hours, often away from family and while under intense pressure.

The Supreme Court is dubbing its initiative a “call to action,” emphasizing that its message not be confined to a single event. Its effort underscores a national shift in the profession away from solely trying to toughen up lawyers facing high levels of stress toward a more measured approach aimed at avoiding burnout and other more serious health consequences.

“How could the public trust lawyers if we’re not taking care of ourselves and not doing the job well?” said Robin Wolpert, a Minneapolis attorney who leads the state’s attorney disciplinary system.

Wake-up call

Last week, Lillehaug, a former U.S. attorney who also spent 17 years in private practice, stood before scores of attorneys from some of the state’s biggest law firms inside a mock courtroom at the University of St. Thomas law school and asked for a moment of silence.

Earlier that day, nearly all of the seminar’s 245 attendees raised their hands when a speaker asked if they knew someone who struggled with mental illness or substance abuse. Lillehaug wanted his group to ponder how they would want that friend or colleague to be treated at work.

The justice was himself thinking of a good friend who took his own life after suffering from untreated depression while working in private practice in the Twin Cities in the 1990s.

“Everybody knew there was a problem but there wasn’t really anyone intervening,” Lillehaug said. “I don’t think there was an appreciation of what was happening to him until it was too late.”

Lillehaug, who is the court’s liaison to the state board that disciplines lawyer misconduct, has also noted just how often some combination of drugs, alcohol or mental illness lingers in the background of so many lawyer discipline cases the court considers.

When Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea, stirred by new research underlying the health threats endemic to the profession, called for the court to act, Lillehaug volunteered.

The new findings were grim: Researchers for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and American Bar Association studied 13,000 lawyers, finding that as many as one-third were problem drinkers, 28 percent battled depression and 1 in 5 struggled with anxiety. A subsequent study of law school students found them to be at even greater risk.

Speaking before the lawyers assembled at St. Thomas last week, Gildea called the findings “a wake-up call casting a spotlight on a topic that sat in the shadows far too long.”

Patrick Krill, a Minneapolis attorney and licensed drug counselor who co-authored the report, described the Minnesota Supreme Court’s new response as part of a “watershed moment” for the profession.

“It’s almost as if there was a pent-up desire to talk about these problems and people now feel as if they have permission to talk about what has been an elephant in the room for decades,” Krill said.

Before Krill’s 2016 report, there hadn’t been a study on behavioral health in the legal profession for more than 25 years. Krill helped launch a national task force in response to the report that outlined steps for improving attorneys’ lifestyles and developed action plans for law firms and schools to adopt, something Lillehaug described as “a turning point” for the profession.

Fighting stigmas

Last year, the American Bar Association also adopted a “well-being” pledge for legal groups to sign, vowing to create written policies and access to addiction and mental health resources. It already has commitments from 3M and big law firms such as Dorsey & Whitney. Earlier last week, St. Thomas became one of 10 law schools to so far sign on.

Underlying it all is a drive to reduce stubborn stigmas against opening up.

“To have it possibly become public, either in a petition or an opinion, that this person has a mental health issue is seen as far worse than hiding it,” said Joan Bibelhausen, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, whose Minnesota chapter is the country’s longest running support program for attorneys.

Bibelhausen, who helped counsel a group of lawyers from smaller firms last week, pointed to the Supreme Court’s seminar as something that could finally underscore that it is OK to ask for help.

“We’ve almost glorified being unwell,” said Wolpert, who joined Bibelhausen and Justice G. Barry Anderson in the session. “We have to create a cultural change where you are taking care of yourself because if you don’t, your competence and diligence are going to be compromised.”