A Q&A with Author Lisa Smith

On-Campus Recruiting begins next week, and I have been traveling around the country to conduct Interviewer Training to help attorneys prepare. This year, many firms are highlighting to recruits their commitment to offering their lawyers well-being resources. This new trend is in response to the ABA Report on the prevalence of mental health disorders and addiction in the legal industry – more than 20% of lawyers have struggled with these issues. Many firms have signed the ABA Pledge, acknowledging the problem and agreeing to take action steps to support a healthy work environment.

Lisa Smith is the author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar, a memoir about working as a very successful Big Law attorney while being addicted to alcohol and cocaine. I met Lisa in 1997 when she transitioned from practicing into law firm marketing and I had no idea what she was struggling with. I recently read her book and was deeply moved by her courageous story and superb writing. I invited Lisa to share her journey with a group of our clients in NYC. She is passionate about breaking the stigma of drug and alcohol addiction, particularly within law firms.

Here is my Q&A with Lisa:

Q: What is it about the “lawyer personality” that makes addiction so prevalent?

A: It’s a great question. Lawyers tend to be bright, hard working perfectionists. Those qualities, of course, help us get into the profession and succeed in the first place. But that perfectionism can work against us. For many, that begins the day we walk into law school, where substance use and mental health disorders often begin to occur. It’s there that we compete against our friends and classmates for grades, spots on the law review, and eventually for jobs. Then there’s the nature of the actual practice of law. It’s inherently adversarial and we are constantly striving to “win.” The demands are heavy, the expectations are high, and thanks to technology, we’re never truly disconnected. All those factors together can really impact a lawyer, particularly one like me with a genetic predisposition toward addiction and an underlying mental health disorder (depression, in my case).

Q: How has the stigma around mental illness and addiction evolved in the 25+ years you have worked in law firms? 

A: That’s the good news! We are at a real inflection point in smashing the stigma around these issues. When I first started out, no one ever spoke of mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety. Now we have a whole generation of younger lawyers who grew up understanding that mental health challenges are nothing to be ashamed of and need to be addressed. And the more senior lawyers almost all know someone among their family or friends who deals with such a disorder. It’s not a foreign language anymore. Combine that with the tremendous action that organizations like the ABA and Law.com are taking to bring the problem of stigma to the forefront, as well as more lawyers active in the profession speaking publicly about their own experiences, and you can see real change being made. But there is still a lot of work left to do and a lot of education that needs to take place.

Q: Tell us your thoughts about the ABA pledge and the way it could impact how law firms deal with addiction in their workplace.

A: The ABA Pledge to Advance Attorney Well-Being is an incredible step forward. In 2016, the landmark study the ABA conducted together with Hazelden Betty Ford found the prevalence of substance use and mental health disorders in the profession to be more than twice that of the general population. Following that finding, the ABA really took action. All of it is premised around the fact that to be a good lawyer, you have to be a healthy lawyer, and that means both physical health and mental health. By issuing the challenge to legal employers to take the pledge, which sets out a seven-point framework for firms to take action, they have given firms and other legal employers (some law schools have signed on as well!) a fantastic roadmap and tools to improve attorney and staff well-being overall.

Q: Share your mission and what you’re most excited about as you launch into the next chapter of your career.

A: I’m leaving my role as Deputy Executive Director and Director of Client Relations at Patterson Belknap at the end of August to start a consultancy working directly with firms to help them break the stigma, find the right resources to support their efforts, and promote a healthier culture for attorneys and staff. Having experienced both a substance use and mental health disorder as an associate in a big firm, then moving into law firm administration and management, I’ve seen these issues from both angles – as the person who struggles and recovers, and as the leadership team member working to promote the best environment possible for lawyers to succeed in a firm. Of course, law firms are first and foremost client-service oriented professional organizations. The demands that model creates aren’t going away. But there is room to improve the situation so that firms can continue to recruit and retain the most talented legal minds out there. I want to help and I’m very excited about it. More about what I’m up to can be found at www.lisasmithauthor.com.

Lisa’s story is brave and truly inspiring. I highly recommend her book and wish her tremendous success!

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