News of the Sad: Lowlights from the 2021 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession

The American Bar Association (ABA) recently published the 2021 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession which describes itself as a July 2021 “snapshot of the legal profession.” It contains 11 chapters on topics such as how the pandemic affected lawyers, legal education, lawyer well-being, legal technology and more. The report draws upon the findings and statistics of the many surveys that the ABA has conducted in recent years as well as studies conducted by non-ABA researchers such as:

A first glance at the 2021 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession website warns the reader to moderate hopes of good news about the profession, since the opening statistics point out a problematic situation for American justice – that out of 1.3 million lawyers in the US, 63% are male and 85% are white. My expectations for good news would have been low anyway, since one can tell from the steady stream of ABA surveys and reports that the organization doesn’t shy away from investigating problems. I clicked around randomly on topics of interest for several minutes before realizing I was encountering nothing but bad news and bleak statistics. And so my blog post was born…

Well-Being

The snapshot of the legal profession on well-being suggests that many lawyers might need to just get out of the picture. The Profile begins by noting that recent studies show that lawyers suffer from alcohol, drug, and mental health difficulties at substantially higher levels than the general population and other professionals. It cites to a 2016 ABA/Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study showing that 21% of lawyers are problem drinkers, 28% suffer from depression, 19% suffer from symptoms of anxiety, and 11.5% suffer from suicidal thoughts. To put the 21% of problem drinkers into perspective, lawyers suffer from this problem at triple the rate of the general population and double the rate of other professions. And just when you think it couldn’t get worse, for lawyers under the age of 30, the percentage of problem drinkers goes up to 32%.

The rest of the well-being chapter features other depressing statistics on the mental health/substance abuse struggles of law students, women lawyers, and judges.

Does the Profile contain any well-being good news? Well, yes! In the 2019 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report, 56% of attorneys reported that their employer was supportive of mental health needs and 72% reported that their employer’s support for working parents was good or very good!  

Legal School Debt

Clicking on the Legal Education chapter was just asking to be depressed! It will come as a surprise to no one that law school debt continues to severely affect borrowers, impacting both their career and personal choices, as well as mental health. According to soon-to-be published survey results in the 2021 Law School Student Loan Debt Report, more than 90% of students borrow money to attend law school, and the average combined debt of graduating students is $120,000 (including undergraduate debt). This financial burden scares young lawyers away from both family life and consumption: 39% postponed or decided not to have children, 27% postponed or decided not to get married, 52% postponed or decided not to buy a house, and 31% postponed or decided not to buy a car. In addition to these circumscribed life choices, or perhaps because of them, a majority of borrowers reported mental suffering from their debt load on a monthly basis, with 65% feeling anxious or stressed, 53% feeling regretful or guilty, and 44% feeling depressed or hopeless.

Is there any good news? Perhaps! If they had a chance to do it all over again, 61% of borrowers said they would still attend law school and 55% would attend the very same school.

Diversity on the Bench

The news about judicial diversity is mostly bad as white males are still disproportionately over-represented in the state and federal judicial systems. In addition to other depressing statistics, the Profile cites State Supreme Court Diversity, a 2019 Brennan Center for Justice report for the news that state high courts do not reflect the populations they serve. Though people of color make up 40% of the US population, they comprise only 17% of state high court justices. Though 17% is no doubt way better than it was in the past, it is hard to celebrate the ridiculous fact that a whopping 18 states have all white high courts. Or that 28 states have no Black justices, 40 states have no Hispanic justices, 44 states have no Asian American justices, and 47 states have no Native American justices.

Is there any good news? Well, not related to diversity on the bench… But, in the lawyer well-being section, judges are half as likely to report problems (9.5%) with alcohol than practicing lawyers (20.6%)!

Conclusion

The ABA has done a very thorough and realistic job of summarizing the state of the profession by citing statistics and findings from recent surveys and studies. Though I was somehow only drawn to chapters with bad news, there are many other topics to explore, some with good news! 

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