Attorneys and Financial Wellness: The Forgotten Wellness Topic

“I’m so embarrassed. I can’t believe I have to talk to an attorney about my own finances.”

“I wish I never would have gone to law school. I’ll never pay off these student loans.”

“I can’t sleep. I just stay up all night worrying about the bills I have to pay and that I don’t make enough to cover my regular living expenses.”

I have heard all of these quotes and more from lawyers over the years and realized that financial wellness is not something really anyone wants to talk about or address. By not talking about the financial problems that lawyers are facing, many lawyers feel isolated and overwhelmed. This type of financial stress can also lead to mental health and substance abuse issues. The American Bar Association released its 2020 Law School Student Loan Debt Survey Report and the overwhelming statistics show that more than 75% of the respondents (new and young lawyers) had more than $100,000 in student loans at graduation.1

One of the biggest problems with financial wellness is the name itself. Financial wellness implies that everything is hunky-dory as long as you have some basic budgeting tools and are saving for retirement. The disconnect comes when there is actual financial stress and crisis.The term “financial wellness” itself is an out-of-touch statement, for example, telling someone with $300,000 in student loans that if they just budgeted better, financial wellness follows. It is such a demeaning and condescending approach to the problem.

What should we be talking about instead?

How can we encourage ourselves and our colleagues to not view financial difficulties as an embarrassment or failure?
First of all, we need to get it out of our heads that financial stress is somehow rare. In recent years, statistics show that the number of people admit that they are financially stressed ranges from 62 percent to 80 percent and a whopping 90 percent of Americans say that money has impacted their stress level.2 However, when you talk to people or look on social media, you would never know because everyone is afraid of what others will think. Lawyers are people, too. We have the same financial problems as those around us and sometimes more because of the amount of student loan debt. A lot of us went to law school because of the income potential, but when your student loan balance is growing every year because of interest on income-based repayment, it is very stressful and discouraging. The idea of paying for 25 years and owing five times the amount borrowed will keep you up at night.

Second, understand what financial stress does to our health, relationships and our job satisfaction. The ABA study summarized many of the responses regarding how student loans affect the lives of lawyers and the words regarding mental health problems were telling, including constant anxiety, stress, inability to save, giving up on life, massive depression, hate for the profession, unbearable, panic attacks, insomnia, inability to provide for children, divorce. While this was a student loan report, these same responses apply to other types of debt as well. These reports and studies are hard for us to read. We also feel like we should be smart enough to solve these problems on our own.
Third, we need to ask for help and encourage others to ask for help without judgment. We see a lot of mental health, substance abuse, and similar discussions becoming more mainstream, but financial stress discussions are not happening as much, even though finances are the main source of stress and stress is often the trigger for mental health and substance abuse problems that lawyers are facing. Depression, anxiety, and insomnia can affect mental health and can be the catalysts for poor decision-making.

Studies also show that financial concerns have a cognitive impairment, comparable to losing a full night of sleep.3 That means that our decision-making skills are so diminished when distracted by finances that we make questionable decisions and do not ask for help. With consumers, this is often seen when they try to fix their own problems without understanding all of the details, fall for scams or ignore the problem hoping it will go away. With lawyers, we sometimes wonder how a lawyer made a decision that was so wrong that they could not see it, for example, improper use of trust account funds or mishandling settlement proceeds.

What’s the future of financial wellness?

Just as other wellness topics are coming to the forefront these days, financial difficulties need to be included in the conversation. It is so hard when we are worried about the perceived stigma and even harder when we think no one else has the same problems. Unfortunately, if we are being honest, more of us than not are financially stressed and could use some reassurances that we are not alone. Wellness comes from admitting that there is a problem that needs to be solved, finding legitimate options and solutions, and implementing the plan. From a public policy standpoint, financial wellness also comes from addressing the massive student loan issues that lawyers (and others) are facing, or we will be forced to keep talking about this problem for many generations to come.

1. American Bar Association. 2020 Law School Student Loan Debt Survey.
2. American Psychological Association. Stress in America™ Paying With Our Health.
3. Catherine Gage O’Grady. Nevada Law Journal. Behavioral Legal Ethics, Decision Making, and the New Attorney’s Unique Professional Perspective.