Lawyers drop the facade on mental health: Q&A with Quinns Joe Milowic – Reuters

June 10 (Reuters) – Joseph Milowic, an IP litigation partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in New York, broke a longstanding taboo when he first wrote publicly about his battle with depression in 2018.

Lawyers, much less Big Law partners, don’t often acknowledge grappling with mental illness. But Milowic said the response to the article was “overwhelming,” leading him and others to launch an online support group for legal professionals more than two years ago.

The Lawyers Depression Project now has nearly 600 members, according to Milowic, who is now also Quinn Emanuel’s director of well-being. The group includes lawyers, paralegals, law students and administrative staffers “who have suffered from depression, anxiety, bipolar, OCD, eating disorders, trauma, sexual abuse, addiction and other mental health conditions, or who just don’t feel quite right,” according to its website.

After a year when the pandemic heightened concerns over lawyers’ mental health, Reuters spoke with Milowic recently about how the group has grown, how law firms are tackling mental health, and what he calls the “evolution of authenticity.”

This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

REUTERS: What was the origin of the Lawyers Depression Project?

MILOWIC: Back in March 2018, I wrote an article and disclosed to the bar, essentially, that I had experienced depression. I was trying to reach out to anyone who might be experiencing symptoms of depression but not really know what they’re going through, because that was what I had experienced as a young associate. Being at Quinn Emanuel, (I thought) it might be a useful message, that even though you deal with a mental health issue, you can still succeed at a big firm, you can still make partner.

At the end I said, you can contact me in confidence if you’d like, and let me know if you’re interested in an online support group of lawyers.

The response to the article was really, really overwhelming to me, there were hundreds of people that reached out and disclosed their own experiences. I learned through that process that when you’re vulnerable, it encourages other people to also share and be vulnerable.

The early calls, we would have maybe a handful of people join, sometimes it was just one other person. And sometimes nobody joined. But we kept doing it thinking that, if it helps one person, then that was good enough.

More people started to sign up. We were doing about five or 10 new members a month before the pandemic. And then when the pandemic hit, we started getting like 20 new members a month. I think right now we’re at about 580 members from around the world.

REUTERS: How does it work?

MILOWIC: We have online peer support meetings twice a week. We say some guidelines about how the meeting is supposed to go: It’s confidential. We’re not mental health professionals. This isn’t therapy. This is peer support. We’re here to share and be kind. No one person should monopolize the time on the call. And then we go around and check in with everyone on the call. The conversations sort of grow organically from that, people will tell what they’re experiencing.

I think there’s a real beauty to it, because people come on the calls thinking that they’re the only ones struggling with a particular issue. But they soon find the benefit of support calls, and that is knowing that you’re not alone.

REUTERS: The past year has emphasized mental health struggles. What have you seen in terms of recognition of the issue?

MILOWIC: In the past few years, we’re seeing law firms developing wellbeing programs and naming people director of wellbeing.

The ABA started a pledge for law firms to sign on, to say here are seven points we’re going to try to implement to take better care in the areas of mental health and addiction and alcoholism. A lot of firms have signed onto that. And as part of signing on to the pledge, or implementing programs, there’s a lot more talk about it now.

There’s also talk about how much of this is lip service by firms. And even beyond lip service, how much of it is actually treating the symptoms rather than addressing systemic issues? A good example is, bringing someone to talk about mindfulness, doing yoga or meditation. Does that really address the fundamental issue that associates have to bill 2,000 hours? How does that address the fundamental issues that are causing the stress? So that’s the whole conversation that’s going on.

I think that things are evolving in the legal field and beyond, where well-being and discussions about well-being are being elevated. It also parallels the evolution we’re seeing in other areas. I think of it as an evolution of authenticity. There’s the LGBT movement, the MeToo movement. And there’s also the mental health movement, and what they have in common is that people are saying, ‘this is my experience, and I want to share it,’ and people are being a little bit more authentic. I think people within firms are starting to share a little bit more, trying to drop the facade a little bit about being perfect all the time, and be a little bit more honest.

Sara Merken reports on privacy and data security, as well as the business of law, including legal innovation and key players in the legal services industry. Reach her at sara.merken@thomsonreuters.com

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