Considering we’ve withstood a global pandemic, political unrest, the crippling volume of information consumed daily by simply existing in modern society — and now, extreme heat — lawyers (and the human race at large) need support for their struggles with mental health now more than ever. And everyone in the Texas legal community has access to one highly accessible and highly confidential — but possibly underused — resource: the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program.
When you’re struggling, it can feel overwhelming to decide how to begin your path to healing. If you’re anything like me, and have lost years in rumination or numbness, TLAP may just be the perfect first step.
For one, it’s simple and approachable. It’s free, and you don’t necessarily have to know exactly what you need when you reach out. At the minimum, you can call and a TLAP staff member will lend a supportive ear. If you need additional support TLAP offers a wide array of services; it can help you find a therapist, connect you with peer support groups, provide resources for suicide prevention and recommend (and even help pay for) treatment facilities. A State Bar of Texas-affiliated organization, TLAP supports people struggling in a variety of ways from all walks of life in the legal profession — from law students battling substance abuse to nonlawyer staff facing depression to associates experiencing anxiety and burnout to aging equity partners navigating cognitive decline.
This summer, TLAP began offering 24/7 support on its resource line (1-800-343-TLAP). It also got a new director: Michelle Fontenot. She succeeds Erica Grigg, who left TLAP in May to launch her own lawyer-oriented counseling practice.
A lawyer who was first a therapist, Fontenot took over after serving as TLAP’s lead clinical professional and practicing law in Seattle and Austin.
The Lawbook wanted to learn more about the services TLAP offers to Texas lawyers. In the following Q&A, Fontenot also shares her thoughts on how the pandemic changed mental health, why the billable hour is bad for lawyers’ emotional needs and what firms and corporate legal departments can be doing differently to support the wellness of their employees.
Texas Lawbook: What kinds of services does TLAP offer?
Michelle Fontenot: TLAP provides a text and telephone resource line for the legal community in Texas to access wellness, mental health and substance use resources. We handle calls for support as well as crises and you can call with questions that you have about yourself or with questions or concerns that you have for another attorney. We answer the phone 24/7, and we can connect anyone who calls with a mental health professional free of charge. We offer peer support and we also have a lawyer-recommended list of substance use treatment centers, mental health hospitals, therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists around the state.
Our website (www.tlaphelps.org) is a great resource for all of the things that we offer. On the website, you can access CLE’s that we have recorded as well as topical resources for a variety of wellness issues. We offer two free online CLEs per month which count for ethics credit. They’re focused on different wellness topics as well as stories of recovery and remission. We also provide topical trainings and resources to help attorneys, law students, judges and the legal community of Texas with common issues such as stress, anxiety, burnout and other wellness issues.
We also provide resources on other local groups, such as Texas Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, which is a support group for attorneys, law students and judges throughout the state.
Law students use our services and we offer support sessions for law students that are basically like office hours where they can set up a time to talk with one of us. We talk about lawyer wellness, resilience, what the challenges of lawyering are and what you can do about it. Even if you’re just going through life and have kids who get sick or your marriage fails, your clients don’t care what’s going on in your life and that can be traumatizing. We always offer evidence-based tips for feeling better.
We do training on secondary trauma and what we call trauma-informed lawyering. I was a therapist first, and went to law school later in life and so when you go to counselor school, you learn how to take care of yourself. Part of the issue is that I think lawyers are slow to recognizing the trauma of their legal work and that it’s an adversarial system — that sometimes we get clients who go to jail, clients who die or clients who get in traffic accidents. Dealing with that material from the perspective of a lawyer looking for evidence involves the client telling you their story over and over. But when you hear that, how does it impact you?
Finally, we have a private trust called the Sheeran Crowley Trust that helps fund treatment for lawyers, law students and judges.
Lawbook: Tell me more about that.
Fontenot: The Sheeran Crowley Lawyer Wellness Trust is a private trust that was set up to help attorneys, law students, and judges who need treatment for substance use, depression and other mental health issues but can’t afford it. They can call TLAP to learn about services and to get access to the application. The application is not difficult to fill out and the turnaround time to get a response is very fast. The grant doesn’t dictate which treatment provider grant recipients see. The grant provides funding for three levels of treatment – outpatient counseling, intensive outpatient treatment and inpatient treatment. TLAP has a relationship with some substance-use facilities that we’ve checked out and other attorneys have gone to and recommend. The grant, when approved, pays providers directly. For instance, the grant can cover up to $10,000 for an attorney’s inpatient treatment — however, some facilities might cost $20,000, $40,000 or even $60,000. TLAP has established relationships with some of the treatment facilities that will accept the grant funding as full payment for an attorney’s monthlong stay. This grant is a lifesaver for many attorneys who don’t have health insurance, or the copay is so high that they wouldn’t get treatment without the support of the grant. As our TLAP team talks to law students, we let them know about the grant as well. Law students use the grant quite a bit — which is great because we know that law school can be very stressful and we want students to learn how to take care of themselves early on in their legal careers.
Lawbook: What is the best way for firms and corporate legal departments to support TLAP’s work?
Fontenot: Volunteering is one option. Firms often invite TLAP to speak to the firm and they typically include their legal teams so the whole firm can hear the same message. Additionally, firms can donate to the trust (it’s tax deductible). Firms can be a big help in creating fundraising opportunities to continue to fund the trust.
Lawbook: What are you noticing right now in terms of mental health in the legal profession?
Fontenot: A couple thoughts come to mind. One thing we talk about regularly is the statistics of depression, anxiety, burnout and substance use disorders in the legal community. In corporate law, I think there’s a lot of stress and a lot of leaders are trying to find ways to do things that benefit employees. The research shows that if leaders of firms are not engaging in mental wellness benefits offered — like yoga or going to the counselor the firm hires — other people will take their cue from the leaders and not use the benefits. Another thing we find in corporate law is the culture of events having alcohol. Including mocktails for people who don’t drink or don’t want to drink will give them a beverage option and will help them not feel out of place, but promoted.
Lastly, research also shows the powerful benefit of volunteering with one’s wellbeing. There is a lot of research about how helping others actually makes you feel better and makes you feel like you belong.
Lawbook: What do you think the Texas legal industry is doing right when it comes to mental health?
Fontenot: In terms of what it’s doing right, I think making health insurance cover mental health is hugely positive. Treating mental health like any other medical condition is de-stigmatizing, and the fact that insurance should now cover counseling and substance use treatment is a big shift from years ago.
Lawbook: Where is the legal industry falling short, and what can law firms be doing differently to better support their attorneys’ mental health?
Fontenot: Billable hours is always something that taxes attorneys. You put on a suit and go to work for 12 hours a day, go home, sleep, put on a suit again, and don’t get your emotional needs met. There are some firms that say you can take a vacation, but what that really means is you squeeze the billable hour requirements into fewer weeks — or work on the vacation. It would be nice if there was some more balance in a way that you don’t feel like you’re shooting yourself in the foot because you took time out of the workday to go to a therapy appointment and like it’s just another hour you’re going to have to make up somewhere else. Often, people of color or minorities of any type are expected by law firms to do a lot of the work that isn’t billable, such as participating in some type of minority bar organization on behalf of their firm or other volunteer activities that benefit the firm but don’t necessarily benefit their path to partnership. Oftentimes those people don’t feel like they’re in a position to say no.
When I’m giving talks at law schools and elsewhere, as much as possible I try to talk about what you can do just to take care of yourself, what you can do when that’s not enough, and what does it mean to ask for help and how to de-stigmatize asking for help. If someone says they have cancer the firm usually says, ‘OK fine, we’re giving you sick time,’ but if somebody’s depressed, A) is it a safe place to admit that, and B) does the firm treat it like the medical condition it is, or do they think that the attorney is just being a baby? I imagine that a young male associate with depression would be treated very differently than a female associate having postpartum depression.
Lastly, corporate law is a place where there needs to be a balance between learning and nurturing, and I don’t think the industry always gets that right. If somebody had 50 billable hours a year that could be credited toward pro bono work or some number of hours counted as education on wellness, that’s something that actually makes a difference. I think if firm leaders want to promote wellness, they need to do things to promote wellness — that is, creating time and space for it so that if you go to a wellness CLE, you don’t feel like you’re going to miss out on something else.
Lawbook: How did Covid change mental health and how we address it?
Fontenot: I think so many people got depressed that hopefully it de-stigmatized depression to some extent. People realized the need for community but also that part of dealing with challenging situations is that there’s a cycle of stress. In that cycle, you build up and up and then there is usually period to recover. During Covid, there wasn’t an end in sight for so long; we were all spinning in that high-stress cycle and there wasn’t a space for recovery. Burnout is a big thing in anybody’s professional career — but on top of trying to get clients in the door, learning how to do Zoom hearings and having employees in and out because of illness — it was a very stressful time for everybody, but especially the legal community.
I spoke with a lot of people during Covid, and Covid provided some cover for mental health and substance use issues that attorneys would have when requesting continuances in their cases. If you said, ‘I have a medical condition,’ people just assumed they had Covid because we all had it one point or another. Now that Covid is not as rampant, attorneys struggle with finding help to cover their cases when they need intensive treatment. Attorneys in big firms have coverage, but the challenges there have more to do with stigma and fear of reprisal.
One statistic I came across said that about 8.9 percent of the general population experiences depression, but in 2021, it was about 32 percent.
Lawbook: Do you think more people are depressed, or did it just become more de-stigmatized?
Fontenot: I think it’s both. I think younger people are more willing to admit mental health struggles, so that culture is becoming more accepting. The culture shift is those younger professionals are coming into a legal world of older people who are less comfortable addressing mental health or dealing with it.
Lawbook: Is there anything else you would like the legal community to know about TLAP?
Fontenot: Of course, we want to plug that we exist as a resource for everybody in the legal community, including nonlawyers. We want to encourage paralegals, legal assistants, the whole legal community to call us for resources. It’s important for people to know they can call us.
Also, it’s especially important for lawyers and judges to know that communication with us is statutorily protected as confidential. I think that’s a large concern and I want to just reiterate that communication with TLAP is confidential. We take this seriously.