Bench + Bar of Minnesota

Better together: Toward a mutual-care approach to practicing law


By Natalie Netzel


I entered law school with a clean bill of mental health. By my second year of practice, I clearly had the symptoms of what I would learn—much later —was an anxiety disorder. I obsessively checked my email. I woke up in the middle of the night worried about my clients’ well-being. Fear of missing a deadline or a hearing prompted me to check my schedule so frequently I had it memorized weeks out. Every morning was filled with dread that today was the inevitable day when those around me would finally realize I was too dumb to be in my job. I magnified every criticism. But praise or confirmation that I was doing well? No way would I let that seep in. I didn’t want to become complacent. I couldn’t afford to lose my edge. 

Through this time, I withdrew from other attorneys. They appeared to have it all figured out. They could handle it. They seemed busy, and I didn’t want to be a burden. Plus, if I admitted how hard things were for me, it would confirm what I believed others thought of me—I wasn’t good enough. My anxious thought patterns didn’t seem so much a problem as a trusted friend. I had anxiety about losing my anxiety. Living in a perpetual state of worry kept me on my A-game, or so I thought. 

I’m a statistic—part of the 19 percent of attorneys who struggle with anxiety and the 71 percent for whom anxiety is a concern at some point in their career.1 Lawyers suffer disproportionately compared to other similarly situated professions.2 Moreover, as an ABA Journal article averred, “law practice may be the loneliest profession.”3 Positive relationships have a protective effect on mental health, yet as a profession we struggle to connect with each other in meaningful ways, which only adds to the problem.

The seeds for my own anxiety disorder were sown in law school, which scholars have called the “catalyst” for the crisis of well-being in law.4 As a law professor, I have a front-row view of the impact legal education has on students. And while exploring my own anxiety, I have spent a lot of time grappling with my role as a legal educator and the norms I reinforce that may exacerbate mental health issues in students who become lawyers. It is undeniable that the legal profession is in an ongoing crisis of well-being. 

As a profession we have become better at acknowledging that self-care practices are part of the solution to the crisis of well-being in law. As a movement, we recognize that individual law students and lawyers are fighting individual mental health and substance use battles. We tend to focus on individual struggles through an individualistic lens. The diagnostic terms we use to describe them have become dispiritingly familiar: adjustment disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, substance use disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, to name a few. The focus on the individual is not all bad. It creates paths for individual interventions proven to help alleviate symptoms. Therapy helps lawyers examine maladaptive thought patterns and maladaptive behaviors. Medication helps regulate and reel in our overactive brains. Meditation helps increase lawyers’ compassion for self and others and avoid needless suffering in the wake of systems that cause tremendous pain. 

But it’s not enough. Systemic change is necessary and long overdue, yet systems don’t change overnight and our current focus on fixing individual problems through self-care can cause additional harm to those who suffer. We need a different solution. In this article, I explore how mental health issues are exacerbated, even created, by the norms of our profession starting in law school, and then explore how individual lawyers can work together to promote mutual care as a new norm to counteract our damaging status quo.

How the sausage gets made

Legal education encourages the development of anxious and depressive thinking patterns. Throughout law school, “thinking like a lawyer” is conveyed to students as the “new and superior way of thinking.”5 Students are rewarded for issue spotting, critical analysis, and being able to defend any position. This new way of thinking is often “fundamentally negative… critical, pessimistic, and depersonalizing.”6 As a result, those who excel at thinking like a lawyer strengthen thought patterns that also underlie mental health issues. Law students are taught to see the world through a lens of risk, which lends itself to hypervigilance—focusing on the worst-case scenarios and anticipating negative outcomes to better prepare oneself. Critical analysis skills necessary to succeed as a lawyer lend themselves to overthinking—ruminating on past events or worrying excessively about future possibilities. Law students are taught to consider liability, which lends itself to catastrophizing—magnifying the potential negative consequences of a situation, imagining the worst possible outcomes, and struggling to see more optimistic or realistic perspectives. Law students are taught to scrutinize every detail, which lends itself to hyper-focusing on the negative.

To be clear, thinking like a lawyer is a necessary part of the profession and there are many personal and professional benefits to the development of the skill. But the skills need to be taught as “an important but strictly limited legal tool,” with attention paid to helping students understand how thinking like a lawyer can spiral into more problematic thought patterns if not contained.7 


Even as law school builds up potentially dangerous thought patterns in students, we add fuel to the fire in other well-intentioned yet harmful ways. Most attorneys carry a heavy workload and strictly adhere to many competing deadlines. The demands on lawyers are unrealistic if we want to achieve any semblance of balance in our lives. Yet as lawyers we meet the demands because the cost of failing to do so is high; clients’ livelihoods, liberty, families, and even lives may be on the line. Falling short in ways big and small can result in personal and professional consequences. 

Because we know what our students will face when they become lawyers, we recreate demanding circumstances, thinking we are doing them the favor of preparing them for what is to come. We glorify busy. We inundate them with work and impose severe consequences for missing deadlines. We point out that if they think missing points on an assignment is bad, imagine how they will feel when the consequences impact a real client. And we make sure to let them know that if they really want to have a great career, excelling academically is not enough. They must also network, find experiential opportunities, build their resumes, demonstrate their leadership potential—all while serving their communities—and don’t forget to further prove their excellence by gaining legal journal experience. We care about our students. We want them to succeed. So we give them this well-meaning advice.

Perfectionism is celebrated. Never mind the fact that it is structurally impossible in law school. Students arrive at our doorstep on the heels of academic success—enough, anyway, to get them admitted. They enthusiastically greet the challenges of law school and expect their hard work and effort to be rewarded with the same good grades they received in undergraduate and other graduate programs. Of course, the reality of the grading curve makes this an impossibility for most students—by its nature, the curve overvalues individual work and undervalues collaborative group work. As a result, students feel they must stand on their own. Students who come to understand the curve recognize that they have to constantly outperform their peers to secure better grades and enhance their future career prospects. Students who do not understand the nature of the curve are often left demoralized by feelings of inadequacy, even when they are performing adequately. And for some of these students, the general issues with thinking like a lawyer—hypervigilance, overthinking, and catastrophizing—turn inward. They engage in excessive self-criticism, constantly worry about meeting high standards, and experience a fear of failure. All of this is exacerbated by peers who work at projecting success outwardly while handling problems privately, leaving all students to feel more alone.

How to grow an anxiety disorder

As a legal educator who wants the world for my law students, and at the bare minimum wants to do no harm, I have spent countless hours ruminating, catastrophizing, and overthinking about how much harm I may be causing in my role upholding norms of the profession. When I open the door to conversations about well-being in law school with students, they pull no punches in sharing how various pedagogical practices and messaging styles hurt them. I wish I could tell them their struggles will improve when law school is over. I can’t. 

I have friends who are lawyers who genuinely love their jobs and are thriving. Yet as a lawyer who speaks openly about my own challenges with mental health in law, I am privy to countless stories of others who are struggling in the shadow of harmful norms. I hold all these stories in confidence, yet their common threads have led me to question the validity of my own “anxiety disorder.” I wonder whether my diagnosis is less an individual failing of my own mental health and more a learned response to a problematic system. 

The thinking patterns that give rise to my diagnosis are, perhaps, better described as maladaptive coping mechanisms to adjust to the culture of the legal profession. When a disproportionate number of us struggle with so-called “mental illness” as a profession, we must be willing to consider that it could be the system and not merely troubled individuals that are the root of the problem. We must examine the ecosystem in which we exist, participate, and co-create. For the 71 percent of us who struggle with some form of anxiety at some point in our careers, it is fair to wonder how the seeds planted in law school could grow into thorny, unmanageable thickets. 

Hallmarks of generalized anxiety disorder include “excessive anxiety or worry” that is “out of proportion to the actual likelihood of or impact of the anticipated event.”8 It does not take much of a stretch to say that these criteria mirror “thinking like a lawyer” as it is taught in law school. 

Additional diagnostic criteria necessary to meet a diagnosis for generalized anxiety disorder include that the worry is “difficult to control.” It is accompanied by symptoms like restlessness, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance, and causes clinically significant distress in important areas of functioning.9 In short, when the thought patterns we learned in law school begin to take their toll on us, it’s a diagnosable condition. Overwhelming workloads and unduly harsh consequences for messing up lead to more things to worry about. It follows that the more things we have to worry about as lawyers, the more difficult it will be to control our worrying and, in turn, the more difficult it will be to function in our careers and lives.

As I have dealt with my own mental health issues, I have spent time trying to understand the issues on a systemic level. Invaluable research has helped me understand that my experience with mental health issues in law is closer to the rule than to the exception. Thankfully, in recent years, there has been increased attention to the mental health and well-being of lawyers.10 The problems are both systemic and endemic. What’s more, mental health issues like anxiety and depression can cause those who suffer to withdraw from relationships with others. The tragedy in all of this, of course, is that supportive relationships with others help to protect mental health. It’s a shame, though not a surprise, that lawyers outrank other professions on the loneliness scale.11 As a baseline, we are busy. Add struggle to the mix and we are even more likely to deprive ourselves of the human connections we need to heal and thrive.

Our colleagues’ well-being is our business

Despite the awareness that lawyers are at increased risk to experience adverse mental health outcomes by virtue of membership in the profession, “Many in the legal profession have behaved, at best, as if their colleagues’ well-being is none of their business. At worst, some appear to believe that supporting well-being will harm professional success. Many also appear to believe that lawyers’ health problems are solely attributable to their own personal failings for which they are solely responsible.”12 

If we want to improve mental health outcomes in our profession, lawyers must start behaving as if our colleagues’ well-being is our business. We must grapple with the fact that lawyers’ mental health problems are not individual but collective; the failings are not personal but systemic. We all have a choice about whether to uphold the norms that contribute to systemic harms or to actively work to reshape them. 

The current approach to solving this well-being crisis in law is skewed heavily toward promoting the micro-level intervention of self-care. This is, perhaps, because it is easier to blame the individual than it is to face the deeply entrenched systemic nature of the norms upheld by the legal profession that all but ensure the crisis of well-being will continue. I can treat my “anxiety disorder” through therapy, medication, and other individual practices that promote well-being. But, if I am correct in my belief that the norms of our profession sometimes mimic anxiety disorders, self-care measures will only get me so far.

In short, by participating in the legal profession and upholding the status quo, we are harming each other. This can be a hard pill to swallow (certainly harder than a Lexapro), so perhaps we avoid acknowledging this because it’s too hard to face the harm we inadvertently cause each other. We must be morally courageous enough to acknowledge our individual roles in reinforcing problematic norms.

Insights from systems theory

As the profession considers ways to improve well-being, systems theory—a framework borrowed from social work—is a helpful tool. It recognizes there is a reciprocal relationship between people and their environments. This framework is useful in reimagining how legal professionals can intervene to create a culture of well-being in law.

Systems theory helps us recognize that “[t]hough our profession prioritizes individualism and self-sufficiency, we all contribute to, and are affected by, the collective legal culture. Whether that culture is toxic or sustaining is up to us. Our interdependence creates a joint responsibility for solutions.”13 If interventions focus solely on one level, to the exclusion of the others, then the interventions will be ineffective. All of the self-care practices in the world cannot—on their own—fix a crushing caseload or a toxic law firm. 

Yet broad systemic change is often slow. Fighting against systems can be overwhelming and demoralizing. And many lawyers are simply too busy with the demands of work and life to also fight for systemic change within the legal profession. So I offer an intermediate level intervention—building communities of mutual care—to further the lawyer well-being movement. 

Mutual care as the new norm

When I have struggled, I have survived my own most hopeless moments not through sheer grit or resilience, but through the compassion and care of others. Meaningful, authentic, and supportive relationships are fundamental to well-being and healing. Our lonely profession needs more of this. We must recognize that self-care alone is not enough. With urgency, we must shift our mindset to one of mutual care. Self-care only works when the need for it is respected and valued such that circumstances allow for self-care to occur. When we collectively work together to make space for self-care, we practice mutual care.

As a professor, I am on a mission to help law students embrace the concept of mutual care. I want the experience of becoming a lawyer to be better for them than it was for me. When I have opened the door to conversations about well-being in law and the harmful norms that interfere with it, law students are grateful and eager to share their experiences. I view it as part of my role as an educator to engage in these conversations. In turn, I have seen students feel empowered to work together to provide each other with the support they need.

One benefit of these conversations is that I get to learn from students in the process. One group of law students took the initiative to present to other students about mutual care. Their work deepened my own understanding of the idea I hold so dear. They explained, “Mutual care embraces reciprocal and supportive relationships, values authentic connection with others, and understands that giving what you can and receiving what you need in support/ resources/ time/ energy is central to be able to counter power structures that are larger than any one individual.”14 

Building off the wisdom of my students, lawyers can band together in informal groups with a commitment to support each other’s well-being. In these communities of mutual care, attorneys can actively work together to create the circumstances that allow their members to make space for self-care. Those of us who have internalized harmful norms of the profession and attributed our successes to them—in other words, nearly all of us—may need to do some unlearning. The success of mutual care efforts depends on a willingness to prioritize embracing the concept. It takes intentionality, vulnerability, and a commitment to acting as if our colleagues’ well-being is our business.

Communities of mutual care can be informal in nature. They do not require the permission of any person atop a hierarchy to be successful. They can be formed by any group of two or more legal professionals who want to be part of one. A community of mutual care could be formed based on a common practice area (e.g., criminal defense or prosecution, medical malpractice, immigration, probate), shared employment, similarity of status or position (e.g., associates or partners in big firms, solo practitioners, legal aid lawyers, law students or professors), or shared identity (e.g., racial or ethnic group, gender, sexuality, disability status, familial role, point in lifespan of career). Once the community forms, they intentionally focus on how members can give what they can to each other and receive what they need from each other. 

For many lawyers, giving comes easier than receiving. Giving is often a driving force in pursuing a career in law. Many attorneys are motivated by a sense of justice, a passion for advocating for those who are marginalized or disadvantaged, and a commitment to upholding the values of fairness and equality. Indeed, a recent study revealed many law students are drawn to the legal profession because they have experienced some form of trauma or injustice in their own lives, and they want to use their skills and knowledge to make a difference in the world.15 This innate desire to give back and contribute to positive change is a commendable aspect of the legal profession. Communities of mutual care build on this inherent desire to help others.

For some lawyers, the second part of the equation, receiving what they need, is harder. Receiving involves acknowledging the validity of one’s own needs, sharing them, and accepting help. Lawyers who have internalized the kind of rugged individualism encouraged in the traditional law school experience may view needing help as either a sign of weakness or a burden to others. Communities of mutual care validate and normalize lawyers’ need for help. A hallmark of communities of mutual care is reciprocity and the symbiotic relationship between giving and receiving. As Paul Wellstone famously said, “We all do better when we all do better.”16


Building a community

There is no single way to build a community of mutual care. The idea is meant to be flexible—and to coalesce around our collective need for support and connection. My community has morphed over time. It grows in the moments I fall apart a little and a colleague steps into help—or when I see another lawyer struggling and they give me the opportunity to lean in and care for them. It also grows in the moments where we celebrate each other’s humanity and worth outside of accomplishment and production. 

For anyone interested in trying to build on the concept: First and foremost, trust your gut about your own mutual care needs and get curious about the mutual care needs of those around you. Without being overly prescriptive, I humbly offer the following advice.

• Normalize struggles in the practice of law. Competitive norms of our profession encourage us not to let our guard down. Or to show weakness. Yet we do ourselves and each other a disservice when we pretend that we have it all together. We miss out on the opportunity to connect with others and feel less alone. Talking about mental health struggles in law is not easy. My own vulnerability in this regard has made other lawyers feel uncomfortable, yet I keep sharing because we must move through the discomfort to make meaningful change. And yes, I have experienced stigma, judgment, criticism, and misconceptions due to my openness, especially when my approach is unpolished. The pain I have felt in those moments has been real and scary. Yet on balance, the connection, compassion, understanding, and grace that have been returned to me when I share my struggles privately and publicly have far outweighed the pain. 

Communities of mutual care can serve as a safe space for open dialogue about struggles with self-care and mental health and about experiences and challenges in the profession. Moving past mere commiserating, lawyers deserve spaces to provide each other emotional support and to help each other develop healthier strategies to cope with our profession’s harmful norms.

• Encourage leading by example. It takes courage to prioritize self-care as a lawyer, even more to acknowledge it openly. Lawyers are often valued most for their accomplishments. While many lawyers’ achievements are laudable, it can also be dehumanizing when lawyers are only celebrated for what they are able to produce and not for who they are outside of their accomplishments. Communities of mutual care can celebrate lawyers’ value in other aspects of their lives and serve as cheerleaders when someone makes a valid choice not to, say, join a board, seek a promotion, or take on a new big client because they are prioritizing other aspects of their humanity. My own biggest accomplishment this year is figuring out how to achieve a bit less— without losing my sense of self-worth. I hope the same can be true for other lawyers. 

• Shared workload management. Many kinds of legal cases run on timelines. Judges must manage busy dockets, clients have immediate needs, bosses have expectations, and modern technology rarely lets us be truly out of reach. As such, the reality of the current state of lawyering is that rest is often only possible when workloads are manageable, when attorneys know someone else has their back and can handle issues that arise when they are away, or when people and systems honor boundaries—not all of which is within the control of individual attorneys. Communities of mutual care can champion the power and necessity of rest and provide each other with support to make periods of rest possible.17 And, because breaks from work only work when there is an opportunity to actually take a break, communities of mutual care create pathways to allow each other to have breaks truly be breaks, by providing support where they can in managing each other’s workloads.

• Foster compassion. Compassion and self-compassion are undervalued traits in our profession, which rewards imperviousness and perfectionist tendencies. Thinking like a lawyer can spiral into anxious and depressive thinking patterns and increase our tendency to be critical and judgmental toward ourselves and others. But I have faith in the ability of attorneys to work together to foster compassion as an antidote—which includes strengthening our own self-compassion. That “entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”18

Indeed, mutual care is both self-centered and selfless in that it honors the individual need for self-compassion and self-care while trusting that lawyers who have their self-compassion and self-care needs met will have the capacity and ability to show compassion and care to others. The reciprocal nature of care and compassion, without forced expectation, is what causes communities of mutual care to flourish. 

Building your own community

If this article resonates with you, I encourage you to share it with someone you trust and ask which parts, if any, resonate with them. I hope it serves as a catalyst for conversation among lawyers who desire to engage in collective work to improve our individual and collective well-being. We heal in community. Together we have the power to reshape our norms. May we find each other and create a healthier profession. 


NATALIE NETZEL is an associate professor of law and the director of clinics at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, where she is deeply committed to the well-being of her clients, her students, and her colleagues.


1 Amanda Robert, "Mental health initiatives aren't curbing lawyer stress and anxiety, new study shows," ABA Journal (May 2023)

2 Patrick J. Schiltz, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, 52 Vand. L. Rev. 871, 874 (1999). Available at: 

3 Debra Cassens Weiss, Lawyers Rank Highest on ‘loneliness scale,’ Study Finds, ABA Journal, (4/3/2018)

4 See G. Andrew H. Benjamin, et al., The Role of Legal Education in Producing Psychological Distress Among Law Students and Lawyers, 11 Am. Bar Found. Rsch. J. 225, 241 (1986); Debra S. Austin, Positive Legal Education: Flourishing Law Students and Thriving Law Schools, 77 Md. L. Rev. 649, 649 (2018).

5 Lawrence S. Krieger, Institutional Denial About the Dark Side of Law School, and Fresh Empirical Guidance for Constructively Breaking the Silence, 52 J. Legal Educ. 112, 117 (2002).

6 Id.

7 Id.

8 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 250-51 (5th ed. text revision 2022). 

9 Id. at 250-51.

10 Nat’l Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change 7 (Aug. 2017). [

11 Weiss, supra note 3.

12 Nat’l Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, supra note 10 at 12.

13 Id. at 9.

14 Hannah Burton, Grace Hoffman & Amanda Shepard, Presentation at Mitchell Hamline School of Law Clinic Kick Off: Mutual Care (8/12/2022) (on file with author). 

15 David Jaffe et al., “It Is Okay to Not Be Okay”: The 2021 Survey of Law Student Well-Being, 60 U. Louisville L. Rev. 439, 496 (2022).

16 Gary Cunningham, We All do Better When We All do Better, Star Tribune, 9/22/2010. (quoting Sen. Wellstone).

17 See Cathy Krebs, Rest Is Radical: Self-Care for Lawyers, American Bar Association - Litigation Section, 5/2/2023

18 Kristen Neff, The Three Elements of Self-Compassion, Center for Mindful Self-Compassion


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