May is both Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. This dual celebration of heritage and awareness creates an important moment to reflect on the state of mental health among Asian American attorneys and the legal profession generally. While the Asian American community has made huge strides in law since 2000, now comprising nearly 5% of all lawyers nationwide, NALP’s 2020 survey of US law firms found that Asian American female attorneys only comprise 1.62% of partners, and 62.02% of law firms surveyed had zero Asian American female partners. This is despite the fact that among womxn of color associates, Asian American female associates are the highest percentage at 7.18% compared to 3.04% Black female associates and 2.99% Latinx female associates. In addition, mental health challenges within the legal profession are pervasive and disproportionately impact womxn of color. Asian American attorneys in particular “experience mental health challenges at a higher rate than the legal profession as a whole.”
In 2017, a report published by Yale Law School in partnership with the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, titled A Portrait of Asian Americans in Law, “provides a systematic analysis of how Asian Americans are situated in the legal profession” and tries to capture the experience of contemporary Asian American attorneys. The report found that female Asian American lawyers who responded to the questionnaire were “more likely than men to experience mental health challenges in law school and during their careers.” Of the Asian American attorneys surveyed by the report, 36% experienced moderate to severe levels of anxiety and 20% experienced moderate to severe depression. Moreover, the report found that 68% of the respondents did not seek help or treatment, which is in line with the 57% of adults in the United States with mental illness who receive no treatment in 2021. But the report did find that female respondents were more likely than men to seek help.
Given the state of mental health among many female Asian American attorneys, the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in hate crimes against Asian American women has only compounded the strain on mental well-being. Over the past two years, Stop AAPI Hate has tracked incidents of discrimination against the Asian American community and have found that 63.3% of reported incidents between March 2020 and June 2021 were targeted at Asian American women. Broadly, within the legal profession 70% of attorneys who work in law firms responded that the pandemic has made their mental health worse in the past year according to the ALM 2021 Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey.
In looking ahead, instead of well meaning but systemically inert solutions, the legal profession needs to examine how as an institution and a community we can shift the way we discuss and practice mental well-being. For instance, in a global survey conducted by the International Bar Association of legal professionals, respondents advocated for increased levels of openness around mental well-being, creating a culture of mutual respect and addressing poor behavior. The report also highlights that rather than “enhancing the ‘resilience’ of individual legal professionals” there needs to be a focus on structural and cultural working practices that start in law school, such as addressing racism, sexism, and lack of basic mental well-being support. As a community of zealous advocates, it is time for us to raise our voices on behalf of ourselves and push for tangible results in order to shift the paradigm of how mental health is discussed and treated in the legal profession.
About the Author: Kewa Jiang
Kewa is a proud Chinese-American and the first attorney in her family. In law school, she was a Saks Scholar with the Saks Institute of Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics. As a Saks Scholar, she wrote an article on the intersection of mental health and immigration asylum, which was published with the UC Davis Social Justice Law Review. She has a forthcoming article with the Michigan Technology Law Review about the intersection of mental health mobile apps and data privacy.