As a young associate, a couple of years out of Albany Law School, facing the grit, intensity, and expectations of a Manhattan law firm, Trustee Andrea Colby ’80 showed up to work every day. On the surface, she was doing fine. Underneath, she was battling depression.
“I hid it. I never let anybody know what was going on. I was lucky in a sense that I was able to continue to work, I was able to get to the office. Sometimes it was hard for me to get out of bed,” she said. “but eventually, I was able to get help and heal without falling even further into it.”
The story is too common in the profession. According to a 2019 American Bar Association study, 46% of lawyers experience symptoms of depression and 68% of lawyers experience symptoms of anxiety at some point in their career, with higher rates of both occurring early on for younger attorneys.
“I thought, we should do something during law school to help people understand how important it is to get help. There’s a huge stigma in the legal profession around mental health that discourages people who are suffering to get help. I never told anyone when I was going to see my therapist because I was afraid that it was going to ruin my career,” Colby said. “I thought it was a personal failing and that I was not capable of being a lawyer. It turns out almost half of attorneys experience this. You have to wonder, what can we do so that people feel comfortable going to get help?”
At Albany Law School—through this idea and gifts from Colby and fellow trustee Jim Kelly ’83—there is a place for law students to find resources and connect to the help they need, The Wellness Initiative.
In 2018, The Wellness Initiative was launched. With the support and leadership of Associate Dean Rosemary Queenan, The Wellness Initiative offers programming around health, fitness, and wellbeing. The Law School also brought in counseling services. In 2020, it hosted Brian Cuban—younger brother of Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank star Mark Cuban—on campus to discuss his book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales of the Bar, Booze, Blow, and Redemption.
The Wellness Initiative also operates a blog, which serves as a resource for students adjusting to law school, and remote learning, stress, and isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each year, two students serve as Colby Fellows—a role that allows students to plan programming, bring speakers, and spark conversations on campus. For example, Colby was recently the host of a lunch and learn on imposter syndrome. Students heard her story and consulted her for advice.
“It was a lot of fun. The students were so attentive. As a person who’s been through her career it makes me feel appreciated to give advice by sharing my own story. Mentoring is a real gift to give to our students. I feel that if I can help even one student learn from what I went through, then there’s some value to my efforts,” she said. “The Wellness Initiative programming has been terrific. Dean Queenan and the Fellows are supporting their fellow students in a really tangible way. The Fellows have been great at connecting with students…they really reach out. It’s been terrific to see.”
Colby spent the majority of her career with as a patent attorney with Johnson & Johnson. The company was a better fit for her than the private law firm setting, she said. As a member of her department’s management team, she helped train colleagues and managers to be empathetic, understanding, and observant. Upon her retirement in 2016, she launched a coaching company where she helps attorneys develop soft skills to better serve clients.
She’s hoping to assist in ending the stigma around mental health by telling her story and helping people understand the seriousness of suffering in silence. By helping foster that mindset with both law students and established lawyers, she hopes to prevent others from feeling the same way she did early in her career.
“Be who you are. There are a couple of aspects to that—know your strengths and weaknesses. Accept your strengths and work on things that are challenging to you. There are a lot of obstacles in life that might knock you off-balance. But if you know who you are, you can get through them. It’s okay to be vulnerable,” she said. “Always remember that you got here because you deserve to be here. When you get out into the working world, there will be things you do well and there will be things for you to improve on. Capitalize on all your skills and abilities. That includes the ability to improve yourself and be your best self to represent your clients. And if you take care of yourself, you will be better able to take care of your clients and those you love.”