Pillar of Support
Providing aid for lawyers with mental health issues
The Florida Bar’s new president is focused on providing aid for lawyers struggling with mental health issues.
Dori Foster-Morales started focusing on mental health in the legal profession several years ago, after a friend, a well-known lawyer, killed himself. “It didn’t make sense to me. He was a happy guy, or so I thought. Obviously, he had a lot of demons,” she says.
A marital and family lawyer in Miami, Foster-Morales succeeds John Stewart as the Florida Bar’s president. In a recent interview, she talked about the top item on her agenda: Providing support and resources for attorneys who struggle with depression, anxiety, stress and substance abuse — and destigmatizing mental illness.
Approximately 28% of lawyers suffer from depression, 19% report anxiety and as many as one-third have a drinking problem, according to the Bar. The law profession is the fourth-highest for suicides — and the financial and emotional pressures of the ongoing pandemic are taking a toll on many. “All of the stresses of being a lawyer have only been compounded exponentially by COVID-19,” says Foster-Morales, who like many of her fellow lawyers has been conducting meetings and mediations by Zoom and isn’t sure what the new normal will look like.
Attorneys, like many professionals, are reluctant to seek help. Part of the reason, she suspects, is that lawyers are uncomfortable with the idea that they aren’t “masters of the universe”— they worry that admitting they have a problem will somehow interfere with their ability to solve others’ problems. “I say if we solve our own problems, we’re going to be better at solving the world’s problems. If we solve our own problems, we have to be open and honest that we do have our issues as individuals.”
Foster-Morales, who runs a boutique law practice with six women lawyers, grew up in Miami Beach.
She studied economics at the University of Florida, then went to law school at UF, but entered the legal profession reluctantly. “I really didn’t think I wanted to be a lawyer. I really felt like I’d been pressured into it” by her family, she says. Her husband, Jimmy, who is also a lawyer, encouraged her to give it a try. She found her calling in her first job as an attorney at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. “People will say to me, ‘when did you decide you wanted to be a lawyer?’ I always say about two years after I graduated law school.”
Not long after, the couple moved to New York, where Jimmy worked on corporate and international law and Foster-Morales continued her work for the EPA, but a chance encounter with Janet Reno at the funeral of Jimmy’s godfather in the early 1990s led the couple back to Miami. Jimmy yearned to get involved in local government and politics, and Reno offered Foster-Morales a job in the new environmental crimes unit Reno planned to open.
Foster-Morales never ended up handling any environmental cases. Around the time the couple moved, President Bill Clinton tapped Reno to be Attorney General. Foster-Morales ended up handling cases in juvenile court and prosecuting career criminals in the 11th Circuit under Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. Foster-Morales fell in love with the courtroom. “It turned me into a real lawyer,” she says.
In 1998, she left her $47,000 job at the state attorney’s office. Her husband had just been elected to the Miami-Dade County Commission and her daughter had recently been diagnosed with autism. “The route of treatment was going be very, very expensive. I had two choices: Tell my husband to hang your cleats, go back to Wall Street, make a lot of money so we can pay for what our child needs, or I could try to make some money.”
She found a mentor in Marsha Elser, who hired Foster-Morales to work in her family law firm. After that, “a lot of doors opened,” she says.
As Foster-Morales begins her one-year term as Florida Bar president, the COVID-19 pandemic — as it does throughout society — dominates the professional dynamic.
“We do risk-reward (with cases) every day, and we have to think about not just that, but the safety of our employees, of our colleagues,” she says. Business has slowed for many firms amid social distancing, and she worries about those who “could barely make ends meet three months ago, especially young lawyers who are completely overwhelmed by student debt.”
In May, the Florida Bar launched a free 24-hour mental health helpline to assist struggling lawyers. The confidential service provided by CorpCare Associates, a Georgia-based employee assistance program, went live two months early to help lawyers feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic. Foster- Morales, who championed the helpline in 2017, says the line (1-833-FL1-WELL) is staffed by “real therapists” who can provide crisis intervention and referral for up to three free visits with a local licensed mental health professional.
“It is my prayer for all the members of the Bar that they can withstand the pressures, financial and emotional, of COVID-19 and they come out stronger on the other side. I know it’s going to be a struggle,” she says. “Whatever we at the Bar can do to help — we don’t give out unemployment checks, but whatever we can do other than that — we’re standing ready. I know the struggle. I have my own firm.”
Managing Partner, Foster-Morales Sockel-Stone, Miami
Education: B.A. in economics (1986) and law degree (1989) both from the University of Florida
Family: Her husband, Jimmy Morales, is city manager of Miami Beach. They met in high school and have two grown children, Nora and Peter.
Professional Distancing: “In my family of origin, there were a lot of divorces, and I think that helped me distance myself from the emotional side of it. You need to have that distance to give people good advice and guidance. If you personalize it, and you’re too distraught or personally upset by what goes on, you can’t give good advice.”
Leadership: “One of the things I can do is lead by example. I can’t touch 108,000 lawyers, but I can let them know if I can do what I did from where I came from, you can do it, too. People need to realize that success is available to everyone.”
Changing Mindsets: “What we really want is a bunch of happy lawyers who are happy with what they’re doing, instead of 70% of them saying they’ve considered leaving law.”
Read more in Florida Trend's July issue.
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