Law in Popular Culture

'Better Call Saul' highlights stress and mental illness in the legal profession

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Better Call Saul

Digital sketch by Rick from Saskatoon, Canada, via Wikimedia Commons.

Spoiler alert: The final two episodes of the third season of AMC’s series Better Call Saul let viewers glimpse a world where lawyers suffer from stress and other various mental illnesses. Unfortunately, the portrayals are alarmingly close to the challenges practicing attorneys face.

I’ve never personally thought about burning my house down while inside, but I’d be lying if I said I’d never worked myself close to the edge of exhaustion.

We all contemplate the line between career and “everything else”—I’ve always tried my best to balance it. The goal is to grow your practice without sacrificing the legal product you produce for your clients, or the emotional product you produce for your family and friends. Still, I know attorneys who have crossed into the danger zone. Some are still alive. Sadly, some are not.

The show’s attorneys are suffering

Fans of Better Call Saul know the characters: Jimmy McGill—who is at times both transitioning into, and away from, his Saul Goodman alter ego introduced in Breaking Bad—and his law partner Kim Wexler. At this point in the series they are struggling to build their fledgling practices. The burden weighs heavily on Kim because of Jimmy’s recent bar suspension, and she begins to break down physically and mentally toward the season finale.

Kim’s commitment to resolving an issue for a new client, all while attempting to balance a tight schedule along with too many eggs in the basket, takes a toll. The stress she puts on herself causes her to crash her car … legal documents symbolically scatter all around her wrecked vehicle. The show delivers another sad wake-up call to attorneys when Jimmy’s uber-successful (and uber-eccentric) brother Chuck takes his own life after being forced out of the law firm bearing his name.

The disturbing connection between fact and fiction

Lawyers in private practice must answer to many masters:

• Clients.
• Judges.
• Opposing attorneys.
• Bar association disciplinary committees.

They must juggle the dual nature of their chosen field. They are professionals subject to professional guidelines, standards, and expectations, but they have all the financial realities associated with the business side of running a practice. Lawyers must find ways to balance their professional obligations to clients and ethical standards with building their practice’s income and reputation.

The fictional Kim Wexler was doing what most attorneys in private practices do each day: struggling to fit as many appointments and court appearances into a 24-hour period as possible to fulfill obligations to current clients while finding ways to attract new business. It is a professional commitment that takes a toll not only on the lawyer but the lawyer’s family and friends.

According to on often-cited Johns Hopkins Univeristy study, the legal profession leads all others in members suffering from depression. More than 20 percent of lawyers admit to struggling with alcohol and substance abuse. It’s a constant grind—physically, emotionally, mentally—and many find it hard to cope. It’s a story too many know too well: a hard day can easily lead to a hard drink.

People outside the profession often find it hard to understand. Regardless, those “living the life” know the stress real responsibility brings. People rely on lawyers to solve their greatest problems. But this must be accomplished in a highly competitive and adversarial arena. The typical attorney works more than 60 hours a week. Many of them use weekends to catch up on what they couldn’t complete Monday through Friday. I know those extra two days can be essential. Most clients only pay for results. Results lead to reputation. Reputation hopefully leads to retirement.

How lawyers deal with mental health issues

Stress, anxiety, and depression are not confined to practicing lawyers. A study of law school students at Yale University found that 70 percent admitted to suffering from some form of mental health issues. Eighty percent of those respondents considered help, but only half of them actually sought it out. It seems that law school sometimes serves as a sad springboard into a profession where those lucky enough to find consistent work are consistently overworked.

Chuck McGill’s suicide in Better Call Saul reflects what is happening within the legal profession throughout the United States. A CNN story from 2014 said that according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, the legal profession is ranked fourth in suicides compared to other occupations. It cites how one lawyer abused himself while trying to adjust to the demands of the profession by doing things like:

• Sleeping only four hours a night.
• Not taking vacations.
• Cutting back on social contacts.
• Spending less time with family.

“I am a workaholic who, after 27 years in the profession, hit a wall, crashed, burned and lost the one thing I always wanted to do—practice law,” the lawyer wrote.

Solutions exist if attorneys are willing to try them

Setting priorities that balance all aspects of an individual’s professional and personal life is extremely important for an attorney’s overall health:

Boundaries are necessary. To succeed, your clients need to trust you and listen to you. Sometimes, trust comes from availability. Clients live in an “answers now” environment because of internet access, but attorneys have to be able to turn off the clock. Clients have to understand this, and it’s oftentimes your job to explain it.

Vacations are necessary. When you can get away from the stress, you’ll have time to decompress. I’ve found vacations allow me to come back energized and ready to tackle the difficult legal issues I’m hired to defuse. Time away can really reorient you, especially if you have someone you love to spend it with.

Adam Banner.

Family and friends are necessary. It’s very easy to bury your professional burdens deep down. Depending on your area of practice, you might think your day is too boring, or perhaps too gruesome, to share with others. It’s essential you have someone to share your thoughts with. I know work is the last thing I want to think about when I end my day, but sometimes it helps to have someone to share the load. I’m glad I do.

Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney at the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. Mr. Banner’s practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes, and white collar crimes.

The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.

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