Lawyers weigh in: Why is there a depression epidemic in the profession?
Dina Roth Port
Through my job as director of content at Rocket Matter, I’ve learned a lot about this profession. One thing that has really stood out to me is how many lawyers are suffering.
Our website recently ran a five-part series on depression, substance abuse and wellness in the legal industry. The statistics are staggering: Lawyers are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as people in other jobs, while the landmark 2016 American Bar Association and Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study found that 28 percent of licensed, employed lawyers suffer with depression. The study also showed that 19 percent have symptoms of anxiety and 21 percent are problem drinkers.
Many organizations are trying to help fight this epidemic. For instance, we’re hosting our first Legal Wellness Retreat in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts on July 18 to July 20. Also, the ABA provides a very comprehensive list of helpful resources for lawyers, judges and law students, along with links to lawyer assistance programs throughout the country.
How else can lawyers get help? Often, getting to the root of what’s causing a problem is the first step in finding solutions for it. So why are depression, substance abuse and related issues so prevalent among lawyers in particular? We asked lawyers for their insights. Here’s what they had to say:
“I think that a large basis for the prevalence of depression and substance abuse in the legal industry is self-selecting. Lawyers tend to be driven perfectionists, which is often why they entered such a difficult profession. The demands of clients and supervising attorneys tend to exacerbate what in most instances is a pre-existing issue.”
“Most law school candidates have no idea what kind of debt they are incurring and/or how long it will take to pay down. In addition, they have an exaggerated and television-influenced idea of what being a lawyer will be like. So, on top of the financial burden, they soon learn that practicing law can be incredibly complex and that clients fully expect that you will be like Amazon—one click and their case is resolved. But, unfortunately, the law is not always that black-and-white. We don’t create the facts; rather, we are charged with managing the facts provided by our clients and identifying what the client needs for the best outcome, all while maintaining our oath and professional ethics. Aside from your reputation as an attorney, it’s your license—the one you worked for and paid for—that is on the line. This dynamic creates a consistently high level of stress with which it can be difficult to cope. There was a time when you went to school to be a lawyer in part because of the hope for a financial reward. What many in the profession have learned over time is that the financial reward comes with a price that they may not have bargained for. For some, it will be worth every penny, every sleepless night, every saved family and every criminal to whom justice is served. For others, it will simply be too much to bear.”
“Lawyers must constantly scan the horizon, trying to predict the next threat or catastrophe. They constantly ask the question, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ As a result, lawyers are in permanent ‘fight or flight’ mode, constantly on guard. Also, lawyers have nothing to sell but their time and advice. They’re not cranking out widgets. They can’t make more time. As their workload grows, something has to give. First, it’s vacations. Then weekends. Then evenings. Then family and friends.”
“Lawyers wear a bullseye on their back. Many lawyers start their legal careers with crushing debt, zero clients and uncertainty about their future. Law students face insurmountable odds and can be depressed even before they step foot out of law school. Also, lawyers have to have an elephant’s hide, the courage of a martyr, and the patience of a saint. We are not trained for this.”
“I think technology has made the profession of law more anxiety- and depression-inducing. Emails, texts and cellphone calls—there is no escape. At night or early in the morning, your phone or PDA is beeping, dinging and ringing. Then on weekends, your clients are emailing or texting. To make matters worse, in the techno world in which we live, clients, colleagues and opposing lawyers expect an immediate answer. Sometimes mere minutes are too long! Because there is no break and no respite, there is no release for the constant pressure. Taken to an extreme, there is no hope. This can push lawyers over the edge.”
“Being a lawyer is about solving people’s problems: being arrested, getting a divorce, having a business dispute, and so on. We make our clients’ problems into our problems. Add in the worry of being a bill collector and managing an office, and the stress can be crushing. A lawyer with a substance abuse problem or depression may be legally required to report such an illness to their state bar or other lawyer regulatory agency. This deters lawyers from seeking help and instead they deal with their problems privately, if at all. It’s why I sadly know numerous attorneys who have committed suicide in the past 11 years of my practice.”
“To many, the depression and anxiety come from the responsibility of handling a person’s fate. For example, I am an immigration attorney, and every time I am hired for a case, I have major anxiety in thinking that my skills will have a significant impact—positive or negative—in that person’s life. I also think many attorneys have not had real-life experience in the professional world and have a skewed perception of what being a lawyer really is. The pressure and workload are a serious consideration, and many are simply not ready.”
“We have the perfect storm of both personality traits and career circumstances which are generally known to cause depression. Most lawyers are type-A people who put way too much pressure on themselves, even when they are doing great financially and professionally. They always want to do better and rarely think that they have done enough to deserve a break. As a result, many work longer and longer hours, even when they have enough money and success to justify decreasing their hours. Also, in our profession, we are always being attacked, literally, from opposing counsel and other players in litigation. Other than professional boxing, I can’t think of any other profession where the job requires constant fighting!”
“The legal profession combines long hours, high stress, isolation, a trained need to never show vulnerability, and work that by its very definition is antagonistic and conflict-laden, and that makes for a toxic environment conducive to addiction and mental health issues. Legal work combines all the elements that contribute to substance abuse and other disorders into one toxic pot.”
“We as lawyers not only have to cope with ordinary stresses like everybody else, but we also have to cope with the stress associated with things like state bar and attorney advertising regulations, which differ greatly from state to state, and can result in a lawyer losing his or her license because some CLE credits were approved by one state, but not by the other. Because alcohol use is both lawful and socially acceptable, it’s the first thing lawyers turn to. Now more than ever, we need a streamlined set of rules and standards, and we need to break free from being required to do things the same way our predecessors did for no other reason than because ‘That’s the way it’s always been done.’ There’s no other industry that operates that way. So why are we doing it?”
“Frankly, lawyers as a profession consume a freakish amount of risk. We worry over deadlines that, if not met, carry drastic consequences. We worry about clients that make challenging or even improper demands, and we worry about balancing these requests with our duties to the profession, to the tribunal, and to our practice. And we handle all of this in an adversarial setting where mistakes are not only pointed out but are relied upon for competitive advantage. That leaves attorneys on edge, and on the lookout constantly. Living like this takes its toll.”
“As a practicing litigation attorney and a former enlisted Marine, the pressure, stress and mental toll of practicing law compares to my combat experience. This is a very intellectually and, at times, physically demanding job. I was once told litigation is not for everyone, and that’s definitely true. As a solo practitioner in one of the most stressful areas of law, I can see why depression, anxiety and substance abuse would be so prevalent, just like they may be among combat veterans. Part of it may be that many lawyers may not have a way to release the stress of knowing that the outcome of their actions will affect the lives (even the freedom) of their clients.”
Dina Roth Port is director of content at Rocket Matter, a cloud-based legal practice management software company. The company’s Legal Wellness Retreat, July 18-20, includes speakers on mindfulness, mediation and wellness, provides eight hours of CLE credit, and includes outdoor activities and cultural entertainment such as Tanglewood.
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