According to the ABA, lawyers suffer from disproportionately high rates of depression compared to “normal” people: about 19 percent of lawyers experience depression at any given time, compared with 6.7 percent of the general population. And that was in 2007 – before so many newly-minted lawyers graduated to find no jobs out there, before the layoffs really started.
A 2011 Psychology Today article cites the following statistics:
- Lawyers lead the nation with the highest incidence of depression.
- In 1996, lawyers overtook dentists as the profession with the highest rate of suicide.
- The ABA estimates that 15-20 percent of all U.S. lawyers suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse.
- Seven in ten lawyers responding to a California Lawyers magazine poll said they would change careers if the opportunity arose.
I could continue, citing statistics on the incidence of depression among law students, or comparing rates of depression among partners vs. associates or solos vs. big law attorneys, but you get the point: lawyers get depressed… a lot!
Law is not a career for the faint of heart. As a matter of course, we accept a code of ethics that surpasses any other profession because of the fiduciary relationship we share with our clients. It is de rigueur to assume the burdens of those we represent as our own. Then add the pressure of long hours, court deadlines, client demands, and of course the much maligned billable hour. Never mind the fact that we all have to be sales persons, fathers confessor, and walking Wikipedias, all at the same time.
This is a personal struggle not just for me, but for all of us. When depression hits, it can take many forms. Apathy, difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering details, problems making decisions, lethargy and irritability may characterize “mild” depression. Severe depression can cause even more withdrawn or bizarre behavior or even lead to suicidal thoughts.
Depression leads many lawyers to do things we were told in our law school professional responsibility class that you could never, ever, EVER do. Some resort to drug or alcohol abuse. Some steal from their IOLTAs to pay for a shopping habit or gambling debts. Just read through the Disciplinary Actions on your state bar association’s web page to get a glimpse of the desperate things people do. Good lawyers doing stupid things can often be rooted in depression.
In my case, I got hit with my first bout of depression when I was at Big Law. Two years in, I questioned my career choice. I cried in my office at 10:00 p.m. more than once trying to figure out what had gotten me there. Once or twice, I even thought that maybe the world would be a better place if I threw my degree in the trash and hitchhiked my way to Bora Bora. (Actually, that last little fantasy has legs. But I digress.)
Finally, a co-worker expressed concern that I just did not seem like myself anymore. I knew she was right – I made an appointment with a therapist and in short order was diagnosed and given medication. And then things started to get much, much better.
I started seeing that I had made choices that put me where I was, certainly. I saw that I had learned a lot along the way and that maybe it was time to make a change in my legal career. When I was depressed, all I could see was how hopeless I felt at my Big Law job. I couldn’t see that I had other options.
So… medication. For me, and for thousands of other lawyers, a daily dose of an anti-depressant makes the difference between a capable and functioning attorney and a zombie staring at Facebook all day long. So I will tell you right now: if your doctor suggests anti-depressants, take them!
Earlier this year, my doctor and I discussed weaning me off of anti-depressants. I wasn’t at Big Law anymore, hadn’t been for years. I had dealt with my grief over my mother’s death in 2011. I had been losing weight and exercising (both of which are natural anti-depressants). I felt great! So I slowly backed down my medication until I was off of anti-depressants altogether. And it was a disaster.
A close friend and long-time mentor got sick and passed away. Meanwhile, my work load got crazy. Unmedicated, I started to have panic attacks. Work production slowed and I had a backlog of client work to do. Calls weren’t getting returned and emails were ignored. I sat inside my depressed, foggy brain and shouted at myself to get off my ass, but nothing happened. I hated being a lawyer again. I couldn’t make myself get off the couch to exercise, to cook dinner, to do… well, anything. I was stuck.
So I called my therapist, and she immediately put me back on an anti-depressant. And boom! I got back to being myself within a week. Work started to move. The angry client calls got fewer and farther between. I fell back in love with my law practice.
There is a huge personal cost that I am still paying for my lapses this summer. The goodwill I have worked so hard to build with my existing clients needs nurturing. Even my
assistant widget, Wendy, doesn’t trust that I am back to normal, and feels like she has to babysit me to get things done. I get it – depression sucked the lawyer right out of me. And now I have to work twice as hard to get it back.
My point here, and I do have one beyond regaling you with my tale of woe, is that there is help. There is always help. Whether it’s your insurance plan’s IEP, the local mental health center, or your state bar association’s Lawyer’s Assistance Program, you can get help for your depression before it becomes debilitating or leads to Stupid Lawyer Tricks™ like self-medicating with alcohol or raiding the IOLTA (neither of which was my vice).
More importantly, once you get treatment, there are things you can do to blunt the effect of the lawyer = depression equation. One of the best things I did for myself was to leave Big Law. Hanging a shingle brings with it wholly different pressures, but none of the solo attorneys I know (literally – none of ‘em!) would trade those for a Big Law salary and Big Law pressure.
Other things you can do:
- Set some goals. Knowing where you are going can help you fend off some of the hopelessness you’ve been feeling.
- Schedule absolutely everything and force yourself to stick to the schedule. Getting stuff done will become second nature again in short order.
- Forgive yourself. Depression is a mental illness, often triggered by outside pressures. It isn’t a personal failing!
- Carve out some time for things like eating well and exercising. I know it is hard, but the sooner you get off the couch and lace up your running shoes, the sooner that depression will be behind you.
- Accept that the practice of law is inherently stressful, but don’t let yourself wallow in it. The downward spiral of negative thoughts starts with feeling overwhelmed by the job. So let go of the big picture for a little while. Just remember to do one thing at a time, focus on the task at hand, then move on to the next task.
- You are stronger than you think, and you are a better lawyer than you know. So cut yourself some slack. No one is perfect, but you certainly are good enough. Tell yourself that once in a while.
- Remember to delegate. Pay your answering service to schedule appointments for you. Hire an assistant or maybe just a law clerk from the local law school. Paying someone to help you get the work done is cheaper than fixing your reputation. Trust me!
For a great guest lecture on the subject of lawyers and depression, please listen to ‘One Lawyer’s Story With Depression’ – Keith Anderson.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.