The Legal Profession's Dirty Little Secret

No one, especially not the profession as a whole, law schools or even lawyers themselves, wants to fully acknowledge there is a big pink (or rather very dark gray) elephant in the room. And this elephant is depression and the fact a significant percentage of attorneys  suffer severe and debilitating depression.

It was reported by the ABA that “About 19 percent of lawyers experience depression at any given time, compared with 6.7 percent of the general population. About 20 percent of lawyers have drinking problems, twice the rate of the general population.”

Now with the economy making employment for lawyers even more challenging, one has to be even more aware of the effects of this disease. In the New York Journal there was an article, ” Employment Woes Fuel Uptick
in Lawyer Depression.”

Depression increasingly has been recognized as a major problem among attorneys, members of a high stress occupation vulnerable to anxiety even in good times. And these are not good times.
“There is anxiety and depression over being underemployed or unemployed, or marital difficulties if they lost their job and the question is, how do they handle the anxiety,”

Occasionally, there will be an article on the subject, but it seldom gets much play in the social media circles, even the blogs.  But it is here, it’s real and it’s time it is discussed.  One can’t responsibly discuss building a solo practice if they don’t discuss the pervasiveness of depression, and how lonely it is, maybe more so for the solo.

Why does depression seem to be more prevalent amongst lawyers?

Some of the more specific work qualities that make lawyers particularly prone to depression are long work hours; the competitive nature of the work; the adversarial nature of the work; the requirement for highly focused attention to detail; the extreme repercussions of professional errors; the need to be pessimistic and skeptical, and to be prepared to deal with “worst case scenarios;” responsibility for assisting clients and others who are in crisis or dealing with tragic situations; constant scrutiny of your work by employers, judges and opposing counsel; the reality that your work will directly impact the client’s financial, relationship, liberty and quality-of-life interests; the pressure of deadlines and the potential consequences of missing deadlines; rigid and particularized rules and procedures that must be followed carefully and completely; the need to perform, both in terms of achieving results and being “on-stage” and observed by others in public arenas; the need to advance or defend a position that might conflict with your personal values.

This may be even more intense for the solo. You can read more here.

There have been a few blogs popping up which do a very good job on the topic, some written by lawyers who suffered from depression and now are looking to help other lawyers.

Within the next four weeks I will announce a guest lecturer at Solo Practice University (this lecture will also be available for free on our SPU Fan page) He will discuss his 18 year history as an attorney, his slide into depression,  his subsequent suspension, and how he got help. His goal is to help other lawyers recognize the signs and to take care of themselves now.

The disease is insidious  but there is help.  Coming from the proverbial ‘horse’s mouth’ may help others who are highly stressed to avoid his professional fate.

Look for the announcement shortly on the Solo Practice University blog.  If you haven’t subscribed to the RSS yet, you can do so here and you will be notified.

I hope those reading this will take the time to circulate this post.

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8 comments on “The Legal Profession's Dirty Little Secret

  • I have a lawyer I practice with (as you know we do not run a traditional firm), who has a tendency to suffer from bouts of depression. I have worked with several over my career. He gets professional help. What is interesting to me is that this lawyer’s overall desire is to litigate cases — until it comes time to do it and nasty back and forth with opposing counsel, the trial prep, the fear and anxiety initiates the depression. I guess he wants to fight his daemons, so we go through this about once a year. He stays on because ultimately he is a great at recognizing the pathology of a good case, he can work up a case well, and manage a case. Ultimately, that is what I need. I think the point of this is that in law, as in anything else, it is important to find those components you can do well. The practice of law is pliable. When people tell me that they do not enjoy it for one reason or the other, my point is to change it. It is not as if you cannot build associations or venture into practice areas that you can enjoy and prosper.

  • Chuck, this is a perfect example. More often, rather than admit overwhelm because lawyer’s can’t admit such, they sabotage themselves and their practices in order to get ‘suspended’ or even disbarred. I wonder how many grievances/suspensions/disbarments are related to self-sabotaging activities due to depression?

  • I would direct anyone attempting to understand the depression epidemic (both within the legal profession and in our society in general) to study the ideas of Bruce Levine.

    For instance, in a Counterpunch article, Levine writes: “Schools are routinely places where kids — through fear — learn to comply to authorities for whom they often have no respect, and to regurgitate material they often find meaningless. These are great ways of breaking someone. Today, U.S. colleges and universities have increasingly become places where young people are merely acquiring degree credentials — badges of compliance for corporate employers — in exchange for learning to accept bureaucratic domination and enslaving debt. ” ( )

    I agree with Chuck that the legal profession allows for a certain amount of freedom in fashioning a legal career that fits an individual’s character. However, I would also argue that many of those people drawn to the legal profession dive in without understanding the true constraints imposed by the government monopoly on “law”. Some of the best and brightest minds enter the legal profession with dreams of changing the world and revolutionizing the way people interact. But the legal profession’s expectations are crushing for many of these people, who after being saddled with debilitating debt are forced to fit their round personal peg into the square hole of the legal profession just to pay the bills.

    I think there is also an argument to be made that the depression epidemic has sprouted from social conditions in general and that, given the uber-awareness and analytical capabilities of those who enter the legal profession, the profession is obviously going to be predisposed to having higher rates of depression. In my opinion, society breaks people and coerces them to tow the line in order to get ahead or maintain status. There is simply not enough freedom for people to find who they are supposed to be and, beyond that, society is organized in such a way as to destroy the adventurous motivations of people from a very young age.

    In short, I see this problem as a combination of the shortcomings of the broader society we’ve built and the legal profession itself. Our profession certainly exacerbates the issue by forcing so many arbitrary expectations upon the practicing lawyer. But those narrow limitations arise from a society that allows ultimate authority to define too much of each citizen’s life. In days past, visionaries and dreamers had the western frontier to explore when they found society too oppressing. Now, there is effectively no escape which is a painful realization for any idealist who believes things could be done differently somehow. In today’s united States, we expect everyone to be utilitarian: suck it up, get the job done, and don’t complain.

    In the legal profession, trying to do things differently is a huge risk even if one believes she has morality or justice on her side. That is a crushing reminder of the limitations on being a lawyer in today’s hyper-controlled world.

  • As a relatively new litigator, and coming to it in my 40s, I have had to deal with a whole new range of emotions. Maybe not a whole new range, but the speed with which the rollercoaster now runs is much faster than before entering litigation. I try to be more aware of the pattern and warn others around me. I struggle with whether or not litigation is my cup of tea, but becoming more self-aware is helping with the transition. I can admit to myself feeling overwhelmed, but it probably isn’t going to be something I share with the partners, unless I feel like the case is going off the tracks.

  • Thank you. I lost an attorney family member to suicide years ago. It was before the lessening of the stigma of going for help, which unfortunately is still there. Articles such as this contirbute to the trend that is going in the right direction.

  • I have been practicing law for almost fourteen years. From 1998 until 2004 I worked for the State as an Assistant Public Defender. I was forced to leave that job in large part because of back problems that caused severe pain.
    After unsuccessfully searching for a job with a larger legal entity than myself I realized that to feed myself I had to start practicing on my own. Now, about eighty percent of my practice is divorces. And I never planned on being a divorce lawyer. Actually I never planned on being a lawyer the way the law is practiced as I know it.
    And now with the economy faltering my gross receipts have fallen off a cliff. I am behind on my bills yet everyone assumes I have a lot of money because I am a lawyer. They are wrong and the few that find out how wrong they are draw the conclusion that I am not “any good”. I would like to change careers but it is hard to go back to school with debt and a lot of low paying obligations to other people’s problems. In short I feel like I am in a trap.

    • Sam,

      The ‘trapped’ feeling is what can set many negative or destructive actions in motion. I’m not a therapist, but I would encourage you to seek out one and even seek out a life coach. I’d also recommend you look to change practice areas. Experiencing a drop in gross receipts is not unique to divorce law and others are making shifts to other practice areas which seem more promising monetarily, more mobile, less litigious. If divorce is 80% of your practice, what is the other 20%? How can you tap into your client base for additional work, bankruptcy, foreclosures, trusts and estates? You may also have to review your overhead expenses and investigate new processes to streamline your practice and cut costs. There is always a way. The hard and necessary part is for you to regroup, however, and start looking at the raw material you have to work with, reshape and remold it.

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