It is estimated that approximately one out of every 10 people in Washington, DC is a lawyer. Not surprisingly, I've seen quite a few lawyers in my practice over the years. I'm sometimes reminded of what one of my graduate school professors said about the profession: "As long as there are lawyers," he joked, "there is always going to be a need for therapists, because the very thing that makes so many lawyers depressed [i.e., practicing law], is the very thing they are unwilling to give up." This causality always struck me as a bit simplistic but I think my professor might have been on to something. Take, for example, the following statistics:
Although alarming, these statistics are probably not too surprising to those in the profession. I've known and worked with quite a number of lawyers over the years and while I've found many to be genuinely happy people, I've encountered just as many who are not. While I wouldn't say the legal profession is the sole source of all lawyers' unhappiness, I do think the profession at times contributes, if not precipitates, mental health issues amongst those in the field.
The Psychological Constitution of the "Typical" Lawyer
In counseling law students and many early career attorneys, I've come to recognize some common characteristics amongst those in the profession. Most, from my experience, tend to be "Type A's" (i.e., highly ambitious and over-achieving individuals). They also have a tendency toward perfectionism, not just in their professional pursuits but in nearly every aspect of their lives. While this characteristic is not unique to the legal profession - nor is it necessarily a bad thing - when rigidly applied, it can be problematic. The propensity of many law students and attorneys to be perfectionistic can sometimes impede their ability to be flexible and accommodating, qualities that are important in so many non-legal domains.
The Nature and Practice of Law
The practice of law is rarely as glamorous as it appears on television. Few, if any, lawyers I know have the luxury of sitting around and philosophizing about the law, at least not if they want to get paid. The practice of law can be demanding and exceedingly stressful. Even the most balanced and well-adjusted lawyer at some point eventually succumbs to the pressures of working in the legal field. Put an ordinary individual with unresolved issues and inadequate defenses in a hyper-competitive environment such as the law, and you have the formula for a psychological crisis.
All lawyers experience a certain degree of stress and emotional burn-out during their careers. I've had lawyers tell me how helpless and angry they feel at the perceived loss of control that comes with their legal work. Unless an attorney has made it to the elusive position of "rainmaker," she or he can expect to spend well over 60 hours a week (not including weekends) being at the beck and call of the managing partners. As one attorney put it, "I lost control of my schedule while trying to maintain control of my life."
Another aspect of the law that can be a source of stress for some lawyers is the adversarial nature of the profession itself (6). Often times winning - regardless of how it is done - is the name of the game. Lawyers, who want to be successful will often rely on subterfuge, conflict, and distortion to persuade others. While these skills may be rewarded in law, they can have disastrous consequences when applied to interpersonal relationships.
There are some lawyers who eventually decide to leave the field, while others remain despite feeling unhappy, demoralized, and trapped. It is the latter group that can be the most destructive, whether to themselves or others. The previously cited statistic that nearly one in five attorney suffers from alcohol or substance abuse is certainly in keeping with my clinical experience. The "impaired attorney" shares a lot in common with the "impaired therapist." Both are unwilling (or perhaps unable) to acknowledge their problems and some will "act out" in destructive ways. Unfortunately, the stigma and secrecy surrounding mental illness often preempts impaired lawyers from seeking help until it is too late.
Practical Advice for those in the Legal Profession
While it is beyond the scope of this post to provide an exhaustive list of what impaired lawyers can do to address these types of issues, here are 10 practical tips for for lawyers in distress and those who care for them:
Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Washington, DC. He counsels individuals and couples and has a particular interest in sexual trauma, gender development, and LGBT concerns. His blog, Therapy Matters, explores the art and science of psychotherapy.