The Depressed Lawyer
Why are so many lawyers so unhappy?
Posted May 02, 2011
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:
- According to an often cited Johns Hopkins University study of more than 100 occupations, researchers found that lawyers lead the nation with the highest incidence of depression.(1)
- An ABA Young Lawyers Division survey indicated that 41 percent of female attorneys were unhappy with their jobs.(2)
- In 1996, lawyers overtook dentists as the profession with the highest rate of suicide.(3)
- The ABA estimates that 15-20 percent of all U.S. lawyers suffer from alcoholism or substance abuse.(4)
- Seven in ten lawyers responding to a California Lawyers magazine poll said they would change careers if the opportunity arose.(5)
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:
- Set realistic and obtainable goals based on what you have accomplished and experienced in the past.
- Learn to prioritize your life, i.e., focus and put your efforts into action items that are truly important. Let go of those items that are either insignificant or not time-sensitive.
- Recognize that "mistakes" are a part of life, essential, and often present the opportunity for important learning opportunities.
- Be cognizant of your emotional barometer and use such information to evaluate whether you are achieving an optimal balance between life, work, and play. If you are stressed out all of the time, pay attention to that information and make changes that will enable you to reach equilibrium.
- Take your mental health seriously. Consider your mental health to be as important as any other professional obligation. As with psychologists, impaired attorneys often ignore the early warning signs of mental illness and risk placing themselves as well as others in serious jeopardy.
- Seek balance in your life. Make sure you are taking time to care for yourself so that you can care for your clients. As with other high-pressure and demanding professions, attorneys who neglect their physical, psychological, spiritual, and interpersonal lives run the risk of making mistakes on the job.
- Learn to manage your stress by finding healthy outlets for it. Whether you manage your stress through exercise, socializing, or channeling your energies into other, non-legal pursuits, be sure to make time for these things. In fact, schedule them into your calendar and view them as every bit as important as your weekly meeting with the partners.
- Accept that the practice of law is inherently stressful. While it is important to accept this reality, it is not okay to succumb to it.
- Know and take advantage of your personal strengths, while acknowledging, accepting, and minimizing your weaknesses. No one is perfect and those who assume they are, are not only insufferable to be around but also run the risk of over-extending themselves, failing at their jobs, and potentially disappointing those who count on them.
- Remember that true professionals know when to ask for help and delegate responsibility. Be familiar with the resources available to you - be they personal or professional - and utilize them. If you feel you are constantly "stressed out," depressed, or struggling with substance abuse/dependence issues, get professional help immediately. Just as any psychologist would consult an attorney when addressing legal issues outside of their area of expertise, so too, an attorney should be prepared to consult a mental health worker if s/he feels ill-equipped to address the psychological stressors in her/his life.
- Eaton, W.W. (1990). Occupations and the prevalence of major depressive disorder. Journal of Occupational Medicine, 32 (11), 1079-1087.
- Moss, D.C. (Feb., 1991). Lawyer personality. ABA Journal, 34.
- Greiner, M. (Sept, 1996). What about me? Texas Bar Journal.
- Jones, D. (2001). Career killers. In B.P. Crowley, & M.L. Winick (Eds.). A guide to the basic law practice. Alliance Press, 180-197.
- Dolan, M. (June 28, 1995). "Disenchantment growing pervasive among barristers," Houston Chronicle, 5A.
- Braun, S.L. (May/June 1988). Lawyers and mental health. Houston Lawyer.
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.