Depression and Hope in the Legal Profession

I am a lawyer, like many of you.

I also struggle with depression, like too many of you as well.

A new study by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that twenty-eight percent of over 12,825 practicing lawyers polled reported a problem with depression.  This is over three times the rate found in the general population. When put in perspective, of the 1.2 million attorneys in this country, over 336,000 reported symptoms of clinical depression.

Levels of stress, anxiety, and problem drinking were also significant, with 23%, 19%, and 20.6% experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and hazardous drinking, respectively.

“This is a mainstream problem in the legal profession,” said the study’s lead author, Patrick Krill, director of the Legal Professionals Program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, and a lawyer himself. “There needs to be a systemic response.”My plunge into the dark well of depression began shortly after I turned forty. I was litigating personal injury cases and the managing partner at my firm. While always under a great deal of stress slugging it out in the trenches, I always thought I could handle it.  It was just part of the deal of being a lawyer, I thought. And part of being a man.

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The numbers for mental health problems are equally troubling for law students, according to Yale News which reported that a majority of its law students reported experiencing mental health challenges at Yale Law School.  Seventy-percent of all respondents – 206 students in a 296-student sample – reported having struggled with mental health during law school.

The National Law Journal recently published a much-needed special report about the mental health of law students. It begins with the following sentence: “The numbers are disturbing: Law students suffer from depression, anxiety and substance abuse at unusually high rates.”

More than 3,000 law students from 15 law schools responded to the 2014 Survey on Student Well-Being, a study on mental health issues and alcohol and drug use that was conducted by Associate Dean David Jaffe of American Law, Professor Jerome Organ of U. St. Thomas Law, and Programming Director Katherine Bender of the Dave Nee Foundation. Eighteen percent of survey respondents said they’d been diagnosed with depression. The results of the study were stunning. More than one in six had been diagnosed with depression while in law school. Thirty-seven percent of law students screened positive for anxiety, and 14 percent of them met the definition for severe anxiety. Depression coupled with severe anxiety can lead to alcohol and drug abuse, and 22 percent of law student survey respondents reported that they were binge drinkers.

My Story

My own plunge into the dark well of depression began shortly after I turned forty. I was litigating personal injury cases and the managing partner at my firm. While always under a great deal of stress slugging it out in the trenches, I always thought I could handle it.  It was just part of the deal of being a lawyer, I thought. And part of being a man.

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But something changed. I started to feel a deep sadness that wouldn’t go away.  Other symptoms began to appear. I lost my ability to concentrate and be productive at work.  Sleep became fragmented.  I was always tired, but couldn’t sleep well.  I would go to bed early and wake at 3 a.m. unable to go back to sleep. Sometimes I’d watch T.V. while my family slept. Other times, I would shower, shave, get dressed in my suit and tie and go to an all-night coffee shop. I’d wait until the sun came up and then drive to work with no one the wiser of the inner torment I was going through.

I tried to hunker down and power through my depression. But it didn’t work.  I would find myself crying as I drove home for no particular reason. I would pull into abandoned parking lots to weep.  It wasn’t sadness like I had previously experienced it, however. In the past, I had always experienced my sadness as the result of some kind of loss or misfortune either I or someone I loved had endured.  Sometimes, I would cry, but not often. When I did, it was a release. It felt better to get it out of my system.  But now, crying was not a relief.  It only led to more crying. Later I was to learn that depression isn’t sadness as we normally think about and experience it.

Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., author of the book, “Undoing Depression,” wrote:

“The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality – the ability to experience a full range of emotions, including happiness, excitement, sadness, and grief. Depression is not an emotion itself; it’s the loss of feelings; a big heavy blanket that insulates you from the world yet hurts at the same time. It’s not sadness or grief, it’s an illness.”

I got therapy and ultimately was put on medication.  This helped. As I recovered, I noticed that others found it difficult to understand what I had been through.  Over time, I began to understand that this is so because of the stigma that surrounds depression.  One poll found that forty-percent of Americans attributed depression to a failure of willpower to pull themselves out of it. Folks with depression are to blame for their plight, some thought.  This made me angry and sad at the same time.  Would they feel this way about other diseases that other were afflicted with?

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Over the past fifteen years that I’ve been dealing with depression, and yes I still struggle with it, I’ve come to know hundreds of others in our craft who suffer just like me.  I created the website lawyerswithdepression.com ten years ago as a place those in the profession could go to learn about what depression actually is and find support.  I hope you go to it.

Why do lawyers suffer from such high rates of depression? There’s no easy answer because depression has many causes.  Some risk factors include a family history of depression, genetics and one’s emotional experiences with their family of origin.  Lawyers seem to have a few others risks that are unique to our profession such as a pessimistic thinking style. We are, by training and experience, negative people. We are in an adversarial profession. This creates not only stress but chronic stress that has significantly negative effects on those areas of the brain associated with depression. In this sense, the legal profession creates a “perfect storm” for depression to develop.

Closing Argument

Many lawyers do not seek help for their depression.  For those who do, too often they feel ashamed of their struggle.  Lawyers are, after all, supposed to be “fixers,” not people with “problems.”  But depression can’t be “fixed” by one’s self.  You need help and support. It’s a team effort. The bottom line? You can recover from depression.

And I know this much is true: depression doesn’t have the final word in the closing arguments of the lives of those who suffer with it.

Hope does.

 

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7 thoughts on “Depression and Hope in the Legal Profession

  1. I appreciate what you’re trying to do but don’t see a way out of this soul crushing career. Although successful by many measures of the profession, I hate what I do. It’s 2:30 a.m. and my sleeping pills did not overcome a brutal day in court, impending responses do to ridiculous discovery and hearings in between. With kids in or approaching college and trying to plan for retirement, I’m trapped in what I do. I really believe I’m in a hopeless situation.

  2. Dear Phillip, One of the first things is to acknowledge you are not alone. Others have suffered what you are feeling now, have felt helpless, and have found a way out of a “soul crushing career.” Are you really trapped in the profession? I would strongly advise sharing your deep despair with your family. Tell them what you’ve told us. You badly need time off. I would be shocked if your family tells you to continue working at a job you hate, so you can help support them. See your doctor, as well. It is NOT hopeless.

  3. Phillip and I are kindred spirits. My heart goes out to him and to everyone in this boat. I am grateful for this Blog if only to know that I am not alone in my struggle. I have been a practicing attorney for over twenty years. My career has gone from being staff counsel in a large company to where I currently work as an associate handling insurance defense cases. I’ve basically hit the wall. I reached a point this Summer where I concluded that my career has gone as far as it can go and that I am essentially trapped with no way out. I’ve applied for numerous jobs in other areas of law but I can’t seem even to get a response from anyone. I’m not a natural networker and therefore have no idea how to discover the proverbial ‘hidden’ job market that is often discussed on various “Alternatives to Law” websites. I’ve contemplated radical career shifts like becoming a financial analyst or a real estate agent but I view these moves as highly risky. I would love to quit the legal profession but I can’t do that due to family obligations. My current firm is good in the sense that there is a good work-life balance but they don’t pay that much for someone with my experience and the work itself is meaningless drudgery. Add to the equation that I’ve also suffered from depression most of my life and I am the product of the same family dynamics that Dan described in his December 4 blog entry. I exercise regularly, do my best to eat healthy, I am seeing a cognitive therapist and I am taking medication but none of these can change the fact that I am mired in a career that I no longer want to be in. The tragedy is that 20-plus years of practice as a lawyer is of no real value in the marketplace except to do what I do now. I am grateful in that I have a beautiful wife and two sons all of whom mean everything to me. I also know that my life could be way worse. I have to soldier on, however, and maintain my faith and the belief that it will get better, if only in my own mind. Sadly, the skeptical depressed part of me struggles to believe that will ever happen.

  4. Turning the tables on you, what advice do you have for a managing partner dealing with a depressed employee whose motivation continues in decline? A very skilled young attorney is now missing appointments, overlooking written instructions, and unintentionally over-billing. He finds himself staring at the computer as the time clock continues to run.

    We want to help this young attorney, but fears over potential malpractice and client dissatisfaction over invoices are mounting. What can we do to help the attorney short of termination?

    1. You were probably seeking Mr. Lukasic’s input but for whatever it’s worth I will give you my perspective having been on both sides of this issue as a supervisor and as one suffering from the problem.

      First, it sounds like you are a compassionate boss which in this profession is still too rare. He’s fortunate to have you looking out for his best interests.

      From that perspective, I’d recommend approaching the associate from the standpoint of compassion. Is the associate aware that his condition is known to you? If so, that would seem to facilitate your ability to address the problem directly.

      Either way, let him know that he is valued which is implicit in your post. Let him know that you recognize his ability and his potential but that his work is suffering and that his job is in the balance.

      If the issue is indeed depression he is most likely which may be affecting his ability to perform. He may also be in denial and reluctant to seek help. It took a lot for me to finally reach out to a professional and seek the help that I needed.

      Another component to this may be the larger existential question of whether the associate truly wants to be a lawyer. I know in my case the reality of being a lawyer turned out to be much different than what I thought it would be and this realization has plagued me my entire career.

      Looking back, I wish I would have recognized that being an attorney is not my calling in life and that I should be doing something else. This certainly hasn’t helped given my struggle with depression. That may also be an issue in the associate’s case. If not, then encourage him to get the help he needs, both in the short term as well as in the interest of living the life he deserves.

    2. You mentioned this person is a ‘young attorney’; rather than focussing on existential questions of whether they wand to be a lawyer, I would concentrate on having a straightforward conversation about the depression (I’m assuming they acknowledge it since you say their mistakes are down to depression which they must have revealed to you) and suggest something radical: taking 1-2 months off work, for example, so they can rest and get treatment. Other ideas are: a good mentor to speak to on work related matters, shorter hours.

      But be careful not to abruptly diminish your expectations/the workload of this employee – this may cause further despair.

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