In the Beginning – Depression in Law School

The term clinical depression finds its way into too many conversations these days. One has a sense that something catastropic has occurred in the psychic landscape – Leonard Cohen

Everything has its beginning:  the Cosmic Bang, the French Revolution and depression in the legal profession.

There is little doubt that for many, depression begins in law school. One study of law students found they suffered from depression at the same rate as the general population before entering law school. Just two months into the school year, however, their negative symptom levels had increased dramatically.  By the spring of their first year, 32% of the same law students were depressed. By the spring of their third year, the number had risen to 40%.  Two years after graduation, 17% of the students – about twice the rate of depression experienced by the general population – were still depressed.  Such elevated levels of depression have been corroborated by later studies.

Plug in these stats and an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 of this country’s 150,000 law students struggle with depression at some point during their law school experience

Andy Benjamin, J.D., Ph.D., the lead researcher in the above study and others that have looked at law student and lawyer depression, wrote me last summer:

“Since the publication of our research about law student and lawyer depression, depression still runs rife for law students and practicing attorneys – nearly a third of all law students and lawyers suffer from depression.  The data to support this statement have been published since the early eighties when the studies were first conducted.  Several subsequent empirical studies have corroborated the grim findings up until 2010.  As the stress, competition, and adversarial nature of the profession have continued to take their toll, not surprisingly, the rates of depression have not changed.  Law students and lawyers remain at the greatest risk for succumbing to depression, more so for any other profession.  After nearly forty years of compelling evidence about the prevalence of the severity of depression for the legal profession of law, more meaningful systematic changes must be implemented throughout the professional acculturation process of law students and lawyers.”

It’s difficult for the legal establishment to face all of this. William M. Treanor, immediate past dean of Fordham Law School, told The New York Law Journal last year: “Depression is a very important issue that often gets swept to the side.  It’s a real concern and a problem in the legal profession. Studies indicate that it is common among law students and common among lawyers. Given that, it’s important to try to figure out ways to combat it and to let people know if they are suffering, they are not alone.”

As author Kathleen Norris wrote, “The religion of America is optimism and denial.”  We’re a nation of suck-it-uppers; a people who drive their inner pain deeper and deeper into themselves until they break. The denial of depression in the law is both institutional and individual.

In Institutional Denial About the Dark Side of Law School, Florida State University Law Professor Lawrence Krieger wrote:

“There is a wealth of which should be alarming information about the collective distress and unhappiness of our [law] students and the lawyers they become.  We appear to be practicing a sort of organizational denial because, given this information, it is remarkable that we are not openly addressing these problems among ourselves at faculty meetings, and in committees and without students in the context of courses and extracurricular programs.  The negative phenomena we ignore are visible to most of us and are confirmed by essentially unrebutted empirical evidence.”

Attorney Andrew Sparkler, a friend of then fellow Fordham law student David Nee who suffered from depression (unbeknownst to his friends) and committed suicide in his third year of law school, observed, “To admit that you are depressed [in law school], to yourself or to others . . .  , is a weakness and if you’re in a shark tank of hyper-aggressive folks around you, you’d be hesitant to expose it because why would you fess up to anyone that you have a problem?” Sparkler, his friends and the Nee family started the Dave Nee Foundation to address law student depression and suicide.

It doesn’t get much better when one graduates and enters the job market.  A John Hopkins study looked at 104 occupations to determine which ones had the highest incidence of depression.  Lawyers topped the list and were found to suffer from depression at a rate of 3.6 times that of other profession studies.  Other studies have found that about 20 percent of all lawyers struggle with depression.

Plug in these stats and an estimated 200,000 of this country’s 1 million lawyers are hurting.

Obviously, something is really rotten in Denmark.

There have been several theories bantered about as to why law students suffer from such high rates of depression: pessimistic thinking styles taught in law school (“learning to think like a lawyer”), personality types that go to law school, a breakdown in inner values and the current nasty economy and stress to find and maintain a good job.  The New York Times recently ran an article, No Longer Their Golden Ticket, – I was interviewed for this one – which spoke about the stress and uncertainty that law school students’ face:

“[The] days of [high pay and full employment] are over. As the profession lurches through the worst economic slump in decades, with jobs and bonuses cut and the internal pressures to perform rising, associates do not just feel as if they are diving into the deep end, but rather, drowning.”

However, there has been pushback against the theory that law school even causes much psychic damage.

In an article by University at Michigan Law Professor James Justesen White, Maiming the Cubs, he takes issue with Professor Krieger theory and argues that the law school experience does not “. . . cause permanent and irreversible change and that the ills of lawyers cannot be traced in any meaningful way to the stresses of the three years in law school.”  He concludes:

“I wonder, too, whether the anxiety and depression that we observe in some of our law students is the unavoidable consequence of the challenge of hard learning and of confronting the looming need to prepare to behave like a lawyer.  Soon after they come to law school, students must sense that however hard Contracts and Torts is, learning to be a successful practicing lawyer is harder, and that the road to success in the profession is even less clearly marked than the road to law school success.”

Sorry, I just don’t agree.

My take on law school depression

I think we must look at what makes people more vulnerable to depression before they enter law school – those 10% who already have depression or are at risk for developing it before they register for their first 1L class. For most, there is a genetic or family history of depression. Likewise, there is a history of family dysfunction: for example, alcoholism, physical and emotional abuse and/or neglect.   These folks bring those major risk factors into law school. It is my view that law school doesn’t cause depression; rather, it may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for those who already have some risk for it. 

Pessimistic thinking and persistent stress , both powerful dynamics in law school, are known triggers for depression.  When these influences are mixed in with other pre-law school risk factors, law school creates a “perfect storm” for depression to happen.

We tend to mix up law student unhappiness and dissatisfaction with depression.

They’re not the same thing; not even close. Unhappiness and discontent are relatively transitory; other emotions aren’t pushed to the margins or extinguished. We are adaptable in response to our environment. We might feel stressed or exasperated by the law school grind, but everyone  bumps up and down throughout their days.  We deal with our stress and balance ourselves out either with exercise, socializing or just by having stress resilient genes.  Not so with depression.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., in his best-selling book, Undoing Depression, writes:

“We confuse depression, sadness, and grief.  But the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality—the ability to experience a full range of emotion, including happiness, excitement, sadness, and grief.  Depression is not an emotion itself. It’s not sadness or grief, it’s an illness.  When we feel our worst, sad, self-absorbed, and helpless, we are experiencing what people with depression experience, but they don’t recover from those moods without help.”

There is also a biochemical poverty about depression; the scarcity of neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine that wreck havoc in our brains and set the stage for depression.  As I wrote in Trial magazine about the connection between stress, anxiety and depression, the grind isn’t just about long hours in the office or law library cubicle, but the grinding up of our nervous systems.

We have a sense that such a lifestyle can be problematic to our happiness, but we’re willing to keep marching to that beat in the hope of later rewards (e.g. money, security, partnership). Yet, I can’t help but think that we’re dimly aware, if at all, of the risk we put ourselves in for major depression.

Besides the psychological-physiological links to depression, we live in a culture that breeds melancholy.  How could this not eek its way into the law school experience?

Maybe it’s the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our times; the torpor of the imagination which fails to inspire our young people to live an engaged and spirited life in the law, or the cynicism to think that such a life is even possible that worries me. Or, by the time young people get to law school, they’re so jaded by our consumer driven culture they just want the diploma to start making the big bucks. All of this contributes to depression, to a lonely society that undermines what it means to live a decent, healthy and happy life.

In 2008 the American Bar Association launched a Mental Health Initiative to address mental health problems on law school campuses.  See the Mental Health Toolkit for Student Bar Organizations and Administrators distributed as part of this effort.  Such initiatives’ involve mental health days (e.g. check out Marquette Law School) where they had out a document from Professor Krieger called The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress , “wellness” web pages on law school websites (e.g. check out the one at Harvard Law School) and referrals to a school’s counseling center (e.g. check out Cornell Law School).

While laudable, they’re an arm’s length effort to confronting such a deeply personal and painful human experience.  Moreover, it seems like any presentation on the issue of depression in law schools is limited to first year orientation. What about the second and third year students? Studies conclude that depression rates continue to rise into the second and third year.  If that’s true, what is being done to help these students?  Another query: Just how many of the people who speak at these programs are law students or lawyers who actually had or are currently suffering from depression and disclose it?  My hunch is few, if any.

Why should that matter?  Because the students need to hear it straight-up. They need to listen to someone in the trenches of a profession they’ll soon be entering.  Without such depression experiences, a speaker is like someone trying to enlighten someone about the dangers of smoking and cancer, but has never smoked. Wouldn’t it be a more powerful, credible and informative experience for students to listen to a law student and/or a practicing lawyer, who has depression and is willing to talk about it?

Instead, students are served up programs, usually offered up by well-meaning Dean or Vice-Deans of Student Affairs and therapists from a University’s Counseling Center. There’s a lump-it-all-together approach to it all.  I was asked a few years back, when I was just beginning my advocacy work, to give a brief, 15 minute talk on depression. The school trotted out a variety of people in fifteen minute increments to talk about stress, drinking, drugging and, eventually, depression. Speaking in that big first year classroom, I was reminded of the ancient Greek amphitheaters.  Many of the Greek dramas were tragedies.  And make no doubt about it, depression is a tragedy.

I was saddened by the whole charade, the paucity of imagination and effort that went into addressing such a critical problem; the let’s pool this list of mental ills together into a small program on “mental health.”  I sensed that the students failed to see how any of this was connected to them.  The sliver of time allocated to depression couldn’t help but leave the students with the impression that the school really didn’t take the problem that seriously.

Over 130 million people suffer from depression worldwide on a planet where it is the leading cause of disability. In our country, it’s also the leading cause of disability and some 20 million people are afflicted.  It’s been characterized as an “epidemic.”  If that’s true, what does that say about the higher rates of law student and lawyer depression?  Just what adjective could one use to describe the scope of the problem?

 Addressing  Depression In Law School – Really

Here’s what can be done right now:

1. Law Schools – show the thirty minute documentary, “A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession.”   Copies of the film on DVD are available form the Erie County Bar Associaiton. Here’s a trailer clip of this recently finished film:

2. Have someone come in to speak to the students that are in the legal profession who has suffered from depression to reach these students.  Give it more than 15 minutes of your time and have programs for second and third year student on this critical topic.

3. Law Students – show up, watch the film and think long and hard about it.

Finally, I want to urge all of you reading this blog to write in and express your views about your law school experience, whether you’re in school now or it’s been thirty years.  There’s much to be gained by such sharing. Please write.

Further reading:

Todd David Peterson & Elizabeth Waters Peterson, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology, 9 YALE JOURNAL OF HEALTH POLICY & ETHICS (Summer, 2009); Susan Daicoff, Lawyer Be Thyself: An Empirical Investigation of the Relationship Between the Ethic of Care, the Feeling Decision-making Preference, and Lawyer Well-being, 16 VIRGINIA JOURNAL OF SOCIAL POLICY & LAW (2008-2009); Patrick J. Schlitz, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, 52 VANDERBILT LAW REVIEW 871 (1999) and Depression and Anxiety in Law Students: Are We Part of the Problem and Can We Be Part of the Solution?, 8 JOURNAL OF LEGAL WRITING INSTITUTE 229 (2002).

           

                                               

 

Share This Article

25 Responses to In the Beginning – Depression in Law School

  1. Jeanna says:

    I am looking forward to see how law schools will address this situation.

  2. Brian says:

    I am skeptical that law schools will be that effective in addressing depression, because they are more concerned with being successful than they are molding decent and emotionally healthy lawyers. I saw an article in a legal periodical where a recent law grad quoted John Wooden’s quote “Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.” I thought that while it was wonderful she absorbed this lesson, I’m sure law school transmitted that message (she had to come to that herself). If I had to summarize the motto of law schools it would be “Success is the only option and failure is not an option.” When law schools teach professional responsibility, it’s taught with the message that “don’t screw up, or this will happen to you.” Law schools don’t want to educate lawyers on how to deal with success and failure in a mature way, because they are so dependent on portraying their students as “successful”.

    It’s too bad that that there are so many Professor Whites and too few John Woodens teaching at law schools. Professor White may be a brilliant scholar, but I have nothing but contempt for his views of law school failure and success. His message for law students is, “law is hard, and if you don’t do well, that’s your problem.” And he wonders why law students and lawyers have epidemic levels of depression.” How clueless can he be?

    Dan, what I respect about your blog is that you address depression in emotional, ethical, cultural terms, as well as biological terms. I hope your push to change the attitudes of law school succeeds.

  3. Cathy says:

    I think that law students as well as lawyers face an enormous challenge in admitting feelings of depression to themselves or to others: the fact that as a student or a lawyer your job is to be alert, competent and capable of handling huge amounts of work and stress at the same time. Depression is seen as creating a dent in that ideal and perhaps as a person who is incapable of handling the job.

    Obviously these myths need to be addressed and the truth needs to be elucidated. The remedy that appears to be advocated is education and I think that’s an important place to start.

  4. Jamie says:

    I think law schools have an obligation to inform students about depression and that it is negligent for any school not to include some kind of depression presentation as part of its orientation and this should be enforced by the ABA. Tons of students slip through the cracks because they are walking around for 1-2 semesters not knowing that they are even suffering from depression because they don’t know what it is and the isolation brought on by the academic rigors of law schools not only worsens a person’s depression but also fosters late detection. Schools do not focus on any form of prevention and are merely concerned with covering thei backs when it comes time to complying with ADA requirements. In the meantime, students’ lives are destroyed but the schools don’t care as long as they leave their students financially indebted to them. Law schools are in the business of making money first, then educating them and, at the very bottom, concerning themselves with the well-being of students.

  5. A says:

    I’m a 1L suffering from what the WebMD tests are saying is a major depressive episode. I’ve tried to make appointments with various counselors, programs, some professors, even my doctor, and in 2 weeks, I haven’t even been able to make an appointment to see anybody. And the sad part is that I go to a small Tier 3 school, where small class sizes and accessibility are advertised.

    The school’s system has failed me. In my experience, it seemed like as soon as I realized the extent of my isolation that I became aware of the depression. For 5 weeks I didn’t interact with anybody outside of class except for the phone calls to my fiance and family. In orientation, we were told that we would at least get the benefit of being above the curve if we put in enough tome and energy, but law school does not work like that. One professor said, while addressing performance in class, that it ‘just clicks’ for some students, and for others, it never does.

    Now I’m suffering with depression, have poor grades, and a bleak future because I’m losing my scholarship and I don’t qualify for any interviews for job prospects. It seems as though, since I have invested so much money and time into this degree, that I either have to complete it or resign myself to ‘being a good bartender’ as another professor characterized it. What am I to do? Try to study more so that I can pull up my grades and maybe get some black market antidepressants? Or drop out and start bartending? I wouldn’t know because there is no way for me to get quality help here.

  6. G says:

    2L at small school. Zero mental health services, and in fact there never was any mention of mental health services at orientation. First word I heard on the subject was in Pro Res re: its impact on character and fitness. Effectively nowhere to go for help, and no one to talk to about it because everyone’s busy swapping war stories about moot court or the summer position they landed. It’s scary as hell to feel like I’m out on this island alone wondering whether to just “take this job and shove it,” while everyone else natters on about the merits of each of their answers to problem 8-2 on page 487 that wasn’t even assigned.

  7. Pingback: Blogging About Law and Depression « The Amazing World of Psychiatry: A Psychiatry Blog

  8. Z says:

    I agree with a lot of this article. I’m also a 1L, and I think one of the most isolating features of the experience is that regardless of whether people are actually stressed, they are very good at faking it and putting on a front so that they are not perceived as weak. I think that the school needs to encourage support groups for people who are struggling in the same ways, whether it’s disenchantment or depression. I don’t forsee this happening obviously though, because what institution is going to want to acknowledge that a significant segment of its population against itself? A, if you’re still watching, maybe we can email a little back and forth.

  9. Pingback: The Company We Keep « Lawyers With Depression

  10. B says:

    As a graduating 3L I feel like the depression is at an all time high. Overcoming the stresses of law school, like early depression, only to find a bleak job market and an insurmountable amount of loans is very depressing. Does it rise to the level of actual depression? Who knows, because no one will admit it and no one is talking about it. But I believe we are all feeling it.

  11. Katy B. says:

    Cathy hits the nail on the head. Law school and the legal profession are all about competition. Depression is seen as a liability. You’re trained as a lawyer to be professional and competent, and when you’re depressed you learn to fake otherwise. If you come out and admit your depression you look weak and incapable of handling your workload, and in this economy there is another person who can handle the workload (or can fake it better) there to snap up your job. The truth is that people don’t want a lawyer suffering from mental illness, people want a helpful, brilliant, personable and highly competent lawyer happy to do the work. So statistics and reality aside, we all fake it and pretend we’re doing just fine at the risk of losing a professional edge. For the record we’re not fine, and honestly what normal human being could spend 14 hours a day, alone, doing tedious adversarial work and NOT feel depressed

  12. S says:

    I’m a second year Juris Doctor student at an Australian law school and have been battling depression since the start of the degree and in the past few weeks suffered very severe depression, with inclinations towards suicide. I had an episode late last year just after the end of semester exams but was able to seek treatment. I have found that despite my efforts and mental notes to myself to keep meeting my psychiatrist,the constant pressure of enormous workloads always take priority over one that is likely to save my life. I have exams in exactly 2.5 weeks. I am constantly aware of the days I lose when this horrendous cloud gets the better of me and thus, prevents me from doing any study (while, my ‘law’ mates are at their books 24/7). Today has been one such day, a day lost. I stumbled upon this website while suffering a very severe attack of sobbing. I must say that this article has helped, seeing the statistics even if they not be of your own country makes me feel less isolated. I will be seeing a university psychologist tomorrow, but for the moment, I can must articulate a massive thank you from the bottom of my heart to the author and those who contributed.

    • F says:

      I am right there with your B, I have serious bouts of depression, and can’t focus.

      • Dan says:

        Hang in there man. Make sure you’re getting therapy, meds if necessary and think about joining a support group in your area. To find one, go to The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance website – they have depression support groups all over the country. Dan

  13. Z says:

    Last year, as a 1L, I was hospitalized briefly to prevent me from killing myself. I’ve never recovered and am battling a debilitating depression still today. I’ve sought help at the campus mental health center, but they are too busy to do anything for me. I can’t study, I can’t pay attention in class, I can’t sleep, and I can’t seem to enjoy anything. I have a good job waiting on me if I can graduate and pass the bar, so I even have that much less pressure on me. As a 2L, I’m just not sure I’m mentally capable of finishing the 2nd half of my law school career. My law school offers no services, no support, and no advice on how to handle a situation like mine. I hope that the bar association will force schools to address this issue before it takes more minds and lives.

  14. Pingback: One Day I’ll Write About Moot Court/Write-on/Clinics, but Today I’ll Explain Why « Ramblings of a Wannabe Drug Addict (ie law student)

  15. Pingback: symptoms for mono

  16. Pingback: Recommendations On Exactly How To Becoming A Psychiatrist

  17. dc2L says:

    What’s been the most damaging for me about law school is the isolation. The work load prevents you from spending time with others. It’s difficult to have roommates because you can’t risk the distractions and most of us live alone. I moved away from my family, friends and everything I knew to attend a top law school. I come from a very blue collar family and I’m the first to get a college degree. Most of the other students come from a very different background and I’ve had a hard time finding ways to relate. I know I’m bright and I work hard but I don’t have a type A personality. I’m pretty relaxed and modest. That’s not the energy you feel at a T14 school. I don’t feel like myself. I’m not sure that I’m depressed but I’m certainly feel more sad and alone than I ever have in my life. I used to be very outgoing and confident and now I find myself developing a bit of social anxiety. I haven’t given up. I’m in my second year and I’m still trying to put myself out there and make just one good friend. Sometimes I feel like I should just be okay with being alone and focus on school – it’s only 3 years. Then I worry that my social skills will continue to suffer and that will bleed into my personal and professional life after school is over. I want to be a lawyer but I don’t want law school to ruin me! I really liked myself before this whole mess.

    • Dan says:

      Thanks so much for your sincere sharing. I understand. I grew up in a blue collar family and went to an average college where I overacheived. During my first year of law school, I quickly discovered that a lot of my classmates had gone to Ivy League schools. I think if you haven’t done so already, you should see a therapist. While it may be just sadness, it might be a mild case of depression. Given your isolation, it will be important going forward to share with someone on a deep level on a regular basis – I recommend once per week. Also, try journaling your experiences – very helpful.

      I also offer coaching services to law students and lawyers who need to connect with someone who really understands what they’re going through and can provide them with regular, ongoing support and affirmation. If you’re interested, you can go to my coaching page on the homepage of my LWD website. Warmly, Dan

  18. dc2Lalso says:

    Found this page on a google search. My story is very similar to that of dc2L. In fact, I wish I knew who dc2L is, because we are probably at the same law school, s/he as a rising 3L and myself as a rising 2L. I left everything behind – family, friends, decent job – to attend a top law school. I will be deeply in debt after law school ($225k or so), which I willingly signed up for on the prospects of high-powered, high-paying jobs after graduation as advertised/suggested in the recruiting materials. I did well enough 1L to make myself a prime candidate for those jobs, but now I find myself absolutely crippled by depression. I didn’t love my old life necessarily – in fact, the prospect of going to law school was a big highlight of the past few years (largely because I went to a small undergrad, did very well, and assured everyone I would go back to school after working for a few years – getting into a good law school was a huge confidence boost and affirmation). However, now that I am there, and even though I am succeeding, I feel like I am falling apart and just want to reclaim my old life. The financial insecurity I have subjected myself to, the insecurity attendant to the job search, fears of burnout/washout/flameout, panic as to what to do if I discover I hate legal practice but have too much sunken cost to get out in a year or two, etc., are all driving me into a dark hole. I’ve always been considered a pretty confident, outgoing, amicable, and friendly person, but over the past year, the environment at law school has bred real insecurities and even mild agoraphobia, and at times I have even struggled with something akin to delusional disorder, persecutory type. I really don’t want to be on anti-depressants for the rest of my life just because of a career choice, when I never struggled with these things before and had a vitality that has since been totally drained. I was a really happy-go-lucky live-and-let-live sort of person, and I just don’t know if I am suited for the high stakes and high pressure world of BigLaw. I do pride myself on my work ethic, and as I said before I did a pretty good job succeeding my first year – yet despite my performance, these insecurities have only gotten worse, and I’m afraid employers will sense it, as I am losing my ability to mask it. Thank you for this post, and if you still check this website, any advice or suggestions are very welcome.

  19. Brisbane Law says:

    This is really a critical situation. But I believe law school can handle the situation.

  20. Pingback: Should I go to Law School? - Man Made Job

  21. Al77 says:

    Great article. I am studying for the LSATs and am having doubts about law school. I have suffered from depression and related psychological issues, in one form or another, since puberty (I’m in my late twenties now), am unsatisfied with my current and longstanding life situation, and enjoy and have shown aptitude for legal work. I am hoping that law school and a legal career could bring me intellectual and professional fulfillment.

    I have a paralegal certificate from a good program in which I did well, and have a decent, stable job as a legal assistant in a usually low stress environment where I very rarely work more than 40 hours a week. My job is secure, I received an outstanding performance review and am good at what I do (though I don’t think it requires a great deal of intellectual talent), and probably have the potential to move up into a paralegal position eventually, with solid salary and benefits (which are already pretty good for an entry-level position). The people I work with are kind and friendly, and I am well liked. The lawyers where I work seem happy and satisfied with their jobs and life (I know the word “seems” is key, but I truly think that, by and large, they genuinely don’t fit into the lawyers-who-despise-their-jobs category), but where I work is a relatively uncommon legal work environment. The jobs there, as far as I can tell, are extremely hard to get and tend to go to very accomplished people who have gone to the very best or among the very best law schools (at least a few Yales, at least plenty of Harvards, and tons of top tens).

    The problem is that I am intelligent and need intellectual stimulation to be satisfied. Although the former quality is conducive to success in my job, the latter remains totally unfulfilled and, from everything I have learned, experienced, and observed about paralegal work, will never be fulfilled in a sustained, meaningful way if I continue on my current career trajectory. The only way I would be remotely likely to advance to a position where I could do something interesting that I enjoy, in the legal field, is getting a law degree. I am widely regarded as an excellent writer, obviously an important skill as a lawyer, and I enjoy writing more than any other intellectual endeavor. But I don’t have the sort of passion for, or disciplined approach toward, writing where I am going to, or even want to, pursue a long shot career as a creative writer or an MFA or anything like that. I am not the entrepreneurial, major risk-taking type. I know law school these days doesn’t exactly fall into the low-risk category, but I think I need a fairly carved-out, established career path to follow.

    When I began my pursuit of a paralegal career (if it can be called a real “career”), I sort of thought of it as my last hope for a remotely respectable, secure, and satisfying professional life, based on my age and past failures. I was “settling”; it was not my dream to be a paralegal. My dream initially was another field in which I pursued a doctorate in my early/mid twenties and essentially failed out. I know now that I am better suited for law than that field, even though I thought I would enjoy it and thought I was suited for it, and am far more mature and responsible than I was back then. I have begun to think I am capable of more than just “settling.” I am sort of a pessimistic realist — not the sunshine and rainbows type — so even suggesting something might be my “dream” sort of makes me cringe.

    I come from an upper-middle class family in which I perceive myself as a disappointment and underachiever, even though others in the family may not think that’s the case or may not think less of me even if they do. My dad has a Ph.D., both my parents make six figures, there are multiple doctors in the family, etc. I know it’s shallow, but it bothers me that I am not on the same sort of path because I have the same aptitude as many people who do achieve a high degree of professional success and fulfillment.

    Also, to clarify, I care more about the professional/personal fulfillment element than the money element, though more of the latter would be nice too. Within the scope of professional/personal fulfillment, I probably care more about the intellectually interesting element than the doing good element, though I don’t think I could do something I thought was invariably and totally evil. I know that lawyers spend a lot of their time doing stuff that’s not intellectually scintillating, but compared to what I do now…well, you get the idea. Where I work now is a place where, I think most would agree, the lawyers “do good.” Again, not to say that it is rare for lawyers to do good, but generally speaking, where I work is not a common legal work environment on which it would be reasonable for me to bank all of my legal career aspirations. In other words, I wouldn’t go to law school if it was this or bust. I have tried to be somewhat vague, but as you have probably inferred, I do not work in the private sector.

    Growing up, I went to an elite private school where high achievement is expected and many people go to Ivy League schools or schools of that caliber. I went to a good, but not top-of-the-line rankings-wise, private liberal arts college. My parents would never say this, but if I were them I would probably think, “God, over the course of his lifetime we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his education, and the best he’s likely to do is paralegal?” Again, they wouldn’t say this, but I think that over the course of my life, their expectations have probably lowered from my being happy and successful to my being remotely happy and remotely successful in a job/career I don’t totally hate all the time.

    I am generally well liked, am introverted but have decent but not great social skills, and am decent-looking. But I have no social or romantic life. I have always struggled to maintain friends and have a social life, and am a natural isolator. The only possible romantic prospect I see is getting back together with my ex-girlfriend, whom I dated for many years and with whom I am still close, but that seems like a bit of a long shot. In other words, I don’t really have any other life I would be “sacrificing” for law school. I live with my parents and am likely to be alone and lonely for the rest of my life, so I’m starting to think maybe I should at least pursue a career I might give a damn about. If I went to law school in my area, I would almost certainly continue to live with my parents to save money. They will help me out with the law school expense and said they will find a way to make sure the finances “work out,” but I will contribute substantially and possibly primarily to the cost, and will have to take out loan(s) — I don’t know how much yet, as we haven’t gone into that much detail. I would not go to a terrible law school just because I could do so cheaply, but a major financial difference between good schools would definitely factor into my decision-making process.

    I think that if I had more courage to act, I likely would have at least attempted suicide multiple times in my life. I have never made a sincere attempt but have had lots of ideation and self-destructive behavior. And yes, I have sought out, have received for years, and am currently receiving mental health treatment.

    Anyway, sorry for going on for so long. I guess I am feeling despondent about the fact that I either have to stay on a soul-crushingly boring career path that brings me no joy or take a chance on a potentially but not definitely satisfying career as a lawyer that has the potential for a great deal of financial and emotional damage, and at which I may or may not fail. I would prefer to go to at least a lower-end top 14 law school ideally, but my undergrad GPA is a bit below a 3.5, and I feel I need to get, but face fairly steep odds against getting, my LSAT score to the high 160s. I am taking it in June and started studying for it a bit less than a month ago. I study every day. I am starting a prep course in February and, thus far, I am getting about 80% right on the Logical Reasoning question types I have studied, under timed but less-tightly-timed-than-test-day conditions. I don’t think I would go to any school below the top 25, and even then I’m not sure. The legal market is so competitive, full of Type A people just as smart or smarter than me, and although I am capable of dedication and strong work ethic at least in stretches, am not naturally a Type A, “Go, go, go!” type.

    My law school application “intangibles” would probably be pretty good. I have legal work/real life experience, am probably more mature than the average 0L/1L, and would likely have an excellent personal statement and excellent letters of recommendation.

    So any advice as to what I should do? Should I stick with the boring, secure, underachieving path or, keeping in mind my demonstrated susceptibility to the types of mental health issues that are more common even among lawyers without pre-law school symptoms, risk it to pursue a career as a lawyer? If you have other alternatives to suggest, I would be interested in those too, though I find it hard to imagine choosing anything other than one of those two options. I am not saying I definitely “shouldn’t” pursue an alternative, I just think it’s unlikely that I will. I guess I still hold out some hope that maybe I’ll be able find some kind of fulfillment in my personal life, despite my belief that I won’t, and am reluctant to try anything too “out there” that would further delay and decrease any chance I might have of getting married and having a happy family life. But if you have a convincing suggestion, go for it. I am all ears.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I apologize for the rambling.

  22. Secret says:

    I did 4 years Law Bachelor, 2 years Bar school and is now working in a Law office, still depressed, had taken anti-anxiety pills and was addicted to them at some point. By the way all my Law collegues and Law friends are in the same situation. I can’t wait to walk out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *