One Trial Lawyer’s Journey From Severe Depression to Greater Fulfillment

I do not consider myself a lawyer. I am a human being who took on the role and career of a lawyer for 25 years. Unlike some people who entered law school with a burning passion to practice law, I ended up there because I was confused about my career direction and had no career counseling. Stop here. If you don’t feel excitement and joy when thinking about a career my hindsight advice is don’t enter it!

After a couple of years in NYC working for a small firm I quit because I hated following orders due to my anti-authoritarian streak dating back to early childhood. When I left for California I passed the CA bar exam, worked briefly for a solo practitioner, and then opened up my own solo practice. During my first few years I took whatever I could get including cases involving wrongful employment termination, wrongful eviction, workers compensation, and personal injury. I gradually steered my practice completely into plaintiff’s personal injury because I come from a family of physicians and I was truly fascinated by the medical aspects of these cases.

After I while I became rather successful as a lawyer, especially because I had a nose for what made a good case, I enjoyed investigating the facts, I cared about my clients (most of them anyway), and I frequently knew more about the medical/psychological aspects of the client’s injury than the defense. My Achilles heel was my biological tendency toward anxiety and depression which, to my mind, are two sides of the same coin.

Although I got excellent results in my cases I was plagued by fears of failure and so I worked myself to the bone when it came to preparing for depositions, hearings, and trials or opposing motions to compel discovery or obtain summary judgment. Although I was never sued by a client in 25 years I always worried that the innately disgruntled ones who complained about everything in their lives might sue me. So I worked extra hard to make sure their cases turned out well. To put in all these hours I gave up on exercise, sat more, and ate unhealthy, high salt, high sugar foods to give me some compensatory pleasure. Stop. If you are doing these things you will damage your physical and mental health. Our bodies crave outdoor exercise in the fresh air and they crave real food, not the processed crap made in factories.

At the beginning of the 1990s I took on some new challenges. I moved to a larger, more expensive office. I became a homeowner. And, my wife became pregnant with our first child. In the mid-1990s, I developed a bridge phobia, a phobia involving the fear I would fall out of the window of a tall office building, and panicky dread over crime in our neighborhood which seemed to be getting worse every day. To help myself through these irrational fears I became a good friend of Jack Daniels. This nearly led my wife to divorce me. The threat of divorce woke me up like a cold shower. I went to see a psychiatrist who put me on Zoloft and I stopped drinking. Things got better. We had a second child, a son. In the coming years I became a very good father. I adore my kids. They adore me. Both kids are flourishing. This is something I am very proud of.

In the decade between 1995-2005 I handled an increasing number of cases involving traumatic brain injury and made significant income. Initially these cases were very exciting. Over time they became a drag. Why? The defense, which had paid up relatively quickly in the early days, now used scorched earth tactics by hiring experts in human factors, biomechanics, neurology, psychiatry, neuropsychiatry, neuroradiology, etc. I had to hire counter experts in each field and I had to pay to depose every over-priced, hostile defense expert who gave me all their specious reasons why each client was a neurotic, a hysteric or a malingerer.

I felt like Sisyphus, the man condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a steep hill every day. The litigation costs drained my coffers to the point where I was late on my rent, my copier machine rental, my records fees, and witness fees every month. In the midst of these depressing circumstances my mother suddenly died of a brain virus. And then, one day, my wife noticed we were completely out of money and our home equity lines were maxed out. I instantly plunged into what my psychiatrist called a psychotic depression in which I heard a voice from within me tell me to die over and over again, relentlessly 24/7 until after 4 days of it, I went to a hospital emergency room.

The psychiatrists who cared for me in the hospital told me I had snapped as a result of an inborn vulnerability to depression, years of stress from legal practice, and the trauma of my mother’s death and insolvency. They told me never to return to legal practice. My past 8 years have been a journey back from severe depression and into a new, more fulfilling life. Thanks to a private, own-occupation disability policy I was able to pay my family’s living expenses while recovering.

upward-spiral

I researched and wrote my book for lawyers, The Upward Spiral: Getting Lawyers from Daily Misery to Lifetime Wellbeing, on stress and depression while studying and practicing Buddhist meditation. I became ordained as an interfaith chaplain and sat with dying patients at a local hospital. More recently I entered an MS program in mental health counseling at Capella University. I anticipate becoming a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor at the beginning of 2017. I am finding my studies, practicums, and internships in mental health graduate school to be very meaningful and fulfilling.

Law is a very stressful profession which produces severe depression in one out of every five lawyers. What is my message to my colleagues in the law who suffer depression?

First, face the depression. Do not deny it and self-medicate it with unhealthy substance or behavioral addictions.

Second, try medication. For a depression with obsessive, suicidal rumination (like mine) it can be life-saving.

Third, see a therapist (a psychologist, MFT, counselor or social worker) so you can explore and understand the bio-psychosocial roots of your depression and choose the best form of therapy to resolve your depression.

Fourth, consider couples counseling or family therapy so your spouse and children can understand your depression and have an opportunity to educate you as to how it is affecting them. This can lead to improved understanding, communication, and cooperation at home within the family system.

Fifth, consult experts in nutrition, exercise, and sleep to develop ways for you to eat healthier, exercise more, and sleep better. A wonderful book on these topics is Go Wild by Dr. John Ratey.

Sixth, spend more time in nature because there is nothing better to quiet the mind, ease the sore psyche or restore the spirit.

Seventh, take time to actualize your potential as a unique self through whatever activity calls to you, be it photography, calligraphy, water color painting, baking, cooking, etc.

Good luck. I know you can beat depression and be happier.

Harvey Hyman, J.D. spent 25 successful yet stressful years practicing personal injury law in New York and California.  Thanks to an episode of severe depression in 2007, he found happiness and joy that had always eluded him.

 

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4 thoughts on “One Trial Lawyer’s Journey From Severe Depression to Greater Fulfillment

  1. Thanks for sharing your story and solution. My “episode” resulted in me removing myself from the practice (personal injury work) for about 14 months. It was not until I was able to get therapy, medication and join a 12 step program that I was able to put life into perspective to the point where I could go back to the practice of law. I did so with certain self imposed rules to ensure that I did not fall back into old practices that could lead me back into a sense of isolation. I now exercise regularly again, even when I don’t feel like it. I make sure that I get away from my desk multiple times a day, even if just to walk around the office and chit chat for a few minutes and try not to bring the work home both physically and mentally. I have found an office that understands the importance of life outside of work and that a physically and emotionally stable employee is more productive, in the long run, than one that grinds out long hours day in and day out. Without actually running a list of my own, I have discovered that the changes I have made in my life match nicely with your list of seven suggestions. Thanks for the inspiration to continue my journey of recovery.

  2. Your story is my story. No passion for law but did it to get noticed. Middle child syndrome fits me to a tee. Practiced in the government sector for 18 years before my first LOA. During analysis I learned that my Myers-Briggs combination only matched .025% of other attorneys. A very serious mis-match. No wonder I was so sick. 10 years later I find myself practicing as in-house contracts counsel. Ugh. Much less confrontational so even my adrenaline Support is gone. My worse vice is coffee, though, so could be worse.

    The interim years allowed me to try other things but the finances didn’t work long term. I am retiring in December 2015, unless something unexpected happens.

  3. I have a very similar story. I entered college, changed majors 3 times ending up with a BA in Political Science. I wanted to be a high school Civics teacher but I noticed many of my peers with the same major were heading to law school. I thought why not? It would be especially pleased to my parents and lead to BIG BUCKS down the road i thought. I never considered nor was I aware of the jealous mistress in waiting.

    I had trouble getting into a major law school and ended up at Western State University in California in 1974. I did pretty well but I was always terrified about being called on in class and looking foolish. After graduating 13th in my class, I couldn’t land a job at a major firm because of my law school. I ended up working for a small insurance defense firm as a clerk and then as an associate after I passed the Cal Bar on the first try. I left there to move to an in house insurance company defense firm until I saved enough and gained some experience to open my own practice. I rented an office from a small 3 man firm and they cut me an excellent deal by giving me more than enough referral work to cover my expenses and earn a decent living.

    When one partner left, they invited me to join. I had to buy in and I signed a moderately sizeable promissory note which I was able to pay down from time to time especially when I earned a decent fee from the plaintiff’s PI work I was doing. About 5 years into it, our senior and very connected high billing partner died after battling lymphoma for a year. Our firm’s billings tumbled. The other partner asked me to take over management of the firm so he could focus on his estate planning and probate practice.

    We continued to plummet financially missing pay checks in order to maintain our firm’s somewhat extravagant luxuries (weekly plant service just to to name one). I finally had to withdraw because the stress and worry was eating me alive. Panic set in. I wanted out of the legal profession.

    I decided to start up a high end catering and in home dining company with my then wife. We did alright but it wasn’t enough to support our lifestyle and I had never worked so hard in my life – physically and time wise especially during the holiday season. We needed money and we needed it quickly.

    To make ends meet I turned to what I knew how to do. I eventually landed a job with a large, reputable defense firm as an independent contractor which ironically was the only law gig I actually enjoyed because I had all the perks of private practice without any overhead and headaches. I made good money with a very flexible schedule as assistant to the firm’s senior trial lawyer.

    Meanwhile, the widow of my deceased partner wanted her half of the promissory note I owed for the partnership buy in but I didn’t have the money. I was able to negotiate a good out with the assistance of my surviving former partner who basically got me off the hook with a big discount.

    A couple of years later I decided it was a good time to leave So Cal because I could see the writing on the wall telling me that was not where I wanted to continue raising our 5 year old daughter. I moved the family to a small now well known town in Northern Arizona where I passed the bar on the first try as well and set up my new law practice. I did pretty well for a while but as I grew so did the expenses.

    I too was hit by the “scorched earth” insurance defense movement and my plaintiff’s practice started to bury me financially. I eventually ended up divorced for reasons unrelated to the practice of law. Fast forward a couple more years and I ended up as a single dad to a new son from a non-marital relationship with an alcholic-druggy leading to a major and expensive custody battle which in the long run, ended up with me winning. Ny son is now a college junior with a bright future.

    In the midst of all this, my phenomenal office manager/paralegal decided to leave to attend law school. Things continued going south from there because she was a work horse and an excellent biller. I was never able to replace her and eventually had to hire a secretary and 2 paralegals to stay afloat.

    I eventuall checked myself into a well known a rehab center for a variety of addictive behaviors I was self medicating with which ended up being my exit ticket from the practice of law. However, I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t made the decision to buy long term private own occupation disability insurance after my daughter was born shortly after I became a junor partner in that small firm.

    I’ve been gone from the legal profession for more than 15 years now and I can’t say that I miss it save for the occasionally rush of a well earned court victory or good settlement.

    The legal profession is a hungry bear more than a jealous mistress and I am always suspicious of those who claim to love it. I guess some lawyers have an immunity of some kind to its stresses and strains. Thanks for sharing your story and my apologies for the length of mine. I still love to write!

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