Why We Need to Talk About Lawyers’ Mental Health Now

Big law has a big problem.

The reality that lawyers suffer from high rates of mental health problems, addiction, and problem drinking can no longer be denied in light of the 2016 study conducted by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation which has a nationally renowned drug and alcohol treatment center.

Now what?

A “National Task Force on Attorney Well-Being” was assembled following this study to make recommendations on what law schools, law firms, bar associations, and others, can do about these serious problems. I have read both the study, the task force’s report, and recent press reports coverage about how the recommendations of the task force are to be implemented.

To be frank, I am disappointed.

Upcoming ABA Webinar on Batting Burnout and Depression

This ABA program to be held on April 18,2016 between 1:00 p.m. and 2:35 p.m. (EST) will focus on stress management and emotional balance, peer-to-peer support groups, workaholic behaviors and proactive approaches to accommodating and supervising those at risk. Register Now

Lawyer Depression: What is it, What Causes it, and What You Can Do About it

Are you a lawyer suffering from depression?  Do you know a colleague that struggles with it?

If so, you’re not alone.


A new landmark study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs published this February reveals that 21 percent of licensed, employed attorneys currently qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent struggle with some level of clinical depression and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. Forty-six percent (46%) reported concerns with depression at some point in their legal careers.

When put in perspective, that means that of the 1.2 million lawyers in the U.S., 336,000 lawyers have struggled with some form of depression this past year. A staggering number when one considers the rate of depression in the general population is ten-percent.


Depression can be mild, moderate or severe in intensity. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms include:

Whether or not you’re clinically depressed can only be determined by a mental health professional. To be so deemed, you must have at least five of the above symptoms for at least two weeks.

But many people never get to the point of receiving such an evaluation or treatment because they or others see their symptoms as a “slump,” “sadness,” or even burnout. Perhaps a vacation will cure the blues, some say. Others take the tough love approach and tell the depressed lawyer to “snap out of it.”  But none of this works.


That’s because depression isn’t sadness. Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., author of the best-selling book, Undoing Depression, writes:

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.


Depression has many causes:  A genetic history of depression in one’s family, hormone imbalances, and biological differences, among others. Certain personality traits, such as low self-esteem, a pessimistic outlook, chronic stress at work or home, childhood trauma, drug or alcohol abuse and other risk factors increase the likelihood of developing or triggering depression.

Why do lawyers experience depression at higher rates?

According to Patrick Krill, J.D., LLM., director of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Legal Professionals Program, just why lawyers have such sky-high rates of melancholy isn’t always easy to see:

(The) rampant and multidimensional stress of the profession is certainly a factor. And not surprisingly, there are also some personality traits common among lawyers – self-reliance, ambition, perfectionism and competitiveness – that aren’t always consistent with healthy coping skills and the type of emotional elasticity necessary to endure the unrelenting pressures and unexpected disappointments that a career in the law can bring.


According to Martin Seligman, Ph.D., it has to do with negative thinking:

One factor is a pessimistic outlook defined not in the colloquial sense (seeing the glass as half empty) but rather as the pessimistic explanatory style. These pessimists tend to attribute the causes of negative events as stable and global factors (“It’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything.”) The pessimist views bad events as pervasive, permanent, and uncontrollable while the optimist sees them as local, temporary and changeable. Pessimism is maladaptive in most endeavors.

But there is one glaring exception: Pessimists do better at law. Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudent. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. If you don’t have this prudence to begin with, then law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.


Tyger Latham, Ph.D., a psychologist in Washington, D.C., who treats many lawyers with depression, writes:

. . . 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.


1. Join a Depression Support Group

You can (a) join or (b) start a support group in your community. These groups provide a place for the depressed to share their struggles and gain the encouragement and support they need to recover and remain well.

(a) Join a Group

A depression support group is not “group therapy”. The group is run by those who attend the meetings. To see if there’s a lawyer group in your community, go to the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs’ website to find such information. To see if there’s such a group in your city that isn’t lawyer specific, go to the Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance’s website at www.dbsa.org.

(b) Start a depression support group for lawyers in your legal community.

If there’s not one in your hometown or the ones’ you’ve attended aren’t a good fit, think about starting one yourself or with another friend or two.

Read my previous post, “18 Tips on How To Start a Depression Support Group“.

2. Get Educated

There are plenty of great websites to educate you about what depression is and the variety of ways it can be treated.  A great resource can be found at the University of Michigan’s Depression Center website at www.depressioncenter.org.

Also, read my previous post, “Dan’s Top 10 Depression Books“.

3. Work with a Lawyer Life Coach

If you would wish to work one-on-one with a life coach, I offer such services at  www.yourdepressioncoach.comMy practice is unique in that I am a fellow lawyer who has struggled with depression over the years while practicing law. I believe I can help you if you answer “yes” to any of the following questions:

  • You need someone to listen with a sense of compassion.  I am that person. I will care.  I will be in your corner.
  • You need a sense of structure at a time when life may seem pointless and meaningless. I can be an anchor for you, a safe port in a storm, a place to go and share your deepest struggles and concerns about home and work.
  • You need someone to educate you about what depression and anxiety are and their symptoms and causes.
  • You need guidance as you weave through the matrix of treatment options to find a plan that works for you.
  • In addition to treating with a psychologist and/or psychiatrist, you find that you get more encouragement, insight, and support to help you keep moving forward.
  • You suffer from anxiety and depression.  If so, you’re far from alone.  Studies show that as much as 60% of all people with depression also suffer from an anxiety disorder.

I will work with you on whatever specific problem most pressing to you.  Here are some areas where depression and anxiety may be causing real pain and trouble in your life:

You need help getting things done at work.  You’re falling behind and because of you’re the depression and/or anxiety. I can help by providing insight, support, and exercises to help you deal with this all too common and critical issue.

You want to leave your job.  You’ve been coping with work-related depression and/or anxiety for some time and decided “enough is enough”. You want to make plans to transition to another job or career. I can help you develop your game plan to do so and hold you accountable for following through and take the necessary steps to make this a reality.

You’re a “Depression Veteran”. You might be further down the road in your recovery from depression and/or anxiety but still need help and encouragement. Or you’ve been struggling with off-and-on depression and/or anxiety for years. I will work with you to develop a program to make sure you do things that will help you recover and stay well. I will hold you accountable for actually following through with your program.  I can help to motivate you to stick with a healthy game plan.

You are just plain unhappy.  Many people, while not clinically depressed, are very unhappy with their lives.  They have too much stress.  Aren’t happy in their careers. Or don’t have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. The support and structure I provide for depression sufferers are easily transferable to getting to the heart of what’s causing your unhappiness.  I will work with you to build a different set of skills and make different life choices to lead a happier and healthier life.

You need help explaining your depression to others.  For loved ones and business associates that have never been through depression, it’s difficult for them to really understand your pain because they really don’t have a point of reference for psychic pain someone undergoes with clinical depression.  They mistake it for “the blues” or everyday sadness, which it clearly is not.  I can work with you to develop a language and actions that could help others understand.  If you wish, I would also be happy to talk with others as your work to educate them about what depression is and ways that might be able to help and support you.

If you relate to any of these issues and think coaching might be a good fit for you, I offer a free twenty-minute consultation.  You can contact me at www.yourdepressioncoach.com to schedule a meeting. I coach clients around the country via Skype and over the phone.

Copyright, 2016 by Daniel T. Lukasik, Esq.




Lawyers, Drinking, Depression: A Problem That Isn’t Going Away

A landmark study by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation depicts a profession troubled by problem drinking, depression, anxiety—and abiding fears about seeking help. In a pair of interviews, Joan Bibelhausen of LCL and study co-author Linda Albert discuss the findings and what the profession can do to address them. Read the News

Attorneys Grapple with High Rates of Stress, Burnout

Business West reports, “Lawyers say they entered the legal field to help people with their problems — often very difficult, serious problems. The danger is internalizing those problems and making client stress a permanent part of one’s psyche. That pitfall, and other stressors common to lawyers, from time pressures to sometimes-adversarial work relationships, contribute to unusually high levels of burnout, depression, substance abuse, and even suicide in the legal field. One challenge, experts say, is to recognize those dangers before they take root.” Read the News


Dallas DA Sets Ethical Example with Depression Treatment

The website, Law360 reports: “When Dallas County’s district attorney took a leave of absence to treat serious depression — a problem that affects attorneys in disproportionate numbers to the general population — she faced calls for resignation, but experts say getting treatment and ensuring that any clients are taken care of is the ethical thing to do.” Read the News

From One Lawyer to Another: Simple Steps Lawyers Can Take to Deal with Depression

Since you are reading a website about lawyers and depression, you are probably wondering whether you are suffering from depression, or what to do about it. You’re in good company. It is estimated that 1 in 10 members of the public suffer from depression; among lawyers the rate is 3.6 times higher. That would make it likely that about 1 in 3 lawyers are suffering from depression.

I am one of those lawyers (so, two of you are off the hook—you’re welcome). There are many articles covering the symptoms of depression. (See, e.g., this NIMH list.) If you even think you are suffering from depression: GET PROFESSIONAL HELP. At first, I refused to admit to myself that I needed help. I told myself that I could muscle my way through. It was a trap: while my higher consciousness assured myself that I could handle it all, my depression kicked in when it was time to get things done. “By the time you are sick enough to recognize that you have a problem, your ability to engage in accurate self-evaluation is significantly impaired.”

My particular form of depression involved feeling as if I was in a daze, as if I was not in control of my actions, as if someone else were running my life. I did not respond to client calls, I did not get work done until the last minute (if at all), I missed court appearances, I forgot to pay bills, I failed to monitor my trust account. I am doing much better now thanks to the help of many including our host Mr. Lukasik.

The problem—well, one of the problems—for lawyers suffering depression is that they cannot let their mental condition interfere with their ethical and legal duty to their clients. A.B.A. Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.1 requires that a lawyer “provide competent representation to a client.” And Rule 1.16(a)(2) states:

(a) Except as stated in paragraph (c), a lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if: . . . .

(2) the lawyer’s physical or mental condition materially impairs the lawyer’s ability to represent the client.

I don’t think the A.B.A. expects one-third of the lawyers to immediately stop representing their clients. Depression does not mean that you cannot ably represent your clients; but depression is also no excuse for failing in your duties. What I address in this article are some actions you can immediately take that I hope will help you keep up with your responsibilities while you seek professional assistance.

The Matrix. The science-fiction metaphor of The Matrix (what is the Matrix?) helped me understand depression. The brain functions at a level that we are not always consciously aware of. Sometimes we can override our instincts; sometimes we cannot. Think of yawning, or sneezing. When you are depressed, the Matrix has you. To deal with the immediate impact of depression, you must get out of the control of the Matrix.

Make a list, work the list. Making a list of what you need to do puts your higher consciousness in charge. Rumination is controlled by the Matrix; the list is outside. Work the list. It should be as specific as you can make it: Not “write the brief” but “write section I of the brief.” Give yourself a time estimate, start a stopwatch, and do the work. This should be no big deal: you bill by the minute, you can plan by the minute too. Don’t just think, “I ought to do X.” Writing it down is important.

You won’t necessarily get the work done in the time allotted; that’s OK. Lawyers are aggressive perfectionist. Your inner mind likes specific achievable goals. When the time is up, look at the list and chose something to do next. It could be continuing to do what you are already doing. Write down a new time goal and get at it.

There were times when my focus waned. I tried to recognize what was happening and do something physical. Give yourself a defined short respite: Stand up, walk around, talk to someone, hide in the bathroom, whatever. When the time is up, get back to the list.

Existential problems. Sometimes the consequences of (in)actions are just too dire:  failing to file an Answer, missing a court appearance. If the list idea is not working perfectly to save you from existential dangers, get someone else involved. Ask someone you trust outside your workplace to contact you every day, ask you whether your list and your calendar cover everything that needs to be done, and ask you whether you are doing what’s on the list.

You need to be brutally honest with your friend and yourself. If not have not done what needs to be done, you should articulate your next steps as specifically as possible. Not, “I’ll do this tomorrow,” but “I’ll do this at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow.” This takes a good friend.

Adjust your body. Changes in your diet, exercise and social climate may improve your mood. Depression is not a “mood.” But good mood will help address how to get through the days, weeks and months without screwing up your client’s and your lives.

My exercise regimen is simple: I take a 30-minute quick walk in the morning, enough to get my heart rate up. It is surprising what a positive effect this little bit of exertion has. My main dietary culprit is sugar. “People who suffer from depression are especially vulnerable to sugar’s evil power.” I find that exercise and diet go together: The more I exercised, the less craving I have for sugar.

As above, take the decision-making power out of the Matrix. Get an exercise buddy. Find a time for exercise (easier said than done, I know) and put in on your list / calendar. When I wake, I do not ask myself whether I should go for a walk; I say to myself, “time for my walk.” Put snack breaks into your schedule and have an apple or banana available.

Meditate. If you scoff at this, here is my challenge: close your eyes and think about nothing but your breathing for two straight minutes. Go ahead, I’ll wait. . . . . Not so easy, is it? Random thoughts kept jumping into your mind. You had an instinctual emotional reaction to these thoughts (anxiety, self-loathing, dread, etc.). The random thoughts and emotions are from your subconscious (the Matrix); where the depression lives. Do not battle the thoughts. When they happen, tell the thoughts that you will get back to them as soon as you are done meditating, and return to thinking about nothing but the breathing. (For you Matrix fans: the thoughts are spoons; you must realize that there is no spoon.)

When you meditate you are developing the skill to recognize your emotional reactions without succumbing to them. You can impress your therapist by referring to this as CBT: cognitive behavioral therapy. It takes practice, but just starting this routine will help immensely.

A day is 24 hours long—no more, no less. I cannot follow my own advice all of the time. I still eat cookies; I still get lost in my personal miasma. At the end of the day I tell myself, “that was today, I will follow the program tomorrow.” No recrimination; just observation. Try to avoid thinking on Tuesday that you have to “make up” for what you missed on Monday. Just do Tuesday.

These are stopgap measures. GETTING PROFESSIONAL HELP is the most important thing you can do. But in the meantime, I hope this helps you get you through the days ahead.

Mitchell Chyette graduated from the University at Michigan School of Law in 1979 and currently works in San Francisco, California.


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