Hope Has The Final Say: A Lawyer Shares His Pain

I made a new friend this week.

A lawyer from down south emailed me.  He had found me through my website. He told me about some terrible and unexpected turns his life had taken recently which had plummeted him into a major depression.

I e-mailed him back and said that I would like to speak with him by phone.

I learned that his drop into the well of depression wasn’t his first experience with this terrible illness. He had gone through a bad episode twenty-five years ago, but since then nothing until his most recent crash.

During our thirty-minute talk, I felt the rawness of his pain in his voice.  I recognized this sound all too well.  It was the pain of depression.

He told me that the only respite he felt was when he fell asleep because it was only in this state of unconscious that he had some relief from the grinding wheels of depression.

I also learned that he was married, a father of four and had worked very hard for over twenty-five years as a lawyer.  He was a Catholic who prayed often. He felt horrible about the pain and anxiety his depression had caused his wife and children.  He told me that he felt comfortable talking with me because I was a lawyer and someone who had been through depression.  As we talked, his voice became a little lighter and his tone a bit more optimistic.

I don’t attribute to anything I did.

Instead, I see it more as a testament to this central truth about life on earth: It is in sharing with one another our stories that we heal.

And I believe that we’re all called to be healers of one another.

And in listening to one another’s stories, we learn that suffering doesn’t have the final say.

And in this truth, we find hope.

Undoing Depression in Lawyers

There’s some interesting research to suggest that happy people view the world through certain comforting illusions, while depressed people see things more realistically. [i] For instance, the illusion of control. You can take a random sample of people and sit them in front of a video monitor with a joystick, and tell them their joystick is controlling the action of the game on the screen. (But the point of experiment is that it actually doesn’t). Depressed people will soon turn to the lab assistant and complain that their joystick isn’t hooked up correctly. Normal people, on the other hand, will go on happily playing the game for quite some time.

I think this explains a lot about why lawyers are so prone to depression. Because of their experience with the law, most attorneys have lost their rose-colored glasses some time ago. (Or else they never had them and chose the law as a career because it suited their personality). Attorneys know that life is hard, and doesn’t play fair. They’re trained to look for every conceivable thing that could go wrong in any scenario, and they rarely are able to leave that attitude at the office.  They see the worst in people (sometimes they see the best, but that’s rare). They tend to be strivers and individualists, not wanting to rely on others for support. They have high expectations of success, but they often find that when they’ve attained success, they have no one to play with, and have forgotten how to enjoy themselves anyway.

All this makes it hard for attorneys to get help with their depression. They tend not to recognize it as such; they just think it’s stress, or burn out, or life. They don’t expect that anyone is going to be able to help. Most of my attorney-patients have contacted me because their relationships are falling apart, but they don’t see that it’s depression that makes them such a lousy partner – tense, irritable, critical, joyless, tired all of the time, relying on alcohol or other drugs. If they’d gotten help for the depression a couple of years previously, their spouse wouldn’t be moving out now. The truth about depression is that it not only makes you feel horrible, it wrecks your life. And that’s why I wrote the book, Undoing Depression, in the first place. I was running an outpatient clinic, and grew exasperated with seeing the people whose lives wouldn’t have been so ruined if they had got some help when they first needed it – before they alienated their children and spouse, got fired, went into debt, developed a substance abuse problem, etc. I thought there was a need for an intelligent self-help book, one that points out all the bad habits that depression engenders and which, in a vicious circle, keeps reinforcing the disease. But the truth is that self-help isn’t nearly enough for most depression sufferers. It’s as if you stepped over an invisible cliff, and you can’t find your way back doing what you normally do, because that’s what led you over the cliff in the first place. Depression is the original mind/body disease; your physical brain is damaged because of the stress in your mind, and you’re unlikely to undo that damage without help.

Depression is highly treatable, but if you want a lasting recovery you have to change your life. The ugly fact is that depression is very likely to reoccur. If you had one episode of major depression, chances are 50:50 that you’ll have another; if you have three episodes, it’s 10:1 you’ll have more. But you can improve those odds if you get good professional help, with medication and with talk therapy. We won’t put your rose-colored glasses back on, but we can help you see how negative thinking and the negative acting is contributing to your disease.

[i] See for example, Shelly Taylor: Positive Illusions; and Julie Noren: The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.

Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., is the author of two noteworthy books, Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety, and 21st Century Illness and Undoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You. He is a practicing psychotherapist with offices in New York City and Canaan, Connecticut.  He has suffered from clinical depression and is a member of a depression support group.

 

Lawyers With Depression: Crawling Towards Hope

The lack of hope is one of the most powerful features of clinical depression.

Why this is so is a complicated question to answer.  For lawyers struggling with depression, perhaps even more so.

A lot of people, including lawyers themselves, find it hard to understand why such powerful professionals, superheroes and heroines in blue suits, would be afflicted with depression in the first place.

Yet, the numbers don’t lie.

Studies show that lawyers have twice the rate of depression of the general population.  When put in context, that means 240,000 of this country’s 1.2 million lawyers are struggling with depression right now.

Why, some think, would lawyers, armed with intelligence, perceived wealth (whether true or not) and a take-no-prisoners fighters’ edge succumb to such a dire condition?  

The Answer: Because depression simply doesn’t work that way.

The truth is that smarts might not matter much; wealth, while helpful to provide resources otherwise not available, does not guarantee recovery. And adversarial toughness? This trait might be more of a cause of depression than a shield because many lawyers’ believe that the remedy is to just “suck it up” or think their way out of their pain.  But these strategies don’t work.  They simply fall on depression’s deaf ears.

Because most folks don’t expect lawyers to suffer from depression, they tend to search for different explanations for a lawyer’s downcast affect.  They often believe they’re suffering from “the blues”; or, worse yet, a failure of will to push themselves out of it.  One survey found that over forty-percent of Americans see depression as a failure of such will.  One can only imagine how much higher that figure would be for lawyers who people feel should be able to fight themselves out of just about anything.

Depression Isn’t the Blues

It’s normal to feel the blues: a bittersweet type of sadness that colors our lives from time to time. Blues music is popular given the universal nature of this experience.  But while sadness and the blues are inevitable parts of life, clinical depression is not.  The most significant difference between sadness and depression is that someone that’s sad goes about their daily business without much trouble.  Depression, however, involves significant impairment in one’s ability to carry out daily task at work and home. Other differences between the blues and depression include the length of time the sadness endures and whether or not there are other symptoms associated with depression, which are tagging along with the perpetual sadness.

Dr. Richard O’Connor, in his deeply insightful book Undoing Depression, captures some of the difference between the two:

Everyone has had a taste of what depression feels like.  Everyone feels the blues at times.  Sadness, disappointment, fatigue are normal parts of life.  There is a connection between the blues and depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.

 “Why Don’t You Take a Vacation?”

When I was diagnosed with major depression over twelve years ago, I needed to take some time off from my hectic job to allow the antidepressants my psychiatrist had prescribed to take effect.  I called a meeting to tell my three partners about my diagnosis and need to take a break.  Until such time, they hadn’t known I was suffering from depression.  Yes, my production was down and I closed my office door a lot more often.  Maybe a little tired or burnt out, but what lawyer didn’t sometimes feel that way?

After hearing me lay it all out on the table, one of my law partners at that time said, “What the hell do you have to be depressed about? You’re the managing partner of a successful firm with a beautiful family.  Why the hell don’t you just go on vacation?”  The subtext on his stinging judgment and solution to my situation was that if only I were more “grateful” for the good things in my life, including my success in the law, I wouldn’t be feeling so “depressed”.

Little did he know how grateful I was for all the good things that life had bestowed on me.  But no matter how many times I knelt on my church’s pews thanking God for my blessings or made a list of things to feel happy about, the specter of depression just wouldn’t leave me.  It was my constant companion.

Like most people who have never gone through major depression, my partner simply had no reference point for what I was going through.  He thought of depression as sadness: a series of bad days that would benefit from an all-inclusive vacation to Jamaica sipping Margaritas by the pool.

However, I was depressed even on vacations.  The sun and surf weren’t pleasurable; they were painful. They reminded me of what I had lost: the ability to enjoy life, to appreciate the beauty of nature and the capacity to connect with my family who I loved so dearly.

The response of my partner, I was to find, was typical.  It made me feel more hopeless and alone.  I felt that apart from my psychologist and psychiatrist, few could understand.  When really in the dirty trough of depression, I would think, “Nobody really understands.”  I was adrift in a sea of melancholy with little hope of reaching dry land.  Andrew Solomon, author of the best-selling book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression writes:

“When you are depressed, the past and future are absorbed entirely by the present moment, as in the world of a three-year-old. You cannot remember a time when you felt better, at least not clearly; and you certainly cannot imagine a future time when you will feel better.”

In the beginning of my illness, I didn’t recover from depression so much as survive it.  I found myself crawling towards what hope I had left in me.  At that point, the only thing that seemed to keep me going was the deep love for my wife and precious daughter.

That was it. 

This beacon of love kept me trudging through depression, hoping that the heavy cloud of melancholy would someday dissipate so that that I could walk in the sun again.

While the antidepressants I was put on were no panacea, they became an important part of the solution for me.  They didn’t obliterate the depression, but they kept me stable and prevented me from falling into the basement where I couldn’t function.

But medication wasn’t enough.  And it isn’t for most depression suffers.

I needed to start thinking about how to live a better life and treat myself differently.  My psychologist once called depression “crooked thinking”.  I tended to catatrophize everything by more often seeing problems as unsolvable and conflicts a matter of life and death.  When I lost a case, I would take it personally, I was a bad lawyer, and even a worse, a person who didn’t measure up. A loser. I didn’t realize that I was punishing myself.  I didn’t realize that this was a choice and I could stop.

I began to feel like I didn’t have to go on this way anymore.  I came to believe that problems could be solved and that outcomes weren’t always in my control.

I began to hope.

Copyright, Daniel T. Lukasik, 2014

 

 

Dan’s Latest Top 10 Book Recommendations on Stress, Stress-Management and Anxiety

 

full-catastrophe-living

Over the years, I’ve read too many books to count about stress, anxiety, and depression.  Like most people, I’m always looking for tips and clues about how to handle things better.

Some of these books have turned out to be real stinkers.  Others, retreads of books and articles that have said the same things over and over again.

I have found some gems, though.  Books that have something original to say, or are well-written.

I’ve found that the most useful ones make me want to read them further after the first 25-pages, or so.  Good rule of thumb.

I hope you find help, hope, and insight between their pages.

Manage Your Time to Reduce Your Stress: A Handbook for the Overworked, Overscheduled, and Overwhelmed  — Rita Emmett

The title of this book grabbed my attention because it seemed to capture so much more than just stress management.  Stress management is truly about managing being overworked, overscheduled, and overwhelmed.

According to the author, the key is not time management but “stuff management — taking control of all those tasks to do, people to see, commitments and obligations to fulfill.  Mismanagement of all that “to-do” stuff is what leads to stress.  Emmett combines quick, easy-to-digest tips and infectious good humor to give readers positive ways to handle stress and their overly busy lives.

You can also check out her website for other helpful tips and ideas.

Monkey Mind: A Memoir on Anxiety — Daniel Smith

I first read about Smith’s book in a New York Times article called “Panic Buttons“.  This memoir on stress and anxiety is not only informative and insightful, it’s well-written and funny.

The long list of things that, over the years, have made Daniel Smith nervous includes sex, death, work, water, food, air travel, disease, amateur theater, people he’s related to and people he’s not related to, so the prospect of a book review probably wouldn’t seem like a very big deal to him. Or would it?

This fleet, exhausting memoir, is an attempt to grapple with a lifetime of anxiety: to locate its causes, describe its effects and possibly identify a cure. Or, if not a cure, at least a temporary cessation of the worry that’s been plaguing him since his youth.

Check out his website, The Monkey Mind Chronicles, for more interesting stuff.

Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence — Rick Hanson

Rick Hanson, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist and best-selling New York Times author.

Hardwiring Happiness lays out a simple method that uses the hidden power of everyday experiences to build new neural structures full of happiness, love, confidence, and peace.

In an interview discussing the book, he states:

“So, how do you get good things—such as resilience, self-worth, or love—into your brain? These inner strengths are grown mainly from positive experiences. Unfortunately, to help our ancestors survive, the brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it less adept at learning from positive experiences but efficient at learning from negative ones. In effect, it’s like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good.

This built-in negativity bias makes us extra stressed, worried, irritated, and blue. Plus it creates a kind of bottleneck in the brain that makes it hard to gain any lasting value from our experiences, which is disheartening and the central weakness in personal development, mindfulness training, and psychotherapy”.

Check out his website for more information about the book and his suggestions.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases and Coping – Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D.

Why don’t zebras get ulcers–or heart disease, clinical anxiety, diabetes and other chronic diseases–when people do?

In a fascinating that looks at the science of stress, Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky presents an intriguing case, that people develop such diseases partly because our bodies aren’t designed for the constant stresses of a modern-day life – – like sitting in daily traffic jams or racing through e-mails, texting and running to pick up our kids after a tough day at work. Rather, humans seem more built for the kind of short-term stress faced by a zebra–like outrunning a lion.

This book is a primer about stress, stress-related disease, and the mechanisms of coping with stress. How is it that our bodies can adapt to some stressful emergencies, while other ones make us sick? Why are some of us especially vulnerable to stress-related diseases and what does that have to do with our personalities?”

Sapolsky, a neuroscientist, concludes with a hopeful chapter, titled “Managing Stress.” Although he doesn’t subscribe to the school of thought that hope cures all disease, Sapolsky highlights the studies that suggest we do have some control over stress-related ailments, based on how we perceive the stress and the kinds of social support we have.

Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness – John Kabat-Zinn, M.D.

As a busy lawyer, I was immediately attracted to the title Full Catastrophe Living. It literally leapt of the bookshelf and cracked me on the head.  Who doesn’t live a life so jammed with stuff to do that it feels like a catastrophe?

Chronic stress saps our energy, undermining our health, and making us more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and disease.  The heart of the book is based on Kabat-Zinn’s renowned mindfulness-based stress reduction program at the University at Massachusetts Medical Center.

The author takes the phrase “full catastrophe living” from book and movie “Zorba the Greek”.  If you’ve never seen it, an Englishman Basil – – who is half-Greek – – inherits a run down mine in a small Greek town.  To help him restore it, he hires  a local character named Zorba to be the foreman of the local laborers. Zorba, full of the zest of a life truly lived, is asked by Basil, “Do you have a family?” Zorba responds “Wife, children, house – – the full catastrophe!!!”

Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness – Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.

Author of my favorite book on depression, “Undoing Depression”, Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., has written another simply brilliant book on the consequences of “perpetual” stress in our lives – the alarming and escalating rates of clinical anxiety and depression.   This was the first book I read that made clear to me the connection between stress, anxiety, and depression. It formed the basis for my blog on the topic How Stress and Anxiety Become Depression. The human nervous system was never meant to handle this many stressors. It’s as if the circuit breakers in our brains are blown by too much stress running through our brain’s circuitry.  This book is a perfect fit if you want to learn a lot about the brain and physiology of stress – I found it fascinating.  If you’re looking for a quick read and pick-me-up, this isn’t it.  Check out his website.

A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook — Bob Stahl

The author writes that the key to maintaining balance is responding to stress not with frustration and self-criticism, but with mindful, nonjudgemental awareness of our bodies and minds.

This book employs some of the same mindfulness strategies discussed in Full Catastrophe Living but does it in the format of a workbook.  I find this format very helpful because it’s practical and gives me exercises to do to put into practice mindfulness to reduce my daily stress load.

The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques – Margaret Wehrenberg, Ph.D.

Medication, once considered the treatment of choice, is losing favor as more and more sufferers complain of unpleasant side effects and its temporary, quick-fix nature. Now, thanks to a flood of fresh neurobiology research and insights into the anatomy of the anxious brain, effective, practical strategies have emerged allowing us to manage day-to-day anxiety on our own without medication. Addressing physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms, Margaret Wehrenberg, Ph.D., a leading mental health clinician, draws on basic brain science to highlight the top ten anxiety-defeating tips. Everything from breathing techniques to cognitive control and self-talk are included.   I really like that the 10 chapters are highly readable and short. Dr. Wehrenberg is also a frequent blogger at the Psychology Today website.  Here’s one of her blogs, The One-Two Punch of Negativity and Fear.

Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong: A Guide to Life Liberated from Anxiety – Troy DuFrene

This book approaches the problem of anxiety a little differently than most. Instead of trying to help you overcome or reduce feelings of anxiety, it will help you climb inside these feelings, sit in that place, and see what it would be like to have anxiety and still make room in your life to breathe and rest and live, really and truly live, in a way that matters to you.  This approach is based upon a research-supported form of psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, also known as ACT which starts with the assumption that the normal condition of human existence is suffering and struggle, ACT works by first encouraging individuals to accept their lives as they are in the here and now. This acceptance is an antidote to the problem of avoidance, which ACT views as among the greatest risk factors for unnecessary suffering and poor mental health

The Worry Cure – Robert L. Leahy

For “highly worried people,” or those who suffer from the “what-if disease,” this book presents a systematic, accessible self-help guide to gaining control over debilitating anxiety. Leahy is an expert in changing thought processes, and he walks worriers step-by-step through problems in the way they think, with pointers on how to change these biases. The author then outlines a seven-step worry-reduction plan (remember, I love plans!) beginning with identifying productive and unproductive worry, progressing to improving skills for accepting reality, challenging worried thinking and learning to harness unpleasant emotions such as fear or anger.

Self-Coaching: The Powerful Guide to Beat Anxiety – Joseph J. Luciani, Ph.D.

This is a good book for those who don’t want to see a therapist or, if they do, need extra doses of encouragement and practice to overcome their stress and anxiety. The author advises readers to identify themselves as specific personality types (e.g., “Worrywarts,” “Hedgehogs,” “Perfectionists”) and then gives specific instructions on how to change the particular thought patterns associated with this type of personality.  So many people who struggle with anxiety never got what they needed while growing up – – enough love, encouragement, and affirmation.  Lacking these core experiences, we develop can develop particular maladaptive strategies to cope with people and situations that push our buttons.  This is the only book that I’ve read that pairs specific coping recommendations with particular personality types.

What books would you recommend?  Hit the comment button and submit your favorites.

Next Steps:

If you are interested in talking to Dan about CLE eligible trainings he offers law firms, call him at (716) 913-6309 or via our contact form. One-on-one coaching is also available for lawyers who need individualized attention. Go to Dan’s website Yourdepressioncoach.com to download his free book and schedule a consultation.

 

Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?

martin-seligman-photo

“As to being happy, I fear that happiness isn’t in my line. Perhaps the happy days that Roosevelt promises will come to me along with others, but I fear that all trouble is in the disposition that was given to me at birth, and so far as I know, there is no necromancy in an act of Congress that can work a resolution there.” – Benjamin N. Cardozo, February 15, 1933

Law is a prestigious and remunerative profession, and law school classrooms are full of fresh candidates. In a recent poll, however, 52% of practicing lawyers describe themselves as dissatisfied. Certainly, the problem is not financial. As of 1999, associates at top firms could earn up to $200,000 per year just starting out, and lawyers long ago surpassed doctors as the highest-paid professionals. In addition to being disenchanted, lawyers are in remarkably poor mental health. They are at much greater risk than the general population for depression. Researchers at John Hopkins University found statistically significant elevations of major depressive disorder in only 3 of 104 occupations surveyed. When adjusted for sociodemographics, lawyers topped the list, suffering from depression at a rate of 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally. Lawyers also suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than nonlawyers. The divorce rate among lawyers, especially women, also appears to be higher than the divorce rate among other professionals. Thus, by any measure, lawyers embody the paradox of money losing its hold. They are the best-paid professionals, and yet they are disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy. And lawyers know it; many are retiring early or leaving the profession altogether.

Positive Psychology sees three principal causes of the demoralization among lawyers.

Pessimism

pessimism

First is pessimism, 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: Pessimistic life insurance agents sell less and drop out sooner than optimistic agents. Pessimistic undergraduates get lower grades, relative to their SAT scores and past academic record, than optimistic students. Pessimistic swimmers have more substandard times and bounce back from poor efforts worse than do optimistic swimmers. Pessimistic pitchers and hitters do worse in close games than optimistic pitchers and hitters. Pessimistic NBA teams lose to the point spread more often than optimistic teams.

Thus, pessimists are losers on many fronts. But there is one glaring exception: Pessimists do better at law. We tested the entire entering class of the Virginia Law School in 1990 with a variant of the optimism-pessimism test. These students were then followed throughout the three years of law school. In sharp contrast with the results of prior studies in other realms of life, the pessimistic law students on average fared better than their optimistic peers. Specifically, the pessimist outperformed more optimistic students on the traditional measures of achievement, such as grade point averages and law journal success.

Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. 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, 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.

Sandra is a well-known East Coast psychotherapist who is, I think, a white witch. She has one skill that I have never seen in any other diagnostician: She can predict schizophrenia in preschoolers. Schizophrenia is a disorder that does not become manifest until after puberty, but since it is partly genetic, families who have experienced schizophrenia are very concerned about which of their children will come down with it. It would be enormously useful to know which children are particularly vulnerable because all manner of protective, social and cognitive skills might be tried to immunize the vulnerable child. Families from all over the eastern United States send Sandra their 4-year-olds; she spends an hour with each of them and makes an assessment of the child’s future likelihood of schizophrenia, an assessment that is widely thought of as uncannily accurate.

This skill of seeing the underside of innocent behavior is super for Sandra’s work, but not for the rest of her life. Going out to dinner with her is an ordeal. The only thing she can usually see is the underside of the meal – people chewing. Whatever witchy skill enables Sandra to see so acutely the underside of the innocent-looking behavior of a 4-year-old does not get turned off during dinner, and it prevents her from thoroughly enjoying normal adults in normal society. Lawyers, likewise, can not easily turn off their character trait of prudence (or pessimism) when they leave the office. Lawyers who can see clearly how badly things might turn out for their clients can also see clearly how badly things might turn out for themselves. Pessimistic lawyers are more likely to believe they will not make partner, that their profession is a racket, that their spouse is unfaithful, or that the economy is headed for disaster much more readily than will optimistic persons. In this manner, pessimism that is adaptive in the profession brings in its wake a very high risk of depression in personal life. The challenge, often unmet, is to remain prudent and yet contain this tendency outside the practice of law.

Low Decision Latitude

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A second psychological factor that demoralizes lawyers, particularly junior ones, is low decision latitude in high-stress situations. Decision latitude refers to the number of choices one has – or, as it turns out, the choices one believes one has – on the job. An important study of the relationship of job conditions with depression and coronary disease measures both job demands and decision latitude. There is one combination particularly inimical to health and moral: high job demands coupled with low decision latitude. Individuals with these jobs have much more coronary disease and depression than individuals in other three quadrants.

Nurses and secretaries are the usual occupations consigned to that unhealthy category, but in recent years, junior associates in major firms can be added to the list. These young lawyers often fall into this cusp of high pressure accompanied by low choice. Along with the shared load of law practice (“this firm is founded on broken marriages”), associates often have little voice about their work, only limited contact with their superiors, and virtually no client contact. Instead, for at least their first few years of practice, many remain isolated in a library, researching and drafting memos on topics of the partners’ choosing.

A Win-loss Game

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The deepest of all the psychological factors making lawyers unhappy is that American law is becoming increasingly a win-loss game. Barry Schwartz distinguishes practices that have their own internal “goods” as a goal from free-market enterprises focused on profits. Amateur athletics, for instance, is a practice that has virtuosity as its good. Teaching is a practice that has learning as its good. Medicine is a practice that has healing as its good. Friendship is a practice that has intimacy as its good. When these practices brush up against the free market, their internal goods become subordinated to the bottom line. Night baseball sells more tickets, even though you cannot really see the ball at night. Teaching gives way to the academic star system, medicine to managed care, and friendship to what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. American law has similarly migrated from being a practice in which good counsel about justice and fairness was the primary good to being a big business in which billable hours, take-no-prisoners victories, and the bottom line are now the principle ends.

Practices and their internal goods are almost always win-win-games: both teacher and student grow together, and successful healing benefits everyone. Bottom-line businesses are often, but not always, closer to win-loss games: managed care cuts mental health benefits to save dollars; star academics get giant raises from a fixed pool, keeping junior teachers at below-cost-of-living raises; and multi-billion dollar lawsuits for silicon implants put Dow-Corning out of business. There is an emotional cost to being part of a win-loss endeavor. In Chapter 3 of my book, I argue that positive emotions are the fuel of win-win (positive-sum) games, while negative emotions like anger, anxiety, and sadness have evolved to switch in during win-loss games. To the extent that the job of lawyering now consists of more win-loss games, there is more negative emotion in the daily life of lawyers.

Win-loss games cannot simply be wished away in the legal profession, however, for the sake of more pleasant emotional life among its practitioners. The adversarial process lies at the heart of the American system of law because it is thought to be the royal road to truth, but it does embody a classic win-loss game: one side’s win equals exactly the other side’s loss. Competition is at its zenith. Lawyers are trained to be aggressive, judgmental, intellectual, analytical and emotionally detached. This produces predictable emotional consequences for the legal practitioner: he or she will be depressed, anxious and angry a lot of the time.

Countering Lawyer and Unhappiness

new-lawyers

As Positive Psychology diagnoses the problem of demoralization among lawyers, three factors emerge.Pessimism, low decision latitude, and being part of a giant win-loss enterprise. The first two each have an antidote. I discussed part of the antidote for depression in Chapter 6, in my book

Pessimism, low decision latitude, and being part of a giant win-loss enterprise. The first two each have an antidote. Chapter 6 of my book details a program for lastingly and effectively countering catastrophic thoughts. More important for lawyers is the pervasive dimension-generalizing pessimism beyond the law – and there are exercises in Chapter 12 of my book, Learned Optimism that can help lawyers who see the worst in every setting to be more discriminating in the other corners of their lives. The key move is credible disputation: treating the catastrophic thoughts (“I’ll never make partner,” “My husband is probably unfaithful”) as if they were uttered by an external person whose mission is to make your life miserable, and then marshaling evidence against the thoughts. These techniques can teach lawyers to use optimism in their personal lives, yet maintain the adaptable pessimism in their professional lives. It is well documented that flexible optimism can be taught in a group setting, such as a law firm or class. If firms and schools are willing to experiment, I believe the positive effects on the performance and moral of the young lawyers will be significant.

As to the high pressure-low decision latitude problem, there is a remedy as well. I recognize that grueling pressure is an inescapable aspect of law practice. Working under expanded decision latitude, however, will make young lawyers both more satisfied and more productive. One way to do this is to tailor the lawyer’s day so there is considerably more personal control over work. Volvo solved a similar problem on the assembly lines in the 1960’s by giving its workers the choice of building a whole car in a group, rather than repeatedly building the same part. Similarly, a junior associate can be given a better sense of the whole picture, introduced to clients, mentored by partners, and involved in transactional discussions. Many law firms have begun this process as they confront the unprecedented resignations of young associates.

The zero-sum nature of law has no easy antidote. For better or for worse, the adversarial process, confrontation, maximizing billable hours, and the “ethic” of getting as much as you possibly can for your clients are much too deeply entrenched. More pro bono activity, more mediation, more out-of-court settlements, and “therapeutic jurisprudence” are all in the spirit of countering the zero-sum mentality, but I expect these recommendations are not cures, but Band-Aids. I believe the idea of signature strengths, however, may allow law to have its cake and eat it too – both to retain the virtues of the adversarial system and to create happier lawyers.

When a young lawyer enters a firm, he or she comes equipped not only with the trait of prudence in lawyerly talents like high verbal intelligence, but with an additional set of unused signature strengths (for example, leadership, originality, fairness, enthusiasm, perseverance, or social intelligence). As lawyers’ jobs are crafted now, these strengths do not get much play. Even when situations do call for them, since the strengths are unmeasured, handling these situations does not necessarily fall to those who have the applicable strengths.

Every law firm should discover what the particular signature strengths of their associates are. Exploiting these strengths will make the difference between a demoralized colleague and an energized, productive one. Reserve five hours of the work week for “signature strength time,” a non-routine assignment that uses individual strengths in the service of the firm’s goals.

There is nothing particular to the field of law in the re-crafting of jobs. Rather, there are two basic points to keep in mind as you think about these examples and try to apply them to your work setting. The first is that the exercise of signature strengths is almost always a win-win game. When Stacy gathers the complaints and feelings of her peers, they feel increased respect for her. When she presents them to the partners, even if they don’t act, the partners learn more about the morale of their employees – and of course, Stacy herself derives authentic positive emotion from the exercise of her strengths. This leads to the second basic point: There is a clear relation between positive emotion at work, high productivity, low turnover and high loyalty. The exercise of a strength releases positive emotion. Most importantly, Stacy and her colleagues will likely stay longer with the firm if their strengths are recognized and used. Even though they spend five hours each week on non-billable activity, they will, in the long run, generate more billable hours.

Law is intended as but one rich illustration of how an institution (such as a law firm) can encourage its employees to re-craft the work they do, and how individuals within any setting can reshape their jobs to make them more gratifying. To know that a job is a win-loss in its ultimate goal – the bottom line of a quarterly report, or a favorable jury verdict – does not mean the job cannot be win-win in its means to obtaining that goal. Competitive sports and war are both eminently win-loss games, but both sides have many win-win options. Business and athletic competitions, or even war itself, can be won by individual heroics or by team building. There are clear benefits of choosing the win-win option by using signature strengths to better advantage. This approach makes work more fun, transforms the job or the career into a calling, increases flow, builds loyalty, and it its decidedly more profitable. Moreover, by filling work with gratification, it is a long stride on the road to the good life.

Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., is the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the Director of the Positive Psychology Network, and former President of the American Psychological Association. Among his 20 books are Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child. Here, from his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, is his chapter entitled “Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?”

© by Martin Seligman. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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