Is it Lawyer Depression or Burnout? Telling the Difference

Burnout is nature’s way of telling you, you’ve been going through the motions, your soul has departed; you’re a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker. False optimism is like administrating stimulants to an exhausted nervous system.  – Sam Keen

Sitting across from Tom, a lawyer for the past 15 years, I was struck by his ashen face.  Before he said a word, before I asked him how his practice had been going, his slumped shoulders spoke volumes about a good man weighed down. As we spoke over coffee, he asked if I thought he was suffering from the “Big D” – depression.

As we spoke, he asked if I thought he was suffering from the “Big D” – Depression.

“No, I don’t think so, Tom. You seem pretty burn-out, though,” I said.

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According to an ABA Journal article, lawyers facing increasing pressure to “value engineer” their services have adopted a “better-cheaper-faster” approach to practicing law because that’s what their clients are demanding.

This is one of the conclusions contained in a recent report on the future of the legal profession prepared by The New York Bar Association.

“Consumers have become more suspicious of institutions,” the report says, and clients are less willing to take their lawyer’s advice at face value and more willing to sue when they are unhappy. Technology is also changing client demands.

“Electronic communication has fueled a culture in which clients want more legal information, answers on the spot, and lawyers who can interpret, rather than simply provide, information,” the report says.The result is more specialization and an emphasis on ability to deliver higher quality services at a lower cost and in less time.”

This was certainly true in Tom’s case.  There were no limits to the demands put on him – by both others and himself – to be better, cheaper, and run faster.  As if he were a machine.  He hunkered down into a survival mode, had little positive energy to invest in himself or his family and ultimately burned out like a meteorite entering the earth’s atmosphere.

Just Perfect

Burnout isn’t just a consequence of trying to keep up with an insane schedule.  It’s also fueled by a common personality trait found in many lawyers: perfectionism.

Author of the book Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal & Professional Satisfaction in the Law, Amiram Elwork, Ph.D. writes:

“Because law requires objective logical analysis and close attention to details, the legal profession attracts perfectionists. These are people who live by the rule: ‘If I don’t do a perfect job in every detail, I will fail.’ Perfectionists tend to be workaholics who are often viewed as inflexible, uncomfortable with change, and obsessed with control but unconvinced that they have it. Since perfection can’t be achieved, striving for it can cause constant dissatisfaction.”

“My clients are perfectionists,” says Alden Cass, a therapist to both corporate attorneys and men on Wall Street. “They have very rigid ideals in terms of win-lose,” he continues. “Their expectations of success are through the roof, and when their reality doesn’t match up with their expectations, it leads to burnout—they leave no room for error or failure at all in their formula.”

Out of Sync With Core Values

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Elwork opines that “another reason that some lawyers experience burnout is that their core values are not aligned with their own behaviors. Sometimes this problem reflects an internal psychological conflict, whereas at other times it is a conflict between the lawyer’s values and those of the organization at which he or she works.”

My friend Tom is in this boat.  He works for an insurance defense firm.  He’s a compassionate man who tries his best to be a good person.  The culture of his firm, however, tells him to “hammer” personal injury victims at their depositions and trials.  He hates to do this but doesn’t know what else to do.  He has a family to support after all.  He feels stuck at his job.

He suspects other lawyers at his firm are burned out, but doesn’t really know what a burned out lawyer looks like.

There are, however, telltale signs.

Burnout’s 10 Milestones

  • Over-commitment (always in motion)
  • Inadequate breaks and rest (continuous client involvement)
  • Idealistic standards
  • Constant low-grade stress (occasionally interrupted by crisis!)
  • Lack of help and assistance
  • Chronic fatigue from pushing oneself (“hitting the wall”)
  • Strong sense of responsibility, even when others “dropped the ball”
  • Guilty feelings about missing church events/activities
  • Heavy job and family responsibilities/expectations
  • Inability (or strong reluctance) to say no

Similarities Between Depression and Burnout

While they share some similarities, there are some important differences between the two conditions.

Both depressed and burnout sufferers show symptoms of withdrawal and fatigue.

  • Depressed individuals also show signs of hopelessness and disinterest. Severe depression can already alter the sleep-wake pattern of an individual thus triggering insomnia.
  • The most serious cases are those involving persons who possess some recurring thoughts about death. Those who experience a burnout are often accompanied by feelings of helplessness, self-doubt, and failure on top of the other feelings similarly experienced by depressed individuals.

Differences Between Depression and Burnout

Burnout is a state that is just induced by severe stress. Depression, on the other hand, is a clinical behavioral disorder affecting one’s mood. As such, it is, therefore, more appropriate to say that when you are having a burnout you are also at risk of experiencing or developing depression rather than the other way around.

  • Researchers have successfully found important physiological differences between people who suffer from burnout and those who suffer from depression: individuals suffering from burnout do not produce enough cortisol as if the body decided to go on strike. As a reversal, those who suffer from depression produce too much of it.
  • When one is suffering from depression, he or she is unable to attain or experience a state of pleasure. As a result, you often see depressed individuals shrouded in extreme sadness. Burnout sufferers look different because they feel overly exhausted to the point of doubting their own ability to carry out their regular activities of daily living. Severe burnouts may also lead one doubt his self-worth.
  • Depression is usually rooted upon a number of factors like when one is suffering from an incurable chronic disease or an extreme severance of relationship (death, breaking from a serious romantic relationship) with a very significant other. Depression has also been discovered to have some genetic predisposition and environmental roots. With regard to burnout, this condition is usually tied in with strains in work and high demand stresses of life in general.

A Strategy for Avoiding Burnout                                                            

It’s easier to avoid burnout in the first place than it is to overcome it. Here a handful of do-able strategies for escaping its clutches:

  • Rest, relax, recreate, renew. It’s the only avenue for sustaining us for the long haul.
  • Give something up before taking on a new commitment or responsibility. Don’t keep “adding floors” onto your already towering skyscraper of activities.
  • Learn to say no and to set up reasonable boundaries around your involvement. Specify the help you’ll need and the constraints on your time.
  • Set priorities and consult with your family. Service work occupies an essential role in our lives but must never take priority over family. Be willing to occasionally say no to low priority activities when they conflict with quality family time.
  • Get away from it all on a regular basis through hobbies, recreation, short “sabbaticals,” and sometimes just being a couch potato.
  • Listen to your body’s stress warning signals, such as headaches, backaches, dizziness, insomnia, and unexplainable fatigue.
  • Cut out the hurry and worry. Stress is the natural byproduct of trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound bag. Do only what you reasonably can in the time available and with the resources available.
  • Consider changing jobs.  Sometimes the only thing you can do is leave your job and seek employment at another firm.
  • Consider changing careers.  Some lawyers tell me that they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  Being burned out has forced them to confront this decision.  It can be done and there are many happy ex-lawyers out there.

Further reading —

The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law by Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder

The Reflective Counselor: Daily Meditations for Lawyers by F. Gregory Coffey and Maureen C. Kessler

Can’t Get No Satisfaction: Burnout – New York Magazine 

Lawyer Burnout: Avoidable, Not Inevitable – ABA Journal

Knockout Burnout! – Attorney at Work

Copyright, Daniel T. Lukasik, 2016

 

 

 

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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