Suicide: The Death of a Law Student

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I am Chair of the Committee to Assist Lawyers With Depression in Erie County.  Our committee is producing a documentary about depression in the legal profession.  It will be made available to Bar Associations, legal organizations and law schools around the country later this fall.  As part of this project, I headed off to New York City last week to interview some remarkable people.  One of them was Andrew Sparkler.

Andrew is a lawyer in Manhattan who graduated from Fordham Law School four years ago.  During his first year, he met a remarkable young man named David Nee.  David is shown in the photograph above sitting between two of his law school friends.

David went to one of the finest preparatory schools in the country, Princeton University and then to Fordham.  In my interview, Andrew told me that David was happy-go-lucky, the life of the party and always sought to make others feel comfortable.  He was brilliant, often not having to study for exams and still getting good, if not great, grades.  Something, however, changed during his Third Year of law school – at least in his friends eyes.   David would disappear for weeks on end.  When friends called him, he didn’t phone back.  When he finally showed up, he always had some sort of plausible excuse.

Shortly after law school graduation, while studying for the Bar exam, David Nee died by suicide.  In a note which he left, he said that he had been struggling with depression since he was fourteen years old.  This poor soul, I thought.  On the outside, he seemed so happy and carefree; on the inside, stuck in the dark world of depression.

Andrew Sparkler, his friends and family were devastated by David’s death.  Why didn’t they know he was depressed?  They decided to remember David by forming the David Dawes Nee II Foundation, a not for profit created to educate law students about depression and suicide.  What a noble effort that deserves our praise and support.

Dave (not his real name) is in his late fifties and had battled depression most of his life.  One day, he was driving his usual route to work.  As the car sped by him, all he could feel was the pain of his existence. He suddenly got off the Niagara Falls exit.  Once there, he parked his car.  He got out, took off his shoes, socks and watch.  He was methodical.  He was a good lawyer after all.  He thought of his wife and what his death would do to her.  He called his best friend who got him into a psychiatrist that afternoon where he was immediately put on antidepressants and went into counseling.

In her best-selling book, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, psychologist, Kay Redfield Jamison states:

“Suicide is a particularly awful way to die:  the mental suffering leading up to it is usually prolonged, intense, and unpalliated.  There is no morphine equivalent to ease the acute pain, and death not uncommonly is violent and grisly.”

Jamison, who also suffers from depression, notes that there is a suicide every 17 minutes in this country.  Identifying suicide as an often preventable medial and social problem, Jamison focus attention on those under 40 (suicides by those who are older often have different motivations or causes according to her book).  Citing research that suicide is most common in individuals with mental illness (diagnosed or not), particularly depression, she clearly describes the role of hormones and neurotransmitters as well as potential therapies.  Click here to hear an interview with Dr. Jamison on the Charlie Rose show.

Given that lawyers suffer from depression at a rate twice that of the national average and that the number one cause of death of middle aged lawyers is suicide, I believe that the legal profession must face this issue.  It isn’t as if lawyer suicide is a sometime sort of thing.  It happens a lot.  Even one is too many.

The point here is not to be depressing by addressing suicide.  The point is to speak up about just how dangerous depression is.  It just isn’t just a mental illness; it’s also a killer.

A recent news article reported that 27 million American are on antidepressants – a staggering figure.  Given the strong connection between depression and suicide, how can we avoid a frank discussion on this topic?

For more information, support and resources, check out the American Association of Suicidology.

I welcome everyone’s comments on this important topic.

The Ladder of Success

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Many lawyers are consumed with the goal of becoming successful.  Often, traditional success means money, status and power.  According to veteran lawyer George W. Kaufman, author of the book, The Lawyers’ Guide to Balancing Life and Work, “For too many lawyers, the goal of success becomes the primary driver.  But surveys of working lawyers tell us that a great many of them are unhappy even when their planned goals are realized . . .”  This view was echoed by therapist, Alden Cass in an article on burnout in New York Magazine titled, Can’t Get No Satisfaction.  Cass, who treats Wall Street lawyers in New York City, says, “I can’t tell you how many people come into my office and ask, “How come I have this money and I can’t find happiness?”

Most lawyers are never taught about the problems and pitfalls of pursuing success without also combining it with the pursuit of meaning and purpose.  My parent’s only imperatives were that I go to college, get a good job and “be happy.”  I worked long hours, endured constant stress and moved up my old firm’s pecking order.  But somewhere along the way, I realized that something was terribly wrong with my life.  I wasn’t just unhappy; I was full of sorrow.  The great mythologist, professor and author, Joseph Campbell captured the irony of our common struggle for success: “You climb the ladder of success and when you get to the top you find it’s leaning against the wrong wall.” 

I fell off that ladder and into a well of depression.

I was never taught how to navigate the waters of difficult emotions.  When I looked around at my fellow lawyers, they all seemed so together — like a show room car that never got dented and was always polished.

Through my depression, I learned a lot about the darkness.  That it isn’t exactly an illness, but part of the human journey for all of us.  Educator and author, Parker Palmer, who went through and struggled with depression, wrote:

“Many young people today journey in the dark, as the young always have, and we elders do them a disservice when we withhold the shadowy parts of our lives.  When I was young, there were very few elders willing to talk about the darkness; most of them pretended that success was all they had ever known.  As the darkness began to descend on me in my early twenties, I thought I had developed a unique and terminal case of failure.  I did not realize that I had merely embarked on a journey toward joining the human race”.  Listen to a great podcast where Parker is interviewed for a show called, The Soul of Depression.

So much of the literature out there about success focuses on “work-life” balance.  The formula in many of these tomes is the same:  set limits, exercise and make time for family.  All of these are well and good, but seem to so often fail us.  There’s simply not enough gravity in them to keep us in orbit.  What’s lacking is a basic  truth:  Life is made up of struggles and losses and how we deal with them.  Such struggles can reach a crisis pitch in which we enter a sort of darkness.

In his book, Dark Night of the Soul:  A Guide to Finding Your Way through Life’s Ordeals, psychologist, Thomas Moore says: 

“A dark night may not feel like depression.  In a long illness or a troubled marriage you may be anxious, but not depressed.  On the other hand, a clinical depression might well qualify as a dark night.  Whatever you call it, the experience involves you as a person, someone with a history, a temperament, memories, emotions, and ideas.  Depression is a label and a syndrome, while the dark night is a meaningful event.  Depression is a psychological sickness; a dark night is a spiritual trial.

Many people think that the point of life is to solve their problems and be happy.  But happiness is usually a fleeting sensation, and you never get rid of the problems.  Your purpose in life may be to become more who you are and more engaged with the people and the life around you, to really live your life.  That may sound obvious, yet many people spend their time avoiding life.  They are afraid to let it flow through them, and so their vitality gets channeled into ambitions, addictions, and preoccupations that don’t give them anything worth having.  A dark night may appear, paradoxically, as a way to return to the living.  It pares life down to its essentials and helps you to get a new start”.

And maybe that’s what we all need – a new start.  To wake up to a new vision about what success really means to us and how we need to act in our lives as lawyers to meet that meaning.

I remember the words of Mother Teresa on the topic of success.  It’s worth mentioning that a book published in 2007, Come Be My Light – The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta,  says that Mother Teresa felt deep sorrow, despair and one could argue “depression” for the last fifty years of her life.  Yet, in the most profound sense –whether you are religious or not — wasn’t she a success?  She once said, “We are not called to be successful.  We are called to be faithful.”   In other words, we can’t control the outcomes.  But, we can live a life that is directed by our spirits.  And THAT is a life of success.

When Is My Depression Going to End?

I find writing about depression for lawyers a delicate balancing act.  On one hand, I don’t want to pull any punches about just how awful depression is or how adversely it can affect your life and career.  On the other hand, I want to offer hope and encouragement to those who are in the trenches and deal with it every day.  I will try to do both today.

I have been encouraged by some to write only “positive” articles about dealing with depression. But I just can’t do that. To not deal with the more troubling aspects of depression seems to me a form of denial.  The other day, I was at my local bookstore checking out the Self-Help section for any new titles on depression.  Some of the titles seemed like they were being pitched by used car salesmen:  “Overcome Your Depression in 30 Days!”  This doesn’t help the conversation about depression because it sets up ludicrous expectations in the minds of those who suffer from it and their loved ones about the speed of recovery.  For many with depression, they’re in it for the long haul.

One of the hardest parts about dealing with depression on a daily basis is its seemingly unpredictable nature:  When is it going to start again and how long will it last?

Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of the best-selling book, Prozac Nation, gets it right when she wrote:

“That’s the thing about depression.  A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight.  But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.  The fog is like a cage without a key”.

Many, many lawyers go into a mode of survival waiting for a depression to end.  To me, the degree to which such a depression can create catastrophe in our lives as lawyers seems driven by the episode’s severity:  is it a tropical depression or a full blown hurricane?

If it a low to medium grade depression, tools like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (“CBT”) are very helpful.  With CBT, we work in therapy to replace destructive, depressing, negative self-talk with positive, healthy and realistic self-talk.  The efficacy of this approach has been studied and documented using PET scans of the human brain.  Such scans show that an area in the frontal cortex (the thinking part of our brain) is hyperactive in depressives before CBT and then calmed down after successful CBT treatment.  This same area of the brain is activated when people do self-referencing [relating external events, particularly negative ones, to the self] and depressives do too much of this.  They spin around in a cycle of negative thoughts and try to use the cerebral cortex to snap out of their depression.  With CBT, they learn to decrease their self-reference to the things that are negative.  It’s a form of rehabilitation of the cortex where depressives learn to turn the volume down.

This is a critical skill for lawyers to develop.  According to psychologist, Martin Seligman, author of the best-selling book, “Authentic Happiness,”  lawyers are pessimists.  They develop thinking habits which see problems as permanent and intractable.  They also feel an overdeveloped sense of ownership or responsibility for such problems.  Optimists, on the contrary, see problems as temporary, solveable and not necessarily their “fault”.  The important point here is that optimism is a skill that can be developed and practiced. Read Seligman’s chapter, “Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?”

If it is a deeper depressive episode, more like a trough of despair, CBT won’t work very well.  During such an episode, there is the sense that it’s never going to end.  Yet, this is the distorted voice of depression talking because for the majority of people with depression, IT DOES END.  The trick is to learn how best to weather the storm.

I find that when I am in a deeper depression, I need to go outside my mind and get into my body.  Consistently, the things that helped me the most were the following:

1.   It’s virtually impossible to feel depressed while exercising and even for a good period of time thereafter.  The problem, as most of us know, is getting to the gym or the park.  Behavioral prompts can help.  Always have your gym gear in your car.  Also, be realistic.  Remember that it takes at least 21 days to form a habit.  So, those first 21 days won’t be the easiest ones.  Tell your family and friends about the importance of exercise to you and have them support and remind you about this on a daily basis.

2.   Cut off any unnecessary negative input in your life during these times.  Don’t listen to any sad music, watch violent T.V. shows or read somber books.  This isn’t a forever type of deal.  Think of it more as a “timeout”.  Some people stop reading the newspaper during an episode as well.  Also, the time you’re not doing these activities gives you the time that you’ll need to exercise.

3.   See a massage therapist.  Touch has a powerful effect on the human body and is known to cause the release of endorphins (the feel-good chemicals).  It doesn’t involve any thinking on your part.  For busy lawyers, it’s a time to relax and receive something positive for the day.

Remember to be kind to yourself today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In Praise of Kindness

This week, I was privileged to receive the Special Service Award from the Erie County Bar Association for my work in assisting lawyers with depression.  It was a particularly emotional night for me.  You see, my 81 year old mother was in the audience.  She’s in very poor health and it was difficult for her to walk to our table at the event.  My father died 30 years ago.  So mom has been my only parent since I was 18 years old.

Each of the award recipients were asked to keep there remarks short.  Accordingly, I will try to keep this blog short.  I thanked the bar and many others for their love and support. First and foremost, my wife, Kelsey. No man could ask for a more beautiful and loving partner.  Then I said:

“Last but not least, I want to thank my mother who is here tonight.  She taught me one of life’s most important lessions:  kindness counts.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the best selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, said that when he was a young man, he admired people who were cunning.  But as he grew older and wiser, he admired people who were kind.  See this great clip of him.

I told the audience the whopping statistics; about how major depression afflicts 350 billion people in our world.  Forty million people in our own country suffer from it.  It is the leading cause of disability worldwide and costs the U.S. economy 70 billion dollars a year in lost productivity. 

But, as Helen Keller once said, “Life is full of suffering, but it’s also full of the overcoming of it.”

To me, being of service to others has helped me cope with my own depression.  It has given me more than I have ever given.  Giving to other appeals to what is best in people.  To what Abraham Lincoln called, “the better angels of our nature.”

My role model for service is Mother Teresa.  She used to carry around “business” cards that she handed out to people.  On the front, was her contact information.  On the back, read a beautiful prayer she had written.

The fruit of silence is PRAYER

The fruit of prayer is FAITH

The fruit of faith is LOVE

The fruit of service is love is SERVICE

The fruit of service is PEACE.

I wish all of you the peace that comes from loving service.

A Lawyer’s Heart

I’ve felt plenty of anger over my twenty years as a litigator.  Sometimes, and thank God they were few and far between, I would blow up at opposing counsel or a client.  More often, my anger would sometimes simmer just below the surface.  This is an all too common reality for today’s lawyer.  “By definition, the adversarial system is conflict-ridden, and conflict creates certain types of emotions like anger, guilt and fear, which causes stress, says Amiram Elwork, Ph.D. author of the book, Stress Management for Lawyers

According to Chicago litigator, Shawn Wood, the “nature of civil litigation involves two lawyers (often Type A personalities) squaring off against one another under circumstances where there will be a winner and a loser, and part of each lawyers job will be to capitalize on any possible error in judgment that the other side makes.”  I really don’t buy into this completely.  Many lawyers that I know aren’t “Type A” personalities.  They are usually hard working and successful.  But, it can take a tremendous toll on their mental and physical health.  They struggle with the simmering variety of anger.

Anger turned outward is hostility.  Such hostility can express itself in a number of ways for lawyers.  Andy Benjamin, Ph.D., both a lawyer and psychologist who treats lawyers with stress, anxiety and depression, describes hostility as an “array” of the following thoughts and behaviors: 

  • Holding persistent negative, hostile, or cynical thoughts during relationship interactions;
  • Chronic impatience;
  • Frequent irritability
  • Disconnecting from others due to an empathetic deficit (for example, being rigid in relationship interactions);
  • Suffering continual fatigue.

You could say most people have these problems in our hectic, stressful world.  “But lawyers are particularly susceptible to stress-related illnesses because of the unique interplay of the legal profession and lawyer personality” says the ABA Journal.  A study that followed University of North Carolina law students as lawyers for 30 years suggested that those with significantly elevated levels of hostility were more likely to have died prematurely from cardiovascular disease.

According to Jesse Stewart, assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University, depression and hostility commonly occur together.  When a person is both depressed and hostile, the traits interact in a complex way to elevate inflammatory proteins in the body.  The combination of hostility plus depression appears to be as dangerous a risk factor for heart disease as high blood pressure or even smoking.

Edward C. Suarez, Ph.D., of Duke University, says a recent study, “. . . suggests the possibility that men who are . . . hostile and exhibit depressive symptoms, even in the mild to moderate range, are at heightened risk for cardiac events.”  This is so because of the release of adrenaline during times of stress.  According to Dr. Cleaves M. Bennet, clinical professor of medicine at UCLA Medical Center,  “Adrenaline is the growth hormone for the heart muscle.  On the one hand, its good to have a big, strong heart, but at the same time that the heart is getting bigger and stronger, the arteries are narrowing to protect the tissue.”

Given the clear connection between lawyer hostility, depression and the heightened risk for a cardiac event, what can lawyers do about it?

First and foremost, they need to educate themselves about the connection between depression, hostility and heart disease. Most people don’t see the correlation. But, there’s no denying the science which makes the links. 

Second, because hostility creates stress in the body (i.e. the release of adrenaline and cortisol when the body goes into the fight or flight mode), it’s critical to discharge the stress through some form of exercise.  When I go through a good workout after a confrontational day, it’s as if I am wiping the slate clean.  I am discharging the stress that is causing so much trouble in my body and bringing it back into some kind of balance.  Exercise is really just a formalized form of the flight response to stress.  Our bodies want to step on the gas.  Listen to your body and let it run.

Third, you need to find out where your hostility is coming from.  Is it from problems in your personal life that you bring into your daily life as a lawyer?  If so, these need to be met and addressed.  Or, is it the other way around?  Is it the daily grind and confrontation at the office that you bring home?  It’s important to figure this out.  If opposing counsel is a jerk and elicits a hostile reaction from you, it might be time to learn (and, yes, it is a skill you can learn) different ways of being assertive without harming your heart and increasing your risk for depression.  If it is problems at home, identify them and if need be, go for counseling.

Fourth, learn to tell the difference between being assertive and being aggressive. For further reading on this topic, check out this article “Are you Assertive – or Aggressive?” and the article “Assertive, Not Aggressive.”  To help evaluate your own levels of perceived stress and associated health risks, visit the University at Pittsburgh Center’s Healthy Lifestyle Program Web site.

Creating a Self-Care Toolkit

I talked with a wonderful woman from halfway across the country this morning about her ongoing battle with depression.  At one point, she asked me so tenderly, “Am I ever going to get better?” My unwavering response was “Yes”. Maybe I had no right to say this. After all, I’m not an expert. But I have talked with hundreds of lawyers across the country who have shared their depression stories with me. Many of them have recovered or are on their way. The woman also shared with me that she was in therapy and taking antidepressants, but was still having a lot of problems with depression. I offered her a little hard won advice which I will share here.

When we think about recovery, we need to envision a Self-Care Toolkit. What’s that? It’s behaviors that you are going to do that are healthy and offer you relief and hope. Certainly, seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist are self-caring acts. But, there is a lot more that we can do to help ourselves. I call them the pillars of recovery. Here are a few that I shared with my friend on the phone today:

1.    Join a support group for depressed people. Ask your psychologist or psychiatrist if they know of one. If not, maybe they will start one that you can participate in. Alternatively, contact the Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance. It’s a national organization dedicated to helping people just like you. Here is the link to finding a support group in your area. Another idea is to contact a Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) in your State or community. These programs are confidential and are there to help lawyers with problems including depression. They may be able to help you find a lawyers support group in your community. Here is the link to find a LAP in your state. Please note that a support group is not the same thing as group therapy. Here is a great article from the Mayo Clinic about the difference between the two and the benefits of joining a group. One of the biggest problems is the loneliness that we as people with depression experience.  We often think to themselves, “No one understands my pain”. We compound this loneliness by isolating themselves from others. The act of joining a support group is a much healthier choice than walling ourselves off.

2.    Start a journal. Depression often causes us to bottle up our emotions or feel like we just can’t sort them out. In one study , conducted by The University of New England, police officers spent 15 minutes at the end of their shift writing in a journal about stressful events and feelings that had occurred during the shift. In just four days the officers experienced a 28% reduction in stress, anxiety and depression. “Keeping a journal is a good way to start coping with depression”, says Jessie Gruman, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of Health in Washington. “It’s not aggressive, it’s something you can do by yourself, and it gives you the chance to see your feelings in black and white and then make plans to do something about them.”

3.     Help your spouse/partner to help you.  Many spouses/partners who love people struggling with depression don’t know what to say or do. Sometimes, although well intentioned, they say something that only makes you feel worse and more alone. What a spouse/partner needs to do is get educated. I have recommend reading the book, When Someone You Love Is Depressed: How to Help Your Loved One Without Losing Yourself, by Laura Epstein Rosen, Ph.D. It’s important for your partner to be on the same page because depression affects the whole family.  I recommend that you buy the book for your spouse as a gift. It lets them know that you care and realize that they struggle with how to help.  Read this article from Psychology Today about how families often do better at recognizing depression than patients. Need online help? Wonderful resources can be found at the Families for Depression Awareness website at www.familyaware.org.

More later. For now, be well.

Managing Your Depressive Symptoms Is Not Enough

If you have been living with depression long enough, you will inevitably face the question of whether managing your depression is enough. Many lawyers dealing with depression (and there are 200,000 in America) are struggling to get rid of their symptoms of depression. I understand the value and necessity of this all too well. But once the symptoms seem manageable, what next?

In his book, What Happy People Know, psychologist, Dan Baker, offers his criticisms of much of modern day psychology: “Clinical psychology – the treatment in a clinical setting of people with mental disorders – was begun with great fanfare as an adjunct to modern medicine in the late 1800s. It was patterned after the conventional medical model of fighting pathology. Clinical psychology was based on the assumption that most people are mentally healthy – and happy- but some people contract mental pathologies that conform to neat diagnostic compartments, and require standardized treatments. The only problem is that it doesn’t work very well. It fails approximately two-thirds of the time.” As I write, let it be known that I attend therapy twice per month!

There is a great debate worldwide about the causes of depression. Most agree that it is a complex condition related to a combination of factors both genetic and environmental. While there is value in thinking about depression as a disease of sorts – say on par with diabetes or heart disease – there is a real danger to as well. That’s because it isn’t just a “disease;” it’s also a psychological and spiritual malady. If those aspects aren’t addressed, those who suffer from it may never taste the wonder and joy of life. They are left with the discontent of a life where they are only managing their depressive symptoms. Don’t we have the right to expect more?

Dr. Baker central point is that the approach of clinical psychology was not designed to help people find happiness. “It assumed that if mental illness were cured, happiness would naturally follow, as the normal human condition. But that doesn’t happen for the vast majority of people.” He continues, “I believe that even when people do not have diagnosable psychological illness, they still cannot be considered psychologically healthy unless they are happy. The absence of disease is not the same as health, just as the absence of poverty is not the same as wealth.” For a further exploration of the issue of happiness, see the interesting article in The Atlantic Magazine, “What Makes Us Happy” by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Interesting, Mr. Shenk is the author of Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.

I believe Dr. Baker’s point is well taken. Yes, it is critically important to treat the symptoms of clinical depression. But we must stop and pause: is that enough? If it is, I can’t help but feel as though we have allowed ourselves to be victims on some level. Depression then has the danger of defining our identities as people. We are more than that. We must aspire to live a fuller life with times of joy, happiness and a sense of being alive. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Let us endeavor to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”

Warping Through Our Days

As a child, I would sit in the back seat of my parent’s old car with my dog, Sherman.  As the car wound through the countryside where we lived, Sherman and I would stick our heads out the window during the summer as the wind whipped through our hair.  There was such simple joy in this experience of speed, of motion.  Of being carried through carefree space.

When we think of the speed of our lives as lawyers we cringe, don’t we?  Our lives aren’t just lived in the fast lane, they’re lived at warp speed.  At the periphery of our vision, we see only problems and other stressors.  Any hope of joy gets sucked right out of our days like the grains of sand slipping through the narrow gap in a hour glass.

We hear so much talk of “time management”; of the next simple ten things we all need to get our lives together; to be a successful end product.  Such talk has its place, but it seems that we never catch up with ourselves.  We are warping onto the next thing on our “TO DO LIST”.

In his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, poet and corporate trainer, David Whyte, uses the metaphor of a sea voyage to depict the journey through the world of work.  He views work not only as a means of support, but as a means for interacting with the world and developing self-expression and identity. This is not a self-help book of step-by-step pragmatism, but rather how to forge one’s relationship with time and daily ritual.  In one passage, he speaks about his friendship with Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindlrast.  David is speaking to him about his stressed out life.  Brother David tells him that the antidote to his exhaustion is not rest, but “wholeheartedness.” See this interesting clip on David giving a talk.

Put aside the appointment book for today. Turn off the ignition switch of your life for a bit.  In his book, David notes that the poet Keats believed that truly great people have the ability to accept that not everything can be resolved, that they can thrive on uncertainty.  As lawyers, it is so easy for us to emotionally shut down when faced with the grind of uncertainty.  Maybe we have lived lives like this for years; we have closed our hearts to our own hearts.  Yet, there may come a turning point in our lives when we are ready.  When we are ready to listen to what the poet Keats called “the holiness of the hearts affections.”  Part of David’s poem, The Opening of Eyes, reads:

“It is the opening of eyes long closed. It is the vision of far off things seen for the silence they hold. It is the heart after years of secret conversing speaking out loud in the clean air”.

 Listen to that heart within you today.  Let it speak out loud into the air of your day.

Atticus Finch

I grew up in a small town.  My four siblings and I lived with our folks in an old farmhouse atop a hill.  Summers were simply magical.  I would play in the woods by day and at night lay with my friends on our dead end road and gaze up at the stars.  The stored heat from the day radiated up from the road cradling my back. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up.  But, in some way, I wanted to be the beauty I saw in those skies years ago.

When I was in the seventh grade, my teacher gave me a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  For those of you not familiar with the book, it’s a tale about a noble lawyer, Atticus Finch, who is asked by a judge to defend a wrongly accused black man in small southern town in 1936.

In the preface to the book, there’s a quote from the eighteenth century British author, Charles Lamb: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.”

Why would Harper Lee choose this quote to begin her novel?  Charles Lamb was never a lawyer, but his father was.  Interestingly, Charles also battled depression (then called melancholy) for much of his life and was institutionalized a few times.  We can only wonder what Charles thought when he saw his father come home after a long day at work.  Why, as an adult, would he write such a poignant lament?

Children are full of hope and innocence. Atticus’ two children, Jem and Scout, believe that justice and fairness will prevail and the accused, Tom Robinson, will be found innocent.  But Atticus knows better.  He sees only too well the racism, hatred, and the hardness of men’s hearts in his town.  Atticus could fall prey to cynicism, but he doesn’t.  He rises to the occasion not because he believes he can win, but because of who he is.  He is a person of integrity.  He isn’t one person at his law office and another person at home.  He defends Tom because it is the right thing to do.

In the movie, Atticus is seen sitting on his porch at night thinking.  He takes the time to reflect on his day.  He isn’t texting on his Blackberry or watching television to try to drown out this inner emptiness.  Many lawyers are driven perfectionists.  In her article, Your Legal Writes:  From Atticus Finch to Harry Potter, writer Kathryn E. Brown quotes legal consultant, Pat Sullivan: “I’ve been in firms where the drive for perfection turned into insanity.  Lawyers look for every possible facet, every possible angle, every possible document, etc. The result is they are overwhelmed with facts and tasks, so much so that there is no time for reflection or thought about a case.”

Watching Atticus, there is a sense of his simple humanity and harmony between his values and his actions as a lawyer.  As lawyers, it’s important not to just think about the pragmatic concerns involving our depression (e.g. whether we took our medication or exercised today); it’s just as important to think about the existential ones:  Who am I really?  Am I leading a life of integrity?  Are my actions as a lawyer in accord with my deeply held inner values?

I have talked to hundred of lawyers across the country and I can tell you this:  their depression is sometimes rooted in a sense of meaninglessness and not liking what they have become.  Of working for just a paycheck (sometimes very large ones) and not for an enriching life that is meaningful to them; of living a life not full of integrity. Lawyers need to take time to create a space of silence where they can reflect on their lives; where the content of their day isn’t measured by its pace, but by its meaning.

As the great writer Studs Terkel once wrote, “Work is about a daily search for meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short for a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying.”

Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?

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“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

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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

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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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