The Elephant in the Room at Law Firms? Lawyer Depression

I was 40 years old when depression first struck.

I was a trial lawyer and managing partner at my firm. From the outside, I was successful: a high-paying career, interesting work, a great family, and lots of friends.

From the inside, however, something was terribly wrong.

There was a deep sadness that wouldn’t go away. Before this time, I had gone to therapists for stress-related issues. Therapy always worked. After a few months talking things through, I always felt better and stopped going.

But this time, it was different. Things didn’t get better.

Procrastination, Depression and the Myth of Multitasking

Most people who are depressed have a hard time being productive. Work—and here I mean everything from paid employment to child-rearing and housekeeping to the kinds of “work” we assign ourselves, like reading a good book or planting a garden—is a chore to the depressed. It drains us, leaves us feeling as bad as before, physically worn out and emotionally depleted, instead of proud of ourselves and invigorated. Other people with depression seem to work very hard all the time, but there is little payoff for their efforts.  As with so much of depression, there is a real chicken-or-egg question—is work so difficult because we’re depressed, or are we depressed in part because we can’t accomplish anything? And as with so many chicken-or-egg situations, we face a false dichotomy: the truth is, poor work habits and depression reinforce each other.

Depressed people tend to be great procrastinators. Procrastination means putting off for a later time what “should” be done now. The “should” may come from without, as with the teenager who dawdles over homework, or from within, as with me planting my garden. When it comes from without, it’s easy to see the rebelliousness that procrastination expresses. When it comes from within, it’s hard to see immediately what purpose procrastination serves—but it may serve many.

False Assumptions

Procrastinators have some big false assumptions about how work works. They assume that really productive people are always in a positive, energetic frame of mind that lets them jump right into piles of paper and quickly do what needs to be done, only emerging when the task is accomplished. On the contrary, motivation follows action instead of the other way around. When we make ourselves face the task ahead of us, it usually isn’t as bad as we think, and we begin to feel good about the progress we start making. Work comes first, and then comes the positive frame of mind.

Closely allied to this misunderstanding about motivation is the idea that things should be easy. Depressed people assume that people who are good at work skills always feel confident and easily attain their goals; because they themselves don’t feel this way, they assume that they will never be successful. But again, most people who are really successful assume that there are going to be hard times, frustrations, and setbacks along the way. Knowing this in advance, they don’t get thrown for a loop and descend into self-blame whenever there’s a problem.  If we wait until we feel completely prepared and feeling really motivated, we’ll spend a lot of our lives waiting.  See my page on developing greater willpower.

Protecting Self-Esteem With Procrastination

Procrastination can also help protect the depressed person’s precarious self-esteem. We can always tell ourselves we would have done it better if. . .. The paradigm is the college term paper rushed together in a furious all-nighter. The student protects himself from the risk of exposing his best work by never having the time to do it right. This allows him to protect his fantasied sense of himself as special and uniquely gifted.  Procrastination is also a result of the depressed person’s tendency toward perfectionism, a crippling problem.  Research has shown that the more perfectionistic a depressed person is, the worse his chances of recovery.  Trying so hard to make every single little piece of a project perfect, we doom ourselves to disappointment and frustration.

Chaining

There is a simple, useful process psychologists call chaining or making one event depend on another event’s being accomplished first. You can make chains that help you get a lot of work done. I want to go play Tomb Raider on my computer, but I’m going to let that be my reward for first going through the outdated magazines. As I go through the pile, I find there’s one I really must renew my subscription to. Now I have to do that as well before I play Tomb Raider. Renewing that subscription reminds me that I have a stack of unpaid bills nagging at me. Maybe I can’t get the bills all paid, but I can take twenty minutes to get them organized and make a commitment to myself to pay them tomorrow. Now I can go play my computer game feeling a little less overwhelmed by events and a little more deserving of some time to goof off.  As you get used to this practice, your chains can get longer and longer without getting burdensome.

Finally, there’s also the Irish way of overcoming procrastination.  Confronted with a wall too high to climb, the Irishman throws his hat over it.  Now he must find a way over the wall.  If I have to paint a room, I’ll likely get the paint and start the first coat as soon as I can, disrupting the whole household in the process.  That way I’m fully committed and have to finish quickly.

Gluing Yourself to Your Seat

Controlling procrastination is more like controlling eating or exercise than smoking or drinking; it’s impossible to never procrastinate.  For one thing, often it’s not clear which of two is the most important activity.  Study for the exam right now, or eat dinner and then study?  Or eat dinner, take out the garbage, walk the dog, call a friend, check Facebook, and then study?  But procrastination is a habit that can gradually be replaced by the habit of not putting things off.

Rita Emmett, in The Procrastinator’s Handbook, gives us Emmett’s Law:  “The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself.”  Here’s O’Connor’s corollary:  “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you finally get down to work.”  So my first advice for overcoming procrastination is to glue your seat to the chair, ignore distractions, and work for five minutes.  Then you can take a short break if you feel it’s necessary, but put in another five minutes after your break.  The procrastinating impulse in your mindless self won’t respond to logical argument, but it may respond to a narrowing of focus.  You’ll get in a groove, start feeling productive, and the impulse to procrastinate further will dwindle.  If it doesn’t work today, try again tomorrow.

One Task At a Time

A second piece of advice:  while you’re sitting glued to your chair, you’re not allowed to do anything other than the task you’re there for, no matter what attractive distraction might come to mind.  You don’t have to work on your primary task, but you can’t do anything else.  This can be torture, but it’s great mental discipline.  You’ll quickly see how easily distracted you are, but you’re forced to develop the willpower to withstand temptation.  Eventually, you’ll get something constructive done.

Hold yourself to pre-commitments.  No television (Internet, email) until I’ve worked for a half hour.  If I get X done, I’ll reward myself with pizza tonight; otherwise, it’s peanut butter.  Be sure to keep these commitments reasonable and don’t set yourself up to fail.  If you practice and get consistent at this, you can start to up the ante.

Reward Yourself

Procrastinators don’t reward themselves for finishing.  A drink with friends, a special dessert—things that normal people might do to celebrate an accomplishment—these things don’t occur to procrastinators (partly because they’re never satisfied with their results).  But it’s important to practice these rituals because, in our minds, the pleasure that comes with the reward comes to be associated with doing a job well.  In this way, work itself becomes more satisfying.

The Stress of a Mess

Clutter is highly associated with procrastination.  Each of those extraneous items on your desk, workspace, or computer desktop is a distraction, a reminder of something else to do.  Mental clutter works the same way; if you have a set of nagging chores, just making a list will help you focus on the present.  The list will contain the nagging.  Every time we are distracted, we lose efficiency.  You can reduce your procrastination greatly by eliminating distracting cues.

Unplugging

Of course, personal computers and wireless communication have created many more temptations to procrastinate—games, Facebook updates, checking on the news.   Tweets, cell phone calls, and instant messages constantly break our concentration.  If we really want to focus on something, we have to remove temptation and prevent interruptions.  If you work on your computer, turn off your Internet browser and make it difficult to get back on.  Put the phone on silent.  Multitasking is a myth.

By Richard O’Connor, Ph.D.  Dr. O’Connor is the author of Undoing Depression, Undoing Perpetual Stress, and Happy at Last. For fourteen years he was executive director of the Northwest Center for Family Service and Mental Health, a nonprofit mental health clinic, where he oversaw the work of twenty mental health professionals in treating almost a thousand patients per year. He is a practicing psychotherapist with offices in Connecticut and New York and lives in Lakeville, Connecticut.

Further Reading:

Get It Done When You’re Depressed – great book!

“Three Strategies For Getting Things Done When Depressed”Psycentral website

“Ten Ways To Get Things Done Despite Depression” – Everyday Health website

Lawyers, Don’t Let Perfectionism Ruin Your Health

Duke University Law grad, Jennifer Alvey explores why lawyers have such poor mental and physical health: “Part of the answer lies in lawyers’ predisposition toward perfectionism. I often encounter lawyers who can only envision doing something if they can be all in. Doing something less-than-perfectly is seen as failure. When it comes to exercise and diet, this kind of thinking can set anyone up for failure because they will try to make big, grand changes at once, be unable to sustain them, and quickly quit in disgust.”  Read the rest of her Blog

Perfectionism and Depression: Nobody’s Perfect

We often mix-up a drive to excel and perfectionism; they’re not the same thing. A drive to be your very best can leads to a sense of self-satisfaction and self-esteem. It feels good to give it all we got. Perfectionism? It’s a horse of a different color. People who feel driven in this direction tend to be more motivated by external forces – such as the desire to please others rather than themselves. Common and recurring thoughts of perfectionists include:

  • Anything short of excellent is terrible
  • I should be able to do/solve this quickly/easily
  • I am best handling this myself
  • I must find the one right answer
  • Errors, failure, and mistakes are unacceptable
  • I have to do it all at once

One depression/perfectionist suffer writes:

My name’s Paul and I am a recovering perfectionist.

I am also recovering from depression. The two are connected.

I’d been trying to do too much, too well, trying to please too many people, expecting too much of myself for too long, putting too much pressure on myself, creating too much stress. That’s a lot of ‘too muches’ for one person. My self-esteem took a battering, I stopped looking forward to anything and I felt like I was useless and hopeless.”

Psychologist Dr. Gordon Flett has studied perfectionists and found that they set excessively high personal standards for themselves and others then harshly evaluate their performance on these benchmarks. Often, perfectionists believe it’s their parents, bosses, or spouses who expect them to be perfect. They believe that such people will value them only if they’re perfect. The constant demand to appear as if they have it all tougher is draining.

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Others tend to see them as harsh and unforgiving – rigid and unkind – though the truth on the inside is they are vulnerable people who lack resilience. Flett fund that physicians, lawyers, and architects, whose occupations demand precision, are at higher risk for perfectionism, depression and suicide.

Causes of perfectionism run from parenting to a genetic link, but whatever it’s origins, try these fixes:

Separate self-worth from the requirement to do things perfectly.

Dr. Nicholas Jenner writes: Perfectionism is addressable by using and applying cognitive tools. Positive change can be had when thinking is changed and self worth is separated from the requirement to do things perfectly. If you constantly hear your inner critic berating you for not getting or doing that extra 20%, you have noticed your perfectionist beliefs. Discrediting and disputing these values and finding realistic evidence to prove them wrong is a key part of recovery. As humans, we are inherently imperfect. We have the ability to fail without ever being a failure. We sometimes just need to think it and believe it.

Put people first.

Before tasks and “stuff,” put your heart into connecting with the people you love.

Come out as a human being.

Authenticity, although messy, is required for the pleasure of love, joy, fun and overall happiness.

Pay attention to your own signs of trouble.

Perfectionists get more anxious and rigid when they are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Use prevention strategies to manage this tendency.

Let go of high expectations. Try to accept people as they are. We are all unique and flawed as human beings.

The great songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen once wrote and sang, “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light get’s in.”

We’re cracked open when stress, anxiety and depression become just too painful and perhaps begin to see this eternal truth about others and ourselves:

Nobody is perfect.

 

Judges Struggling With Depression: More Common Than You Think

I’ve written a lot on stress, anxiety and depression in the legal profession, but not about the judiciary. There has been much commentary, research and Law Journal articles about what ails law students and attorneys — but not about judges.

I guess that’s not surprising.  In my work, I have spoken with scores of judges from all over the country.  It’s a noble, important calling in life.  But it’s also very stressful, demanding and . . . lonely.

Isolation, Loneliness & the Judiciary

In an article for Judicature magazine, psychiatrist Isaiah Zimmerman culled through twenty years of notes he accumulated from treating state and federal judges.  Here are the voices of the judges in their own words: 

“Before becoming a judge, I had no idea or warning, of how isolating it would be.”

“Except for those very close, old friends, you cannot relax socially.”

“Judging is the most isolating and lonely of callings.”

“The isolation is gradual.  Most of your friends are lawyers, and you can’t carry on with    them as before.”

“When you become a judge, you lose your first name!”

“It was the isolation that I was not prepared for.”

“After all these years on the bench, the isolation is my major disappointment.”

“The Chief Judge warned me: ‘You’re entering a monastery when you join this circuit.’”

“I live and work in a space capsule – alone with stacks of paper.”

“Your circle of friends certainly becomes smaller.”

“Once you get on the appellate bench, you become anonymous.”

These weren’t isolated comments or small pockets of pedestrian sadness.  Dr. Zimmerman notes that about 70% of the judges he interviewed came up with these observations on their own.

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There are several things that contribute to a sense of judicial loneliness.  The Code of Judicial Conduct imposes restrictions on judicial behavior both in and out of the courtroom.  Judges must avoid the appearance of impropriety and thus must be cautious and keep an appropriate distance and bearing at social and bar events. There are good reasons to have these restrictions, but if a judge isn’t careful to live a balanced life, they can help trigger a profound sense of lonesomeness.

Loneliness isn’t just emotionally painful; it’s also dangerous to your health on multiple levels.  According to an article by psychologist, Hara Estroff Marano, writes:

“Evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships are not met, we fall apart mentally and even physically. There are effects on the brain and on the body. Some effects work subtly, through the exposure of multiple body systems to excess amounts of stress hormones. Yet the effects are distinct enough to be measured over time, so that unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining learning and memory.”

Given the pressures and isolation of the job, judges need to recognize the dangers associated with loneliness: unhappiness, discontent, health problems and perhaps . . . depression.

Judges and Depression

Judges are supposed to be problem solvers in black robes; not human beings with psychological problems of their own.

Given the position that judges occupy in our society, the stigma around disclosure to others –and perhaps getting treatment for clinical depression — is much, much greater.

One psychiatrist I know who treats judges told me that judges request very early or very late weekday or weekend appointments.  Moreover, they ask not to be scheduled before or after another lawyer or judge and pay in cash so as not to attract attention or leave a paper trail.

For the first ten years of my career, much of my practice was spent litigating cases in state and federal courts in New York City.  One of my best friends from those days is now a judge.  When I decided to go public with my depression eight years ago by writing an article for Trial magazine, my friend called me for dinner to catch up on things.  He wanted to know how I was feeling and expressed concern about my plans to go public about my depression.

“Dan, why can’t you write the article anonymously,” my friend said.  “But that’s the problem, isn’t it?” I replied. “Why should I have to write such an article anonymously? What do I have to be ashamed of?  Depression is an illness no different than diabetes or heart disease.  Would I write an article about those illnesses . . . anonymously?”

We kept in contact with dinners and phone calls over the next eight years, but over time our conversations centered less on my depression and well-being and more on his.  You see, my friend the judge disclosed to me that he was suffering from depression and had tried to commit suicide some years before.

I think he felt he could trust me.  Moreover, I think my disclosure gave him implicit permission to talk about his pain and struggles; a hurt only his therapist and wife knew of.  He spoke of the loneliness of his job and how he missed the collegiality of his old large firm.  But, he said that on the balance, he’d rather be a judge and didn’t regret his change in vocation; a move from the courtroom to the chamber.  He liked his job, enjoyed the intellectual challenge and the chance to do justice.

The statistics on lawyer depression are deeply troubling.  They suffer from depression at a rate twice that (20%) of the general population.  As such, about 200,000 of this nation’s 1 million lawyers are struggling with depression right now.  No studies have been done on judicial depression.

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There are 1,774 federal level judges in the U.S. Were you to plug in the 20% depression rate we see with attorneys to the number of judges; approximately 350 judges across America are suffering from depression. Even though there haven’t been any studies of judicial depression, why would we expect the 20% rate to be any different than that found with attorneys?

I couldn’t find any statistics on how many state judges there are in the U.S.  New York State has 1,250.  Were you to plug in the 20% depression rate we see with attorneys to the number of these judges, approximately 250 of the Empire State’s judiciary are suffering from depression.

This isn’t sadness or burnout, but true clinical depression.  Sometimes, we confuse being down in the dumps with depression. They’re really not the same thing – not even close. Here’s how psychologist Richard O’Connor, best-selling author of the book Undoing Depression, distinguishes it:

“Everyone knows 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 clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.”

Nobody’s Perfect

Perfectionism is also an indicator for depression.  In his article Even Judges Get the Blues, Judge Robert L. Childers writes:

“Because of the weight of public expectation, judges generally feel that they should be perfect.  Not only do they feel that they should be fair, impartial, and make the right decision 100 percent of the time, but the public expects this of judges as well, as do the lawyers who practice before them.  This can create undo pressure for judges and, consciously or unconsciously, keep judges from admitting or recognizing the signs of debilitating disease.”

An article from the ABA JournalPerfectionism, Psychic Battering’ Among Reasons for Lawyer Depression, states: “Lawyers [and judges] are taught to aim for perfection, to be aggressive and to be emotionally detached. They ‘intellectualize, rationalize and displace problems on others’ . . .. They don’t take direction particularly well. They tend to have to have fairly elaborate denial mechanisms. And they tend to challenge anything they’re told.”  In another article from the ABA Journal, it notes that when combined with depression, perfectionism makes it harder for a person to seek help.  And in the worst case scenario, leads to suicide.

Loneliness & Depression

Depression is a multifaceted illness that has several different causes – some genetic, some physical and some emotional.  In the depths of my depression, I felt very alone – like I was trapped at the bottom of a dark well.

Many with depression isolate themselves because it’s painful to be around others.  I would hang out at Starbucks and do my work.  I didn’t want others I knew to engage me; I didn’t want others to see the pain I was desperately struggling with.

I’ve found that loneliness and depression often travel the same road.  This creates a lot of problems because the two can feed off one another.

According to psychologist Dr. Reena Sommer:

“Depression is a problem that often accompanies loneliness. In many cases, depressive symptoms such as withdrawal, anxiety, lack of motivation and sadness mimic and mask the symptoms of loneliness. In these cases, people are often treated for depression without considering the possibility that loneliness may be a contributing and sustaining factor in their condition.”

Generally, the debilitating symptoms of depression can usually be managed with antidepressant medication. But when the underlying loneliness is ignored or overlooked, the depressive-like symptoms will probably continue. Unless the reasons for loneliness and depression are separated out, it can easily turn into a ‘chicken and egg’ situation where depression leads to loneliness, and loneliness leads to depression.”

Turning It Around

While depression might not be our fault, it is our responsibility to get better.  We need to start behaving and thinking in constructive ways.  Here’s some food for thought for those on the bench:

  1. Get help.  You can’t handle this by yourself.  It is a problem bigger than any individual person.  The ABA’s Commision on Lawyer Assistance Programs created a Judicial Assistance Initiative.  Reach out to them and they can get you pointed in the right direction.
  2. You may have to take antidepressant medication to help you.  That’s okay.  You may have a chemical imbalance that you need to address.  For many, psychotherapy alone won’t help until they quieted down their somatic complaints — e.g. fatigue from sleep problems – so that they can have the energy and insight to work on their problems.
  3. Whether you need medication or not, you will need to confront your negative thinking with a therapist.  A lot of research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy is a particularly effective form of treatment for depression.  Interview a couple therapists before you settle on one.
  4. Exercise. The value of exercise is widely known: It’s simply good for everybody. For a person with depression, it becomes not just about a healthy habit, but a critical behavior and habit – they absolutely need to work out.  In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey devotes a chapter to the importance of exercise in alleviating depression.  Please check this book out.
  5. If you have a spiritual practice, do it.  If you don’t, think about starting one.  This could be anything from a formal meditation practice, going to Mass, or walking the woods.  A lot of research suggests that people who have a spiritual practice do better with depression recovery.  If you believe in God or a higher power (I am Catholic), you can avail yourself of help and support from Someone who is bigger than your depression.  If you do not believe in God, maybe you believe in some other form of spirituality you can tap into.  Spiritual growth and development, in my opinion, are very important pillars of recovery. Two books from my tradition include Seeing beyond Depression by Father Jean Vanier and Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach by Sister Kathryn James Hermes.
  6. Get educated. Read some good books on the topic. As part of your education, learn about the powerful connection between stress, anxiety and depression.  On this subject, I recommend Dr. Richard O’Connor’s Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness. Dr. O’Connor suggests that depression is really about stress that has gone on too long. The constant hammering away of stress hormones on the brain changes its neurochemistry.  This can and often does result in anxiety disorders and/or depression.
  7. Build pleasure into your schedule.  Judges, like all those in the legal profession, are busy and have the “I will get to it later” mentally – especially when it comes to things that are healthy pleasures.  We have to jettison this approach to how we live our days.  We must begin to take time – now – to enjoy pleasurable things and people.  A hallmark of depression is the inability to feel happiness or joy.  We need to create the space where we can experience and savor good experiences and feelings.
  8. Practice mindfulness. In mindfulness meditation, we sit quietly, pay attention to our breath, and watch our thoughts float by in a stream of consciousness. Normally, we immediately react to our thoughts (e.g. “I am losing my mind with all of these deadlines”).  With mindfulness practice, we can begin – slowly – to let the thoughts and feelings float by without reacting to them.  If such an approach to depression seems far-fetched, read the best-selling book The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, for an excellent primer on how you can incorporate mindfulness into your day.
  9. Remember to be kind to yourself. It sounds so simple. I tell this to depressed lawyers and judges all the time and they usually look puzzled.  They often admit that they have rarely, if ever, thought about it and don’t know how to be kind to themselves.  I believe that it first begins with a conscious intention – “I am not going to treat myself poorly anymore.” Such a simple refrain can help us.  Depression is often built on poor mental, emotional and physical habits. We must learn to acknowledge that we are worthy of love from others and ourselves and that part of such love involves taking better care of ourselves.
  10. Spend time outside and in nature.  We humans forget that we are part of nature and the animal kingdom.  We need fresh air and sunshine.  Even more so when the darkness of winter strikes.  If you live in a part of the country with long winters, load up on vitamin D and consider using a light box to help you.

If you or a judge you know might be suffering from loneliness and/or depression, please forward this article to them.  Here’s a list of depression’s symptoms and a self-test from the Mayo Clinic.

 

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