The $tress of Success

         

We avatars of the legal system, we hired guns who ride into town and shoot up saloons, measure our success by the notches on our dusty belts: Did I win or lose?  Or, perhaps more accurately, is it: Am I a winner or a loser? There is a thrill about winning and being successful, however we define it — but also a lot of stress.

Results, bottom-line bastards that they are, can spew toxic stress into our bodies like BP oil into the Gulf.  Many lawyers struggle to shut off their inner dialogue that pings between their ears as they lay awake at night and their family sleeps:  “Will I be successful tomorrow?  Will I bill enough hours this month?” We mash ourselves up like Idaho potatoes flopping around in our beds as the minutes click away on our L.E.D. alarm clocks.

 I wrote an article for Trial Magazine about the connection between stress, anxiety and depression.  Here’s a part of that article:

 “How our bodies and brains deal with stress and anxiety hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years.  A wonderful defense mechanism, which is wired into our nervous system, is called the fight-or-flight response.  When confronted with a threat – whether real or perceived – this response kicks in and floods our bodies with the powerful hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which propel us into action.  This was an essential survival device for our ancestors who lived in the jungle and would have to flee beasts or fight foes trying to kill them.

Lawyers don’t face these types of real life-or-death threats. But they perceive life-or-death threats in their battles with opposing counsel while sitting in a deposition or sparring in the courtroom.  Our bodies respond as if they were being chased by a hungry lion.  Over time, this chronic anxiety causes the release of too many fight-or-flight hormones.  Research has shown that prolonged release of cortisol damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression: the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory and the amydala (involved in how we perceive fear).”

Living in the jungle of our profession doesn’t involve warding off wooly mammoths, but it does involve a fight-or-flight from mental constructions in our heads:  the fear of missing a court ordered deadline can create panic in our nervous system every bit as real as a tangling with a beast that tried to kill our ancestors.

Lawyers are perfectionists and overachievers who are never content to give things their just their best try.  They believe in dumping large amounts of energy into each and every project. Such extraordinary efforts are stressful on our bodies and minds.  Yet, we know all of this, don’t we?  The truth is that many lawyers have already made the calculations in their heads and are willing to take the pounding for more dollars.  We come back to our abodes at the end of our days exhausted, peak at our mutual funds statements and turn on the T.V. too tired to think about the implications of living this type of life.

Lawyer Steve Keeva, in his piece Take Care of Yourself, wrote:

 “The dominant method of legal billing can, if you let it, subvert your ability ‘to claim a full and rich life   for yourself,’ as litigator John McShane put it.  Think about it. Billing by the hour is extraordinary in the way in which it so nakedly equates money with time.  It thereby offers no incentive at all to stop working. The taskmaster par excellence can reduce grown professionals to slavish piece workers.” 

When exploring the stress of success, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that depression happens in a context, a cultural milieu and a profession’s mores.  Too often, we put everything on the individual – her depressive thinking, his genetic makeup – as if depression in a person forms and takes place in a vacuum:  if it “takes a village to raise a child;” well, it takes a culture to create conditions for depression to develop.

We are social creatures that need support from our families, institutions and society.  These structures help mitigate stress and prevent depression.  Yet,  contemporary culture has largely failed us: the breakdown in families, the betrayal of cultural and political institutions, a grimy cynicism in people, vacuous and crass entertainment unmitigated consumerism and a legal profession which endorses the value of professionalism while lawyers say that levels of incivility between lawyers is at an all time high.  It’s become more of a business than a profession and calling, it’s become more mercenary in nature where lawyers forget that they are officers of the court and not just there to do the bidding of a well paying client.

Bruce Levine, Ph.D., author of the book Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic, writes about renowned psychoanalyst and social critic Eric Fromm’s commentary on the connection between our cultural values and depression.  Here is an excerpt from book about the dangers of a comsumerism driven culture:

“Fromm argued that the increase in depression in modern industrial societies is connected to their economic systems.  Financial success in modern in modern cultural societies is associated with heightened awareness of financial self-interest, resulting in greater self-absorption, which can increase the likelihood of depression; while a lack of financial interest in such an economic system results in deprivation and misery, which increases the likelihood for depression.  Thus, escaping depression in such a system means regularly taking actions based on financial self-interest while at the same time not drowning in self-absorption – no easy balancing act.

The idea that money and buying stuff and acquiring status = happiness isn’t treated for what it is – a paper thin myth.  Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with making money; buying things and wishing to obtain a certain level of success in our careers. It’s a healthy recognition of the limitations of our income and what it really can buy that makes all the difference and keeps us out of this downward spiral.

In the book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, author Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., concludes:

 “One of the reasons for the failure of materialism to make us happier may be that even hen people finally attain their monetary goals; the achievement doesn’t translate into an increase into an increase in happiness. Also, materialism may distract people from relatively more meaningful and joyful aspects of their lives, such as nurturing their relationships with family and friends, enjoying the present, and contributing to their communities.  Finally, materialistic people have been found to hold unrealistically high expectations of what material things can do for them.  One father confided to me that he believed that purchasing a forty-tow-inch flat-panel TV would improve his relationship with his son.  It didn’t.

A more spiritual take on the issue was penned by famed author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton.  In his classic work, No Man Is an Island, he writes:

 “One of the chief obstacles to a sense of wholeness in life is the selfish anxiety to get the most out of everything, to be a brilliant success in our own eyes and in the eyes of other men. We can only get rid of this anxiety by being content to miss something in almost everything we do. We cannot master everything, taste everything, understand everything, drains every experience to its last dregs. But if we have the courage to let almost everything else go, we will probably be able to retain the one thing necessary for us -whatever it may be. If we are too eager to have everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need.

Happiness consists in finding out precisely what the ‘one thing necessary’ may be, in our lives, and in gladly relinquishing all the rest. For then, by a divine paradox, we find that everything else is given us together with the one thing we needed.”

For Merton, that one thing was God.  For some of us with depression, this may be our touchstone as well; a center around which to slow down the centrifugal force of our spinning lives.  For the others, it may be our family or friends.  But whatever it is, it must ground us and bring out, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “The better angels of our nature.”

To lessen the stress in your life, and the risk for developing or exacerbating your depression, try these tips from your friend Dan:

1.   Fast for a few days from the radio in your car, the newspapers or fooling around on your Blackberry.  Take a time out.  Think of it as an experiment.  Lawyers complain that they’re stressed out only to dump more information and stimulation into their craniums at every few moment they have.  Lawyers already read and think enough for a living – give your nervous system a break for crying out loud.

2.   Hand in hand with the above, incorporate some slice of silence into your life.  It doesn’t have to be a monastic experience.  I wear a runner’s watch and do a ten to fifteen minute period of silence a day.  If you don’t do something like this, you know what you’re stuck with – too much noise.

3.   Start asking yourself some questions.  What toll on your mental and physical health is your drive to succeed exacting on your life?  Make an actual list, take it out every day and read it.  The purpose is to try to become more conscious of the actual cost of your career to you.  People tell me they don’t have the time to do this, but then spend hours researching whether to buy a Lexus or Audi.  The irony of it all.We love accumulating things and experiences in our society.  Instead of adding something into your life, what can you drop out of it that would make you feel better? 

4.   Read something that would nurture you as a person and dump the rest of the crap.  Read only one thing at a time.  Maybe a book of poetry or the biography of a heroic person. 

5.   Reconnect with the humorous, whether highbrow or sophomoric.  Plug into it and have a gut-busting hoot.

6.   Remember, that life isn’t a dress rehearsal.  The time you’re spending at your job is a segment of finite time that you’re given.  Once it’s spent, it’s spent.  No one tells you how to spend it, despite what you might have gotten yourself around to believing.   Remember, you choose.  My priest once said that on every gravestone there are two dates:  the date we were born and the date we died.  We don’t get to choose those dates.  But between those dates, is a dash line: “—.” That dash is our life and what we have done with it.  Resolve to be a person whose dash is driven by substance and not solely by success.  As Mark Twain once wrote, “Let your life sing so that upon your death, even the undertaker will weep.”

7.   The notion of “quality time” for oneself or others is largely bullshit.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. once said that to overcome depression we need to start investing in ourselves like we’re worth it: exercising, sleeping enough, etc.   No matter how you slice it, there is no small amount of “quality time” in which you can achieve these basic self-care routines.  The reality is you will need to take whatever amount of time it takes because YOU are worth it.

8.   If you are locked in the success matrix as a lawyer, remember that it doesn’t have to stay that way forever.  Realistically, your life won’t probably change tomorrow.  But it can begin to change in small way that can lead you in a healthier direction.

Stress, Depression and Our Bodies

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Working as a lawyer and struggling with clinical depression is tough.  I know, because I deal with both every day.  In a peculiar sense, it’s really like having two full-time jobs that absorb all of our time.  As we know, the daily demands and stress of our jobs as lawyers are often unremitting:  Deadlines to meet, phone calls to return, and that motion to argue in Court the next morning.  We often feel that others who aren’t lawyers really don’t understand us and our work because they haven’t walked in our shoes.

The “job” of being depressed seems to parallel my experience as a lawyer.  A common experience of feeling depressed is feeling alone and isolated.  When people who care about us reach out to help, there are times we push them away out of a sense of bitterness, thinking:  “You really don’t know what it’s like to be a lawyer”.

Yet, there may come a time when we might want to begin seeing depression and our vocation as lawyers a little differently.  Not as two jobs, but really one.  The one job is to find a way to take care of ourselves.  Mother Teresa once said that what God expects of humanity is that we be “a loving presence to one another.”  Taking that further, I would suggest what God equally expects is for us to be a loving presence to ourselves.

In any law firm, the barometric pressure of stress rises and falls frequently. Consequently, we often find it difficult to be a “loving presence” to ourselves:  to eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, and nurture a support structure of good friends.  The gale-force winds of stress, burnout and depression can begin blowing and disconnect us even from this basic agenda.  Yet, if we are to regain our health in the midst of chronic stress, burnout and depression, we must return to these basic concerns because these maladies afflict our minds and our bodies.  Our physical state -our precious bodies- gets hammered by the unremitting punishment which they dish out.  I have often described my depression to friends as “wet cement running through my veins.” 

The biochemical imbalance that is so often a part of depression affects every part of our physical makeup: our eating, our weight, our energy level, and our ability to sleep.  How can we realistically hope to “feel better,” to regain the healthy ground that depression has knocked us off, if we don’t offer a loving presence to our tired and afflicted bodies left unbalanced, weakened and fatigued in depression’s wake?

Being a loving presence to our bodies is like being a loving parent.  We need to pause – and to have a support structure of people who remind us to pause – to ask ourselves what is good for our bodies.  My family doctor once told me that our bodies are like giant tape recorders that remember everything we have done to them.  Too little sleep, too much stress, not enough exercise tells our body that we simply don’t care and/or don’t have the time for it.  This pattern can have catastrophic consequences when depression hits because the body that we need to help us is not fully able to be our ally.  Because it has been ignored, it is of little help to fight depression and actually participates in it.  Anti-depressant medication can be a way, especially in the beginning, to begin to soothe our bodies, to calm our minds enough, so that we can begin thinking of how we are going to rebuild that loving relationship with our bodies.

One of my favorite parts of the Bible comes from the Old Testament, the Twenty Third Psalm.  To me, it speaks about the journey: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”  All humans must make this journey.  We must all “walk through the valley” of a life which is certain to have its victories and times of happiness, but also its stunning defeats and times of deep sorrow.  The shape of those victories and defeats take a particular form for lawyers.  Even more so for lawyers who struggle with depression.  The valley can feel more like a deep trench with no way out.  Our bodies can feel buried in this trench with no light or air able to penetrate depression’s paralyzing weight.  Yet, there are steps each of us can take to begin our climb out of this hole.  In my experience, our bodies are like the ladders propped against the trench of depression.  The great Psalm tenderly says to us that we are not alone; God is there with us in the deepest darkness.  Yet, I would also suggest that our bodies are there for us also, waiting to assist us in our journey towards wholeness.

A Place Called Hope

bigstockphoto_First_Light_Ray_Of_Hope__143636We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope – Martin Luther King

As renowned pessimists, lawyers struggle to be hopeful.  One veteran litigator told me yesterday his definition of hope: getting up the next morning and, “hopefully,” having the energy to survive the day.  But this type of hope is more about avoidance; the draining sense of dread people feel when they are working at maximum capacity and just barely staying on top of all of it.  As lawyers, we need a more expansive sense of hope; of what hope is and how it can positively affect our lives as lawyers.

Hope, in its best sense, is a positive motivator in our lives.  Psychologist, C.S. Snyder, in his 1990’s book “The Psychology of Hope:  You Can Get There from Here,’ defined hope as a “motivational construct that let one believe in positive outcomes, conceive goals, develop strategies, and muster the motivation to implement them”.  He actually invented a measuring tool and test called the “Hope Scale.”  He discovered that “low hope” people have ambiguous goals and work towards them one at a time while “high hope” people often worked on five or six clear goals simultaneously.  Hopeful people had definite routes to their goals and alternate pathways in case of obstacles.  Low scorers did not.

More recently, psychologist Anthony Scioli expanded Snyder’s definition of hope and created his own “Hope Index.”  According to Scioli, hope has a powerful spiritual (and transpersonal) dimension.  From this perspective, hope includes patience, gratitude, charity, and faith.  In a previous article from Martin Seligman, Ph.D. posted on the Lawyers with Depression website, the issue of lawyer optimism/pessimism was discussed.  Scioli makes an interesting distinction between hope and optimism.  In an article from the magazine Spirituality & Health, he put it this way:

“Faith is the building block of hope.  Above all, it is based on relationships, on a collaborative connection with people as well as their higher power, as distinct form optimism, which is connected to self-confidence.  True hope also differs from denial, which is really false hope, an avoidance of reality.”

Scioli’s newest book, “Hope in the Age of Anxiety,” coming out in September of 2009, takes square aim at how hope helps us deal with anxiety on both a psychological and physiological level:

“Hope represents an adaptive ‘middle ground’ between the over-activated ‘stress response’ [also implicated in depression] and the disengaged ‘giving-up complex’.  At a physiological level, hopefulness can help to impart a balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity while assuring appropriate levels of neurotransmitters, hormones, lymphocytes, and other critical health-related substances.  Equally important, a hopeful attitude may permit an individual to sustain this healthy internal environment in the presence of enormous adversity.”

While Scioli’s research and writing is focused on the broader themes and benefits of hope, other psychologists have addressed how “hope therapy” can help those who suffer with depression.  In an article from MSN, psychologist, Jenniefer Cheavens said:

“We’re finding that hope is consistently associated with fewer symptoms of depression.  And the good news is that hope is something that can be taught, and can be developed in many of the people who need it.”  Hope has two components according to Cheaven – a map or pathway to get what you want, and the motivation and strength to follow that path.

In another article  fromWebMD, Cheaver notes how hope therapy is different from other more traditional forms of therapy: “. . . hope therapy seeks to build on strengths people have, or teach them how to develop those strengths.  We focus not on what is wrong, but on ways to help people live up to their potential.”  According to other researchers associated with the hope studies, people with high hope possess these “components of hope”: 

  • Goals:  They have long-and short-term meaningful goals.
  • Ways to reach those goals:  A plan or pathway to get there and the ability to seek alternative routes, if needed.
  • Positive self-talk, similar to the little red engine from the children’s book, telling themselves things like “I think I can.”

I have often thought of hope as something that just happens.  But this research suggests otherwise.  As lawyers who deal with adversity, stress and, all too often suffer from depression, it’s wise to ponder the role that hope plays in our days.  Consider where you fall on the “hope index.”  Learn more about how you can develop the skills of being a hopeful person.  For further reading, check out this great article by lawyer, Dave Shearon called, “Hope about Lawyer Happiness” and another article by Leland Beaumont called, “Hope: This Can All Turn Out for the Best.”

My next blog will look at the spiritual dimension of hope.

“Time” Management

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Graduates of law school shouldn’t be given diplomas – they should be handed crash helmets.  Our lives as lawyers can be bruising indeed.  It’s not only the emotional charge of situations that we are asked to face; it’s the sheer volume of them.  We are always running – running to beat time.  The humorist Will Rogers captured the irony of this approach to time when he wrote: “Half our life is spent trying to find something to do with time we have rushed through life trying to save.”

As a profession, we are obsessed with the slicing, dicing and crunching of the seconds, minutes and hours were allotted in this life.  In a recent search on Amazon, I found 26,864 books on time management alone.  Yes, it is true that our working moments as lawyers have a monetary dimension.  That’s just a fact of the profession.  But for us to have fulfilling lives, time must mean more than that.

We have impoverished ourselves by seeing time only as a commodity to be used and profited from.  There is a deep sadness in many lawyers over the use and quality of their time.  They resent that their jobs take too much of their time, that they can’t spend more of it with their families and things they enjoy doing. One survey asked lawyers to, “List the most significant fears you have about your practice as a lawyer.  Sixty-four percent said they fear spending too much time practicing law and not enough time living.

Too often there is a mindless, driven quality to our lives. Such a way of being is nothing short of deadening.  The great psychologist, Rollo May put it succinctly when he wrote:

“The more a person is able to direct his life consciously, the more he can use time for constructive benefits.  The more, however, he is conformist, unfree, undifferentiated, the more, that is, he works not by choice but by compulsion, the more he is then the object of quantitative time. . . .  The less alive a person is – “alive” here defined as having conscious direction of his life – the more is time for him the time of the clock.  The more alive he is, the more he lives by qualitative time.”

Try this day not to work so compulsively – to chase time.  Value it not just as a day of work to be endured, but for the qualitiy of the moments that you have been given to live.  Be humble and mindful of the love you bring to your work and how you use it.  As Mother Teresa once said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

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.

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.

Depression and our bodies

Working as a lawyer and struggling with clinical depression is a tough.  I know, because I deal with both every day.  In a peculiar sense, it is really like having two full-time jobs that absorb all of our time.  As we know, the daily demands and stress of our jobs as lawyers are often unremitting:  Deadlines to meet, phone calls to return, and that motion to argue in Court the next morning.  We often feel that others who aren’t lawyers really don’t understand us and our work because they haven’t “walked in my shoes.”

The “job” of being depressed seems to parallel my experience as a lawyer.  A common experience of feeling depressed is feeling alone and isolated.  When people who care about us reach out to help, there are times we push them away out of a sense of bitterness thinking:  “You really don’t know what it’s like to be a lawyer”.

Yet, there may come a time when we might want to begin seeing depression and our vocation as lawyers a little differently.  Not as two jobs, but really one.  The one job is finding a way to take care of ourselves.  Mother Teresa  once said that what God expects of humanity is that we be “a loving presence to one another.”  Taking that further, I would suggest what God equally expects is for us to be a loving presence to ourselves.

In any law firm, the barometric pressure of stress rises and falls frequently. Consequently, we often find it difficult to be a “loving presence” to ourselves:  to eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, and nurture a support structure of good friends.  The gale-force winds of stress, burnout and depression can begin blowing and disconnect us even from this basic agenda.  Yet, if we are to regain our health in the midst of depression, we must return to these basic concerns because depression afflicts our minds and our bodies.  Our physical state –our precious bodies – get hammered by the unremitting punishment that depression dishes out.  I have often described it to friends as “wet cement running through my veins.”

The biochemical imbalance that is so often a part of depression affects every part of our physical makeup: our eating, our weight, our energy level, and our ability to sleep.  How can we realistically hope to “feel better,” to regain the healthy ground that depression has knocked us off, if we don’t offer a loving presence to our tired and afflicted bodies left unbalanced, weak, and fatigued in depression’s wake?

Being a loving presence to our bodies is like being a loving parent.  We need to pause – and to have a support structure of people who remind us to pause – to ask ourselves what is good for our bodies.  My family doctor once told me that our bodies are like giant tape recorders that remember everything we have done to them.  Too little sleep, too much stress, not enough exercise tells our body that we simply don’t care and/or don’t have the time for it.  This pattern can have catastrophic consequences when depression hits because the body that we need to help us is not fully able to be our ally.  Because it has been ignored, it is of little help to fight depression and actually participates in it.  Anti-depressant medication can be a way, especially in the beginning, to begin to soothe our bodies, to calm our minds enough, so that we can begin thinking of how we are going to rebuild that loving relationship with our bodies.

One of my favorite parts of the Bible comes from the Old Testament, the Twenty Third Psalm.  To me, it speaks about the journey: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”  All humans must make this journey.  We must all “walk through the valley” of a life which is certain to have its victories and times of happiness, but also its stunning defeats and times of deep sorrow.  The shape of those victories and defeats take a particular form for lawyers.  Even more so for lawyers who struggle with  depression.  The valley can feel more like a deep trench with no way out.  Our bodies can feel buried in this trench with no light or air able to penetrate depression’s paralyzing weight.  Yet, there are steps each of us can take to begin our climb out of this hole.  In my experience, our bodies are like the ladders propped against the trench of depression.  The great Psalm tenderly says to us that we are not alone; God is there with us in the deepest darkness.  Yet, I would also suggest that our bodies are there for us also, waiting to assist us in our journey towards wholeness.

Stress Depression Connection

At the beginning of my law career, I didn’t suffer from depression. But I did have trouble managing the stress of my practice. Over time, this constant stress developed into anxiety. I started feeling like I couldn’t control everything. I would go to bed fearing what problems and disasters were to confront me the next morning. After years of this, the pendulum swung. I went, more and more, from states of anxiety to states of depression. Why did this happen? It took me a long time to understand.

Depression develops because of a complex interplay of genes, neurochemistry, emotional history and personality. Recently, scientists have been focusing in on the connection between stress and anxiety and the role they play in producing and maintaining depression. This subject should be of great concern to lawyers who frequently report feeling stressed or burned out in their practices.

“Stress” is anything in our environment that knocks our bodies out of their homeostatic balance. The stress response is the physiological adaptations that ultimately reestablish balance. Most of the time, our bodies do adapt and a state of balance is restored. However, Dr. Robert Sapolsky, an expert on stress-related illnesses, warns: “If stress is chronic, repeated challenges may demand repeated bursts of vigilance. At some point, this vigilance becomes overgeneralized leading us to conclude that we must always be on guard – even in the absence of stress. And thus the realm of anxiety is entered.” For an excellent article which nicely summarizes his theories, see:

Robert Sapolsky Discusses Physiological Effects of Stress.

Stress went on too long in my own life as a litigator. I had, indeed, entered the realm of anxiety. For me, this anxiety felt like I had a coffee pot brewing twenty four-seven in my stomach. I became hypervigilant; each of the files on my desk felt like ticking time bombs about to go off. Over time, the litigation mountain became harder to climb as the anxiety persisted over a period of years.

Dr. Sapolsky states: “If the chronic stress is insurmountable, it gives rise to helplessness. This response, like anxiety, can become generalized: a person can feel they are at a loss, even in circumstances that she can actually master.” Helplessness is a pillar of a depressive disorder. It becomes a major issue for lawyers because we aren’t supposed to experience periods of helplessness. We often think of ourselves as invulnerable super hero’s who are the helpers and not the ones in need of help. Accordingly, lawyers often don’t get help for their depression and feel ashamed if they do.

Many lawyers do not appreciate this connection between their stress and anxiety and the risks they pose for the development of clinical depression. Indeed, the presence of co-morbid anxiety disorders and major depression is frequent and, according to some studies, as high as 60 percent. Maybe this connection helps explain the studies which find such high rates of depression for lawyers. In many ways, we are too stressed and anxious too much of the time.

The human body was not designed for such punishment. Dr. Richard O’Connor, author of the best-selling book, Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness states that depression “is stress that has gone on too long” and that many people with depression have problems dealing with stress because they are not “stress resilient”. Not because of some central character flaw or weakness. But because of a complex interplay between genetics and one’s experience over a lifetime. This interplay is played out daily for lawyers in how their bodies and brains deal with stress and anxiety.

Our bodies haven’t changed much in the last ten thousand years. We have a wonderful defense mechanism wired into our nervous system called the fight-or-flight response. Dr. Sapolsky, in his acclaimed book, Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers, walks us through the connection between this ancient defense mechanism and depression. When confronted with a threat – whether real or perceived – this response kicks in and floods our bodies with powerful hormones that propel us into action. This was an essential survival device for our ancestors who lived in the jungle and would have to flee beasts that were trying to eat them or fight foes that were trying to kill them.

Lawyers don’t face these types of real life-or-death threats. Instead, lawyers perceive life-or-death threats in their battles with opposing counsel while sitting in a deposition or sparring in the courtroom. Our bodies respond as if they were being chased by that hungry lion. Accordingly, the stress response can be set in motion not only by a concrete event but by mere anticipation. When humans chronically and erroneously believe that a homeostatic challenge is about to come, they develop anxiety.

Over time, this type of chronic anxiety causes the release of too much of the powerful fight-or-flight hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. Research has shown that prolonged release of cortisol damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression, the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory) and the amydala (involved in how we perceive fear).

If we don’t as litigators learn better ways to deal with stress and anxiety, we expose ourselves to multiple triggers that can cause and/or exacerbate clinical depression. It is in turning and facing those things which make us stressful and anxious that we provide ourselves with the best protection against depression.

 

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

new-lawyers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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