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.

Besides the deepening melancholy, I lost my ability to concentrate, to be productive at work. Sitting at my desk, a motion that generally took a day or two to punch out now took me over a week or more; requests for extensions were routine. Depositions? They often got canceled because I was emotionally incapable to do them. Keeping my door shut, others thought I did so because I was busy. The truth, however, was that I was immobilized by depression.

My sleep became fragmented in a way I had never experienced before. I was always tired, but couldn’t sleep through the night. I went to bed early, exhausted from trying to make it through another day. Often waking at 3–4 a.m., I was unable to go back to sleep. I’d get up, watch TV, or read old magazines while my family slept upstairs. Other times, I would shower, shave, put on my suit and tie, and drive to an all-night coffee shop. I was the only customer that early in the morning. Sitting there with my coffee, I stared out into the night. I wondered when I would start feeling better, when things would get back to normal. I worried a lot. When the sun came up, I drove to work with no one the wiser about the anguish I was going through. At least for the time being.

I tried to hunker down and power through the depression. That didn’t work. Things worsened. I didn’t bounce back as I had before. I would find myself crying as I drove home, seemingly, for no particular reason. Sadness now haunted my days. Once, driving home on a snowy night, I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t see the road ahead. I pulled off the expressway. Finding an empty store parking lot, I stopped my truck and sat there crying. It must have lasted 20 minutes. I then drove home.

Sitting in the dark driveway, I could see my wife and daughter through a house window. They were laughing and chatting with each other as my cheerful wife cooked dinner. I steeled myself. I did not want them to know what a mess I was. Walking through the door, my wife said, “How was your day, honey?” “Just great,” I replied.

My therapist, concerned about my welfare, said therapy alone wasn’t working. He referred me to a psychiatrist. “You have major depression, Mr. Lukasik,” he said. “I am going to put you on an antidepressant. You should take 90 days off work.” He gave me a script for the medication. I took it to my pharmacist and began taking the pills.

The next day, I told my partners. It did not go well. Sitting there in our conference room, I said, in a quaking voice, that I had been diagnosed with depression and needed to take three months off to recuperate.

“Go on a vacation, for Christ’s sake!” one snapped. Little did he know that when on vacation, I was still severely depressed. I could not experience joy, a symptom, I later learned, of depression. Disneyland was no match for depression.

Another partner said, “You’ll be fine in a few weeks and back to your old self, Dan.” Had he heard what I just said? I later learned that disclosure of depression to someone can be met with the person trying to minimize the problem. I don’t think he said this to be dismissive. He didn’t have a frame of reference for what depression was. He had never experienced it. Like many, the closest thing he could think of was sadness. But depression isn’t sadness. Sadness is an emotion. Depression is an illness.

My third partner sat silent, not saying a word. Occasionally, he looked over at me. We had been friends for over 20 years and law partners for 10. Where were the words of support? His silence hurt the most. Only years later did I learn from him that he was worried about the financial implications to the firm. Would I ever come back? In addition to being managing partner, I brought a lot of business into the firm. How would this bad news affect his finances and the firm’s?

I took three months off. It was a hot summer. Some relief came from not working, but I also felt guilty. I felt I wasn’t pulling my weight at the firm. The medication helped. But not as much as I thought it would. The three months flew by. When I came back to work, most people didn’t say anything to me about my absence. It was as if I had just been there yesterday. I wondered if I had been absent because of a broken leg, they would have said, “Welcome back! We missed you. How are you feeling?” They might have even signed my cast. But those gestures of welcome didn’t come. Not because they were uncaring people, necessarily. I think some didn’t know what to say or wanted to respect my privacy. But it still hurt.

The only one who offered a kind word was my secretary. She closed the door, hugged me, and said she was happy to have me back. That meant the world to me. My partners said, “So, you feel better?” I really didn’t. But what was I going to say? I also didn’t think they truly wanted any dialogue with me about how I was continuing to struggle with depression. Their thinking on the matter was crystal clear: the “depression thing” was over, and it was back to business as usual.

I subsequently recovered from depression with a combination of therapy, medication, exercise, a good diet, and a support group. While I am not “cured,” I have come to successfully manage it like one would any other chronic illness like diabetes or heart disease. It still comes and goes. But now I have the tools and support to cope with it effectively. If I am depressed, it is not as deep, nor does it last as long, as it did when I was first diagnosed.

I had hoped, given the strides made in the destigmatizing of mental illness by society – particularly depression – and improved treatment options available in the past decade, that far fewer law students and lawyers would be stricken by depression and stigmatized for it.

I was wrong.

There Are Too Many Law Students and Lawyers Struggling with Depression

First, a bit about depression. Depression is a mood disorder with multiple symptoms that have a significant impact on a person’s ability to work and enjoy life. It is the leading cause of disability worldwide, with some 350 million people afflicted. An estimated 17.3 million American adults had at least one major depressive episode in the past year accounting for 7.1% of all U.S. adults.  Depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. whose annual toll on businesses amounted to $70 billion last year. Only 2% of people with depression die by suicide, but of those that do, 60% of them have depression.

Law students and lawyers have much higher rates of depression than those found in the general population.

A 2016 survey of 3,300 law students from 19 law schools found that 17% experienced some level of depression (more than twice the rate seen in the general population), 37% some level of anxiety, and 6% reported serious suicidal thoughts in the past year. Binge drinking was also a big problem – especially for those in the profession for less than 10 years.

A 2016 survey of 12,825 practicing lawyers and judges found 28% reported a problem with depression in the past 12 months of the date of the survey. This percentage is almost four times the rate found in the general population. However, when asked over the course of their career whether they had experienced depression, that number skyrocketed to 46%. Levels of other mental health issues and substance abuse levels were also significant, with 28%, 19%, and 20.6% experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and hazardous drinking, respectively. Sadly, 11.5% of participants reported suicidal thoughts. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lawyers rank fourth in suicide by profession. Tragically, there have been many high-profile lawyers and law students who have committed suicide recently as reported by national media. I wrote on my website of a law student in my community with depression who committed suicide.

Why do lawyers suffer from such high rates of depression? There’s no easy answer because depression can have so many causes. Some of the risk factors include a personal or family history of depression, major life changes, trauma, or stress, and certain physical illnesses and medications.[14] And there are others.

But there is something unique about lawyering that contributes to the markedly higher rates of poor mental health in those who practice law. Attorneys are, by training and experience, pessimistic people in an adversarial profession.They also tend to be perfectionists, another risk factor for depression. Lawyering is not only full of stress, but chronic and unremitting stress that has negative effects on the areas of the brain associated with depression. When you combine pre-existing risks with stressors unique to the practice of law, the legal profession creates a “perfect storm” for depression to develop.

My Attempts to Help Others That Struggle with Depression

Twelve years ago, I found myself thinking that there must be a way I could offer law students and lawyers more support. I didn’t want others to go through depression by themselves as I had done years ago. That is when I created the website lawyerswithdepression.com. The site was built as a place where those in the law, and others who cared about them, could go and learn about depression, self-management tips to recover, and how and where to get outside help and find support. And above all, to know that things can and will get better.

Ten years ago, I founded a depression support group for lawyers in my community. We still meet weekly, and both I and others have found that there is healing and support when a group of lawyers gets together to share their triumphs and struggles in dealing with depression.

Five years ago, I started speaking around the country at law firms, CLEs, and law schools, including Harvard and Yale last year, to not only educate people about depression, but also provide them with some self-management tips they can use in their daily lives. Above is a picture of me speaking at Harvard last year.

Three years ago, I created a life coaching practice and website at yourdepressioncoach.com, specifically designed to help lawyers and law students who struggle with mental health issues. I like to think of myself as a mentor who offers a unique perspective: someone who has practiced law for over 30 years and known what it is like to manage high-stress loads, anxiety, and depression while trying to do one’s job. I am there for those I work with to help them with the unique challenges of trying to get things done when they feel they can’t get things done. This work is tremendously rewarding and meaningful to me.

Cautious Optimism and Signs of Change

Positive change is in the air and moving in the right direction as evidenced by the ABA publication of “National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being: Creating a Movement to Improve Well-Being in the Legal Profession” in 2017.

The report rightly stated that both the law school and lawyer survey results referenced above are “incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence.”

The report further noted that “legal employers can play a large role in contributing to lawyer well-being.” The task force makes specific recommendations for law firms to create, among other things, a “Lawyer Well-Being Committee. Some law firms have responded well and are making a large investment in lawyer well-being initiatives. Over 100 large law firms have signed a “Well-Being Pledge” to promote well-being. Given that there are thousands of large law firms in the U.S., however, it is fair to say that that progress has been very slow.

I am concerned that many firms feel little or no responsibility for the mental health of the attorneys – or support staff – they employ. Following some of my presentations at large law firms, I had some junior partners and associates who told me that leadership did not want to seriously invest the money or time into addressing mental health. Depression, they seemed to rationalize, was an individual’s responsibility to cope with outside of work – not a law firm’s. There is a measure of truth in this: a person must take responsibility to get better. However, to say firms do not have a significant role to play is misguided and just flat-out false. Aside from the economic reality that their lawyers’ mental health problems cost firms money (e.g. lost productivity, grievances, and malpractice claims), firms have a moral responsibility to address this problem. If they turn a blind eye to this moral obligation, nothing will happen, or things will only get worse. There is only so much self-management one can do to get better. The work environment also plays a significant role.

Lawyers are problem solvers. Depression, however, cannot be “solved” by oneself. A sufferer needs a team of others to help and support them in their recovery, including a good therapist, a circle of friends and colleagues, a law firm, their family, and others. It’s a team effort.

Join the team.

By Daniel T. Lukasik, Esq.

This blog appeared in its original form with footnotes in the New York State Bar Journal as “One Lawyer Living and Working with Depression,” with footnotes and citations. It can be accessed here.

 

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