A Lawyer’s Guide To Dealing With Burnout: Does Burnout Mean I Should Leave My Job Or The Law Altogether

Editors Note: Dr. Amiram Elwork is a psychologist who specializes in working with the legal profession. He is the Director of the Law-Psychology Graduate Training Program at Widener University near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the President of the Vorkell Group, a consulting firm that helps lawyers and their firms achieve “true success” through a number of products and services, including organizational consulting, individual coaching, surveys, seminars, retreats, books and articles. Among his many publications, are two books entitled Stress Management for Lawyers and Success Briefs for Lawyers.
When individual lawyers seek the help of a counselor, it is not unusual for the conversation to start with: “I have been thinking about quitting my job or law altogether, but I am not sure what I should go into.”  My usual advice on such matters is “slow down.  While quitting your job or the law may in fact be the right thing to do, given the risks and costs involved, these should be options to consider only after you truly understand what has happened to you.”

I give this advice because by the time many lawyers seek professional help, they are often “burned out.”  People who are experiencing burnout commonly want to make drastic decisions, but they are usually driven by desperation rather than inspiration.  Because their thinking often lacks clarity, I ask them to take some time to just ponder.

“Burnout” is a term used to describe professionals engaged in people-oriented services who are experiencing emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of accomplishment.  A typical symptom is feeling drained and unable to give to others, wishing that “they would all just go away.”  Sometimes this can result in callous, rude, and inappropriate responses toward clients, colleagues and staff.  The person may also feel inadequate and lacking in personal achievement and purpose.

It should be noted that although mental health professionals use the term “burnout” regularly, it is not an official mental health diagnosis.  However, people who are seriously “burned out” usually exhibit the symptoms of at least a mild form of depression (e.g., pessimism, sadness), which is a mental health disorder.  And so, it may be more accurate to think of “burnout” as a form of depression.


Although not all of the problems that lawyers encounter can be blamed on their line of work, the fact that they experience particularly high rates of burnout suggest that certain stressful characteristics of being an attorney must have at least a contributory effect.

The most stressful occupational demands of attorneys include: time pressures, work overload, competition, the need to keep up with a wide range of legal topics, balancing a personal life with professional obligations, and dealing with difficult people.  Another stressor relates to the fact that the American system of justice is highly adversarial.  Some lawyers also experience conflict and ambiguity about their roles, such as when they are forced to hurt people or to advocate for what they know are unjust results.

In addition to these external stressors, there are several personality characteristics among lawyers which may make them less prone to withstand the demands of their profession.  The most significant one is “perfectionism.”

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

Another reason that some lawyers experience burnout is that their core values are not aligned with their own behaviors.  Sometimes this problem reflects an internal psychological conflict, whereas at other times it is a conflict between the lawyer’s values and those of the organization at which he or she works.  Either way, when what you do is in conflict with what you think you should be doing, that triggers chronic feelings of guilt and unhappiness.


If you have experienced burnout for a long time or the symptoms are severe, it is best to seek professional help.  However, if the symptoms are not severe enough to warrant professional intervention, there are a number of self-help techniques that are worth trying.  All I can do here is to describe a few of them very briefly.

First, you must understand that the human stress response goes through a sequence of four events:

Stimulus > Thought > Emotion > Behavior

There is usually a triggering incident or stimulus that causes you to respond.  Your initial response comes in the form of a conscious or unconscious mental appraisal.  The thought causes an internal physiological response that results in one or more emotions.  The emotions drive your external behaviors.

Using this model, your first attempt should be to try to change the external environmental demands that cause you stress.  For example, if you are constantly being put under the stress of unreasonable deadlines, go to the person(s) involved and attempt to change the time lines.  Or, if you don’t have enough support in the office, ask for additional support.

One would think that such advice is obvious, but I find that too many lawyers don’t even try these simple steps because they suffer from the illusion that it is a sign of weakness to do so.  Their thought is that a “real lawyer can handle anything and that if I can’t take what is handed to me, I must not be good enough for this job.”  Typically, this sort of misguided logic is a sign that the lawyer is a “perfectionist.”

This brings us to the second level of intervention one should try, namely to reduce one’s level of perfectionism.  You do that by first becoming aware of how your perfectionism plays itself out on a daily basis, and then by interrupting your automatic thought patterns until you change them.

For example, let’s assume that you are a perfectionist and your senior managing partner asks you to take on a particularly difficult project (stimulus).  Furthermore, let us assume that you are given an unreasonable deadline (stimulus), given all of the other matters for which you are responsible.  Your initial reaction might be to think, “I have no choice.  I must take on this case.  I must accept this deadline.  To do otherwise would be to show that I am incompetent.”  In the eyes of perfectionist, being less than perfect or just plain human is a equivalent to being incompetent.

Inwardly, you might also be thinking: “If I don’t take this on without any hesitation, I will expose myself as being inferior.  I don’t want anyone to find out who the real me is – – that I’m just an imposter and that I am not as good as others think I am.”  Such thoughts will trigger emotions like fear of failure and rejection, as well as guilt.  As a result, your outward response will probably be to reflexively say “yes” and to take on the project without any hesitation.

These reactions create a vicious cycle.  Your inability to say “no” causes more stress because it creates an impossible workload and increases your chances of making sloppy mistakes.  It reduces your ability to have a personal life and eventually leads you to feel burned out.

In order to improve your predicament, you must start by becoming fully aware of types of thoughts and emotions outlined above and by slowing them down.  The best way to do this is to keep a daily log of them for two weeks and break all stressful experiences down into four elements: stimuli, thoughts, emotions and behaviors.

Once you are fully aware of your perfectionistic thoughts and emotions, you need to force yourself to begin interrupting them.  The problem is that because so many of our dysfunctional thoughts and emotions are products of years of repetition, they tend to be driven by an internal automatic pilot.  By continually interrupting such thoughts and emotions, however, it is possible to regain conscious control of them.  Once you have done this, you need to begin cross-examining the validity of your automatic thoughts and emotions and considering other choices.

For example, using the scenario outlined above, you might ask yourself the following questions: “Would it be possible for me to suggest that someone else take on this project given the other things I have on my plate?  Is it possible for me to delegate some of my other work to other attorneys?  Is it really true that if I legitimately can’t do everything, I must take on this work anyway or be labeled a failure?  Are my colleagues that unreasonable?  Isn’t it true that I am the one who is being unreasonable with myself?”

Of course, it is possible that the realistic and true answers to the questions just posed would suggest that your organizational culture is fully to blame for your stress and burnout – – that you are not imagining it and there is nothing you can do about it, except leave.  On the other hand, if perfectionism is responsible for much of your problem, then you should come to the realization that no matter where you go, you will still be you.  The stresses that perfectionism cause will emerge on any job.  Leaving your current job because you feel burned out may not be the long term answer to your problems after all.

Another intervention to try is to assess the extent to which your stress is caused by the fact that your work life is not in alignment with your values.  Some misalignments are caused by internally conflicted or mutual exclusive values (e.g. high ambition vs. family).  Other misalignments are created by the fact that there is a conflict between your values and the values of the organization for which you work (e.g. financial success at any cost versus ethical behavior).

If your value misalignments are internal, they must be resolved internally.  Again, leaving your job or the law will usually not resolve such conflicts.  If, on the other hand, your values conflict with those of your organization, then you are “a fish out of water” and a separation may be in order.

The interventions I have described are simple to comprehend, but they could be among the most difficult tasks you will ever undertake.  Rather than running from your job or the law altogether, they require you to examine the issues that cause you stress more deeply before making any major moves, and to consider less drastic changes.  You might still decide to leave your job or the law, but at least it will be for valid reasons.

Copyright Amiram Elwork.  This article is reprinted here with the permission of Dr. Elwork.  Dr. Elwork can be contacted at the Vorkell Group, 1422 Tanglewood Drive, North Wales, PA 19454.  Telephone (215) 661-9330.  E-mail aelwork@vorkell

Mindful Recovery From Depression Is A Daily Practice For Attorneys

Editor’s Note: Zindel V. Segal, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and Head of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Unit at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, where he is also Head of the Psychotherapy Program. He is the co-author of The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness

The clang of the meditation bells slowly faded into a silence punctuated by the sounds of bodies moving on chairs and cushions. It was our seventh session, and by now, group members were comfortable with just sitting and watching their breathing for 40 minutes, while all manners of thoughts, feelings and sensations came into their minds with a searching insistence. It hadn’t always been this way. Right at our first session, these folks had asked lots of questions and were unsure exactly how meditation was going to help them prevent depression from returning. Attending to sensations in their toes, or taking five minutes to eat a raisin and then discussing the experience, didn’t seem, even to the most adventurous in the room, to be close to what they needed. Nonetheless, they were learning firsthand about the powerful connection between attention and emotional balance. Each of the participants had suffered from depression in the past, but recognizing that it could easily return, had signed up for a program in which meditative practices featured predominantly.

In the late Sixties, meditation gained popularity as a vehicle for exploring altered states of consciousness and experience. Today’s therapeutic uses of meditation are orientated toward cultivating a particular form of awareness known as mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness originated in the meditation traditions of Asia has been part of Buddhist culture for millennia. Mindfulness describes a moment-by-moment, non-judgmental attending to experience without automatically reacting to what is being noticed. When mindful of ordinary activities such as eating, we may do things to deliberately keep our focus on the act itself, such as putting our spoon down between tasting and swallowing each mouthful of soup. Within the realm of emotion, we may note the presence of disturbing ideas or sensations, and be less drawn into responding with an habitual defense of outburst, sense of sleight or reflexive withdrawal.

Mindfulness, Cognitive Therapy and Mood Disorders

Over ten years ago, my colleagues, John Teasdale, Mark Williams and I adapted the teaching of mindfulness meditation for use in preventing depressive relapse. In our program, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, these practices are taught without a particular religious or philosophical belief orientation, as a basic awareness technique or a way of looking at things that anyone, no matter what their fate, could utilize. Participants attend eight weekly two-hour classes of between 10 to 12 people, in which the primary work is intensive training in mindfulness meditation as it relates to regulating thoughts and feelings.

Participants in MBCT practice mindfulness meditation through the body scan, mindful stretching, mindful walking, and alternating the focus of attention by shifting between mindfulness of the breath, the body, sounds and thoughts. And of formal practices that encourage close attending to common, seemingly mundane experiences are one way in which participants can apply mindfulness skills in their everyday lives (e.g., eating a meal mindfully, monitoring the physical sensations such as brushing one’s teeth, noticing how hard one grips the steering wheel while driving on the highway). Taken as a whole, the mindfulness practices in the program help participants take a wholly different approach to the endless cycles of mental strategizing that often drive depression’s return. They do so by helping us get back in touch with the full range of inner and outer resources for learning, growing, and healing, resources that they can access on a daily basis and may not even believe they have.

One vital inner resource that is often ignored is the body itself. When people get lost in thoughts or try and jettison their feelings, they pay very little attention to the physical sensations from their bodies. Yet, those sensations provide immediate feedback about what’s going on at an emotional and mental level. Group members explore this possibility by monitoring every day pleasant or unpleasant events, firstly noting body sensations that are present before going on to record their thoughts and feelings.

The cognitive therapy aspects of MBCT include psychoeducation about depressive symptoms and the dark thinking styles that often accompany them. To many participants, the only ‘legitimate’ symptoms of their depression are the ones that dysregulate them physically. If they have turned into harsh and critical judges of themselves or feel like giving up, somehow this is not seen in the same light. It is just a sign of their lack of mental toughness or character. Discussing this material helps participants acquaint themselves with the ‘territory of depression’ so that if they notice these changes occurring, then it will be easier to take action earlier.

The second cognitive therapy emphasis comes in helping participants to see their thoughts as creations of the mind and not as facts. Through simple exercises that emphasize the relationship between thinking and feeling and how certain roads bring with them familiar negative ruminations, participants developed the ability to dis-identify from their thoughts as reflections of themselves and see them as part of a larger ‘package’ of depression. Very often this recognition, almost saying to oneself, ‘Oh here comes another round of judgement’, for example, can help people take a step back from it without resorting to disputation or challenging. In cases where certain thoughts or beliefs still have a strong pull on awareness, participants practice questioning them with an attitude of investigation, curiosity and kindness.

Finally, all participants are provided with The Mindful Way Through Depression, the book that describes the program and contains a CD of guided meditations similar to the ones they practice in the class.

To date, MBCT has been evaluated in three randomized clinical trials, each showing a significant protective advantage for patients receiving the treatment. Recently, the UK National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) has recently endorsed MBCT as an effective treatment for prevention of relapse. Research has shown that people who have experienced multiple episodes of depression can reduce their chances that depression will return by 50 percent.

From Breast Stroke to Back Float: Lawyers and Depression

Editor’s Note:  Fr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest in New Mexico Province and author of several books including Hope Against Darkness and From Wild Men to Wise Men:  Reflections on Male Spirituality.  He is the founder of the Center for Action and Spirituality in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  In his article, Father Rohr speaks to us directly about a spiritual approach for lawyers struggling with depression. 

One description of depression is that it is like the shapeless sagging of a rubber band that has been kept tight and taunt for too long.  When feelings have been strong, stressed, unprocessed, or held captive over a period of time, we just stop feeling altogether.  Persons and events no longer have the power to enliven us, we operate on a low level cruise control.  Usually we keep functioning, but there is no positive or creative affect toward persons and things, and even less toward ourselves.  We basically stop living our only life.

Many lawyers operate at this level , without even knowing that it is a kind of death.  They have learned to take it as normative and unchangeable.  Life is no longer enjoyable, and almost everything becomes another excuse to be upset, angry, aggressive, afraid or defensive.  We all know many people who live at this level.

But I would also like to describe another common source of depression that is less often addressed:  basic meaninglessness.  Religion, philosophy, and culture are supposed to address that foundational need.  But when religion or spirituality is largely in the head, mostly fear based, or merely moralistic, there is a huge vaccum in most people.  The soul and the spirit are not fed at this level.  I am afraid that it is the most common form of religion we now have in the West.  Such people, often very smart, have no beginning, middle or end to their life story, unless they totally create it for themselves like some kind of Nietzschean “ubermensch”.  This is inherently too big a task for one autonomous individual.

The “Is that all there is?” feeling overcomes most people in our culture somewhere in their mid to late forties, if they are at all typical.  If you are riding a fast track of  upward mobility, external success, and lots of control, you might be able to put it off for another decade.  But it is hardly worth it, because then the patterns of avoidance, depression, splitting off, a basic non-intimacy with one’s deepest life, are so entrenched, that it is very hard to emotionally and intellectually change without a lot of grace – – and a lot of “grit your teeth” and try to bear it.  We are largely unteachable at that point.

The grace, of course, will always be available, but often we have lost the recognition of it, the desire for it, the trust in it, and the ability to cooperate with it.  We do not even know there is such a thing as grace (Acts 19:3), and it is indeed an “it” instead of a Presence, a power and a possibility.  In fact, for an ego that has been in overdrive for forty years, the reception of grace will actually feel like a defeat, a humiliation, and a failure.  If “I” have been doing it all along, any “we” experience of union and cooperation with Another will actually feel like a loss of control and a loss of self importance.  It will be like switching from an eager breast stroke to a back float, and still having to assume that I can still get there.  That would be hard for any successful lawyer, and actually for any of us.

At this point, one’s overdeveloped faculties (rational mind, willpower and Yankee can do!) will have to give way to those that were left underdeveloped for the sake of what we call in men’s work “building our tower”.  What do I mean by those “underdeveloped faculties”?  Well, first of all, I should state that they are not just underdeveloped, they are actively rejected and denied as values at all.  I think that is why religion tended to speak at this process as “conversion”.  Because if it is authentic, it is a rather complete reversal (“convertere” in Latin) of previously held virtues and values.  Probably also why authentic religious conversion is rather rare.

Okay, here goes.  This is what changes.  Things like admitted powerlessness begin to be admired over claims to power, unknowing over knowing, living without resolution over demanding closure, giving instead of taking, waiting instead of performing, listening instead of talking, letting go instead of collecting and hoarding, empathy with instead of domination over.  The more traditional words that were used for these values were three:  “Faith”, “hope”, and “charity”.  What St. Paul says, “are the only things that last” (1 Corinthians 13:13).  I am sure he is right.  But, mind you, these are virtues that are only learned by many trials and many errors by the second half of life, at best.  In the first half, they actually do not make sense.  The trouble is that many lawyers  in our secular world are not moving to the second half of life.  They are becoming elderly but they are not elders.

We all know that one part of each of these equations had to be developed to be lawyers at all.  You would not have built any kind of tower unless you were powerful in some sense, had your facts, moved towards closure, and were normally much better at talking than listening.  You lived in one way, but you died in another.  Eventually that unintended death catches up with you.  There is a huge hole in the soul of manglers and it gnaws and longs to be filled.  It is another form of depression, but potentially a life changing one.  Please trust me when I say that this hole has immense energy and possibility hidden within it.  Maybe it is even the necessary vacuum to hold a new Infilling.

At first you will not know where to turn, especially if you have a good mind, and you are used to explaining everything and determining your own direction.  You have no practice at this different set of virtues.  To be honest, only God can lead at this point.  You had best give up, because all of your previous tools are useless and even counter- productive.  This is exactly why Bill Wilson made the first necessary step of Alcoholics Anonymous the absolute admission of “powerlessness”.  This is about as counter intuitive as you can get, or even seemingly non-rational (not irrational!).

So what am I proposing that you do?  Really not that much.  I am first of all trusting in your ability to hear some of what I just tried to say.  If you have persisted in reading this far, you are hearing me at some non-resistant level.  We call this the “contemplative mind”, where you turn off the need to be right or wrong, agree or disagree, and just let something work on you at whatever level of truth there is.  (Everything Belongs, Crossroad Press, 1999).   The Eastern religions would call it non-dual thinking.

Secondly, I would encourage you not to try too hard, no self-assertion because that will only deepen your addiction to your own way of doing life.  You will try to “convert” yourself by yourself, which is actually a oxymoron.  If you try to be heroic and superior, you will only get more of the same, but now disguised with a religious or moral sugarcoating.  Please trust me on this one, all great spirituality is about letting go.  YOU cannot do it.  IT is done unto you.”  (Luke 1:38 and 28:43).  You are always the allowing.  Someone else is winning at this point, and you are getting your first lesson in creative losing.

Thirdly, I would like you to forgive yourself for your life’s mistakes.  God never leads by guilt or by shaming people.  Take that as an absolute.  God always leads the soul by loving it at ever deeper levels, and if you want to be led, you absolutely must allow such unearned love.  Like all grace, it will feel like losing, not gaining, surrendering not taking, trusting not achieving, allowing instead of “making the case.”  Like all authentic conversion it will feel like dying (See John 12:24 or Old Adams’ Return, Crossroad, 2005), but it will really be living.  Fully, for the first time.  God does not love you if  you change, God loves you so that you can change.   God is not the rewarder and the punisher.  God is the energy itself.  More of a verb than a noun, according to the great mystics.

This is one case you are not going to be able to win.  In fact, I am convinced that the Gospel of Jesus really is the hope of the world precisely because it totally levels the human playing field.  Now we win by losing, and if we are honest, we all have lost, failed, and been untrue at some levels (Romans 5:12).  That humiliating recognition is the hole in the soul that allows God to get in – – and ourselves to get out – – of ourselves.  Don’t miss such an entrance or exit.  It is the Big One.

Why Are Lawyers So Depressed?

Editor’s Note: Susan Daicoff is an Associate Professor of Law at Florida Coastal School of Law.  She is a lawyer and professional psychotherapist.  For the past decade, she has been researching and writing on the psychology of lawyers, lawyer personality, lawyer distress and dissatisfaction. She is the author of the book, Lawyer Know Thyself.

Why are so many lawyers depressed?  Larry Krieger and Ken Sheldon’s research indicates that the loss of one’s intrinsic values is responsible for the dramatic increase in depression and lowered sense of well being among law students seen in the first year of law school.  I often think of this at the “ski slope” graphic representation of the excellent Andy Benjamin, et al. studies done in the 1980’s and 1990’s on depression in law students.  Their data showed that depression among law student’s approximated that of the general population, pre-law school (with a prevalence of about 9-10%).  It rose to 32% by the end of the first year of law school, and rocketed to an amazing 40% by the third year of law school, never to return to pre-law school levels.  Across 0 to 78 years of practice, 17.8 to 19% of lawyers reported clinically significant levels of depression.  Now, either the pre-law students assessed two weeks before law school classes began with uncharacteristically “happy” at the top of their game, and thus tested out as less often depressed than they really were, or law school had significant, permanent, deleterious effects on those individuals.  Krieger and Sheldon’s work suggests the second conclusion – and points to the concomitant shift from an emphasis on intrinsic, internal values to extrinsic, external values, as the culprit.

What are extrinsic values?  In law school, my students quickly point out: “Grades!  Class rank, Law Review, Order of the Coif, Moot Court, that great summer clerkship at a silk stocking firm, a plum judicial clerkship, and the brass ring: a lucrative associate position with a crave-able large private practice firm.”  First-year associate salaries at these firms were reported to hit $160,000, for select graduates from select law schools (the National Jurith, January, 2008).  In comparison, the median gross starting salary of a lawyer at a non-profit public service organization is approximately $40,000 (from the National Association of Law Placement).  After law school graduation, my students usually claim: “money, cars, houses, boats” are extrinsic rewards; they now also include Martindale-Hubbell ratings as well as win-loss records.  Extrinsic rewards may also be intangible, such as the approbation of one’s classmates and professors, prestige, status, other’s regard and opinion, and reputation – anything from sources located outside of the individual.  If Krieger and Sheldon are correct, then identifying one’s intrinsic values, holding firm to them, and integrating them into one’s day-to-day law practice are the keys to inoculating one’s self against psychic distress and depression.

So, what are intrinsic values?  What is tricky about intrinsic rewards is often that they are often unique to each individual lawyer or law student; they are not “one-size-fits-all”, as are grades, jobs or salaries.  For some, it may be intrinsically satisfying to represent a client and give that person their “day in court”, uphold constitutional rights, craft a particularly good oral argument, craft a particularly competent legal documents, structure a complex corporate transaction, or negotiate the settlement of a legal dispute.  It may be feeling that we “make a difference” in someone’s life, help someone, or created a new business venture or saved someone money.

Beyond locating our intrinsic values, however, there is one more disturbing finding in the research on lawyer distress that should be addressed.  Reich in 1976 found that many pre-law students wished to be seen as competent, socially ascendant, and in control, but inwardly they felt awkward, anxious, cautious, and unsure.  He suggested that they may have chosen law as a career because it allows one to hide behind a professional mask of competence, leadership, and dominance, without having to expose those more tender feelings of discomfort and awkwardness in social situations.  It allows one to interact with clients, other lawyers, Judges, and other individuals in the course of one’s work at a comfortable professional distance and in a professional, defined “role” with clearly defined role expectations and obligations (even imposed by law in the form of the Lawyer’s Code of Ethics), without having to confront other people without the comfort of this professional role.  This might appear to reduce angst, anxiety, and discomfort.  However, interacting with people always at a professional distance can be isolating, lonely, and discouraging, ultimately leading to depression.  It can even discourage close relationships with other lawyers.  The end result is that this lawyer ends up isolated and alone, even surrounded by clients, assistants, other lawyers, paralegals and other law office personnel.  The very psychological dynamic that may have driven some individuals to chose law as a career may ultimately contribute to debilitating depression in those individuals, necessitating treatment and behavioral change.

Another relevant trade is perfectionism.  Dr. Amiram Elwork has written at length about this in his excellent book, Stress Management for Lawyers.  He notes that perfectionism is adapted and even rewarded in law school and the practice of law; however, it can lead to a way of thinking and behaving that ultimately leads to depression.  It can turn into the attitude of, “if I don’t do it perfectly, I’m no good, it’s no use, I should just give up” or “I have to do it perfectly and I can’t quit until it’s perfect” which can lead to workaholism and isolation.  If a situation or matter does not turn out as hoped for, the individual often blames himself or herself and believes that the reason is because he or she did not “work hard enough,” was “not well enough prepared,” “let something fall through the cracks,” and either “beat themselves up” or resolves to “work harder” next time, not acknowledging that not every matter can turn out as he or she would like to expect.  This perfectionism can lead to an over developed sense of control and responsibility, so that the individual believes that he or she is responsible for the outcomes of matter and situations over which he or she actually does not have complete control.  The belief is erroneous and causes and great deal of angst.  Here is it relevant to note that this angst can either be expressed as depression or irritability and anger, which are really two sides to the same coin.  It is often said in psychology circles that depression is “anger turned inwards” – one might in turn think of anger and irritability, emotions so often seen in private law firms, as depression turned outwards.

So, what are the solutions?  The research and commentary outlined above point to three issues:  (1) focus on your intrinsic values and what you might find intrinsically rewarding about your work, and integrate some element of those values and rewards into your day-to-day work – change your job only if necessary; (2) increase your EQ and interpersonal skills so that you are not anxious and uncomfortable being fully emotionally present in interpersonal situations, challenge yourself to drop your “mask”; (3) undergo cognitive restruction to get rid of imperfectionistic thoughts and behaviors that are setups for anger and depression.  Experts suggest that making the later two changes are sometimes difficult to do alone, that it often requires the assistance of peers or professionals to accomplish this task.  However, identifying your intrinsic values and beginning to incorporate them into your daily work is something that can be done right away.  Whatever changes are indicated, the payoff is worth it, as no profession is as stimulating and challenging as the law, in my opinion, and a career in the law that is satisfying is, indeed, the brass ring”.

Professor Daicoff can be reached at (904) 680-7774 or via e-mail atsdaicoff@fcsl.com.

How Lawyers Can Transform Depression From a Break-Down to a Break-Through

Editor’s Note:  Dr. Lara Honos-Webb is a clinical psychologist and author of the books Listening to Depression: How Understanding Your Pain Can Heal Your Life and The Gift of ADHD. She practices in Walnut Creek, California. You can visit her website at www.visionarysoul.com.

Why are lawyers so depressed these days? The rates of depression and substance abuse problems are skyrocketing according to recent media reports and research. This article will show you how depression can be seen as a break-down in the service of offering you an opportunity for a break-through. If depression offers corrective feedback to lawyers, what might it be telling you?

We only reflect on those things that break down in our life. For example, if life is going along smoothly you won’t spend time thinking about the meaning of life. You tend to think deeply about life when something is not working. When we identify a problem, we begin to reflect on what caused the problem and how to fix the problem. If you are disconnected from your deepest feelings and impulses you may still manage to get through life without realizing that your life is off track.

One of the defining features of depression is that it results in impairment in social and professional functioning. You may feel blue, begin to lose interest in some aspects of your life, but this will not be diagnosed as depression unless a marked impairment in day-to-day functioning is evident. It is this aspect of depression – – by definition an impairment – – that seems on the face of it most difficult to reconcile with the idea that depression is a gift.

But if you begin to open to the possibility that there was something fundamentally wrong with your level of functioning before your depression, only then does the idea of depression as a gift begin to make sense. A bread-down can become a gift when it is in the service of increasing reflection on your life which will lead to ask the fundamentally important questions:

      • What is wrong with my life?
      • What can I do to correct the problem?


When you listen to your depression, you can hear your life.

What do lawyers need to hear to heal their lives? One message might be that money is no substitute for meaning. Many lawyers chose the profession as a path toward material success. Great wealth offers opportunities for great joy and liberation from financial stressors. Depression may be telling you, “Now you’ve got the money, time to go for the meaning.” The problem with the rat race is that no one tells us where the finish line is. Depression may be telling you “nothing is missing, it’s time to enjoy my wealth.”

Other lawyers may find their financial success to be the proverbial “golden handcuffs.” You may have created a lifestyle that forces you to work around the clock to sustain it. In this case depression may be telling you to find some balance. Depression may force you to gain perspective. If your professional life becomes impaired, you may be forced to see that it might be better to scale back your spending so you can put more “life” in your lifestyle.

Many lawyers may find themselves depressed simply because they are far outside of their “sweet spot.” Your sweet spot is that place where your passion meets your purpose. The quickest way to heal your life and heal your depression, is to find your sweet spot and start moving toward it. A friend of mine learned she lived medicine after she graduated from Harvard Law School. She worked as a lawyer for the American Medical Association. Sometimes lawyers feel that by working with the underprivileged they are fulfilling their purpose. Don’t forget to put the “sweet” back in the sweet spot. This means you have to love what you do and do it because it enlivens you. If your work is a constant strain, it’s a signal that even if it’s a noble job – – it might not be for you. Depression is a call to break-through to a life of both passion and purpose. Take it as a signal you have some soul-searching to do to get closer to your sweet spot.

For more tips and tools about depression, visit http://www.visionarysoul.com. Sign up for Dr. Lara Honos-Webb’s free newsletter athttp://www.visionarysoul.com/newsletter.html. Learn how to translate your pain into your purpose with individual sessions http://www.visionarysoul/sessions.html.

Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?


“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.



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


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


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


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.

Undoing Depression In Lawyers

Editor’s Note:  I have asked several leading psychologists to write a short article about their experiences with treating lawyers who suffer from depression.  One psychologist, Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., is the author of two noteworthy books, Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety, and 21st Century Illness andUndoing Depression: What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You. He is a practicing psychotherapist with offices in New York City and Canaan, Connecticut.  He has suffered from clinical depression and is a member of a depression support group.

There’s some interesting research to suggest that happy people view the world through certain comforting illusions, while depressed people see things more realistically. [i] For instance, the illusion of control. You can take a random sample of people and sit them in front of a video monitor with a joy stick, and tell them their joy stick is controlling the action of the game on the screen. (But the point of experiment is that it actually doesn’t). Depressed people will soon turn to the lab assistant and complain that their joy stick isn’t hooked up correctly. Normal people, on the other hand, will go on happily playing the game for quite some time.

I think this explains a lot about why lawyers are so prone to depression. Because of their experience with the law, most attorneys have lost their rose-colored glasses some time ago. (Or else they never had them and chose the law as a career because it suited their personality). Attorneys know that life is hard, and doesn’t play fair. They’re trained to look for every conceivable thing that could go wrong in any scenario, and they rarely are able to leave that attitude at the office.  They see the worst in people (sometimes they see the best, but that’s rare). They tend to be strivers and individualists, not wanting to rely on others for support. They have high expectations of success, but they often find that when they’ve attained success, they have no one to play with, and have forgotten how to enjoy themselves anyway.

All this makes it hard for attorneys to get help with their depression. They tend not to recognize it as such; they just think it’s stress, or burn out, or life. They don’t expect that anyone is going to be able to help. Most of my attorney-patients have contacted me because their relationships are falling apart, but they don’t see that it’s depression that makes them such a lousy partner – tense, irritable, critical, joyless, tired all of the time, relying on alcohol or other drugs. If they’d gotten help for the depression a couple of years previously, their spouse wouldn’t be moving out now. The truth about depression is that it not only makes you feel horrible, it wrecks your life. And that’s why I wrote the book, Undoing Depression, in the first place. I was running an outpatient clinic, and grew exasperated with seeing the people whose lives wouldn’t have been so ruined if they had got some help when they first needed it –  before they alienated their children and spouse, got fired, went into debt, developed a substance abuse problem, etc. I thought there was a need for an intelligent self-help book, one that points out all the bad habits that depression engenders and which, in a vicious circle, keeps reenforcing the disease. But the truth is that self-help isn’t nearly enough for most depression sufferers. It’s as if you stepped over an invisible cliff, and you can’t find your way back doing what you normally do, because that’s what led you over the cliff in the first place. Depression is the original mind/body disease; your physical brain is damaged because of the stress in your mind, and you’re unlikely to undo that damage without help.

Depression is highly treatable, but if you want a lasting recovery you have to change your life. The ugly fact is that depression is very likely to reoccur. If you had one episode of major depression, chances are 50:50 that you’ll have another; if you have three episodes, it’s 10:1 you’ll have more. But you can improve those odds if you get good professional help, with medication and with talk therapy. We won’t put your rose-colored glasses back on, but we can help you see how negative thinking and the negative acting is contributing to your disease.

[i]  See for example, Shelly Taylor: Positive Illusions; and Julie Noren: The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.

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