In the Beginning: Depression in Law Schools

Everything has a beginning:  the Cosmic Bang, the French Revolution and depression in the legal profession.

There is little doubt that for many, depression begins in law school. One study of law students found they suffered from depression at the same rate as the general population before entering law school. Just two months into the school year, however, their negative symptom levels had increased dramatically.  By the spring of their first year, 32% of the same law students were depressed. By the spring of their third year, the number had risen to 40%.  Two years after graduation, 17% of the students – about twice the rate of depression experienced by the general population – were still depressed.  Such elevated levels of depression have been corroborated by later studies.


Plug in these stats and an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 of this country’s 150,000-law students struggle with depression at some point during their law school experience

Andy Benjamin, J.D., Ph.D., the lead researcher in the above study and others that have looked at law student and lawyer depression, wrote me recently:

Since the publication of our research about law student and lawyer depression, depression still runs rife for law students and practicing attorneys – nearly a third of all law students and lawyers suffer from depression.  The data to support this statement have been published since the early eighties when the studies were first conducted.  Several subsequent empirical studies have corroborated the grim findings up until 2010.  As the stress, competition, and adversarial nature of the profession have continued to take their toll, not surprisingly, the rates of depression have not changed.  Law students and lawyers remain at the greatest risk for succumbing to depression, more so for any other profession.  After nearly forty years of compelling evidence about the prevalence of the severity of depression for the legal profession of law, more meaningful systematic changes must be implemented throughout the professional acculturation process of law students and lawyers.

It’s difficult for the legal establishment to face all of this. William M. Treanor, immediate past dean of Fordham Law School, told The New York Law Journal “Depression is a very important issue that often gets swept to the side.  It’s a real concern and a problem in the legal profession. Studies indicate that it is common among law students and common among lawyers. Given that, it’s important to try to figure out ways to combat it and to let people know if they are suffering, they are not alone.”

As author Kathleen Norris wrote, “The religion of America is optimism and denial.”  We’re a nation of suck-it-uppers; a people who drive their inner pain deeper and deeper into themselves until they break. The denial of depression in the law is both institutional and individual.

In “The Institutional Denial About the Dark Side of Law School,” Florida State University Law Professor Lawrence Krieger wrote:

There is a wealth of which should be alarming information about the collective distress and unhappiness of our [law] students and the lawyers they become.  We appear to be practicing a sort of organizational denial because, given this information, it is remarkable that we are not openly addressing these problems among ourselves at faculty meetings, and in committees and without students in the context of courses and extracurricular programs.  The negative phenomena we ignore are visible to most of us and are confirmed by essentially unrebutted empirical evidence.

Attorney Andrew Sparkler, a friend of then fellow Fordham law student David Nee who suffered from depression (unbeknownst to his friends) and committed suicide in his third year of law school, observed, “To admit that you are depressed [in law school], to yourself or to others . . .  , is a weakness and if you’re in a shark tank of hyper-aggressive folks around you, you’d be hesitant to expose it because why would you fess up to anyone that you have a problem?” Sparkler, his friends and the Nee family started the Dave Nee Foundation to address law student depression and suicide.

It doesn’t get much better when one graduates and enters the job market.  A John Hopkins study looked at 104 occupations to determine which ones had the highest incidence of depression.  Lawyers topped the list and were found to suffer from depression at a rate of 3.6 times that of other profession studies.  Other studies have found that about 20 percent of all lawyers struggle with depression.

Plug in these stats and an estimated 200,000 of this country’s 1 million lawyers are hurting.

Obviously, something is really rotten in Denmark.

There have been several theories bantered about as to why law students suffer from such high rates of depression: pessimistic thinking styles taught in law school (“learning to think like a lawyer”), personality types that go to law school, a breakdown in inner values and the current nasty economy and stress to find and maintain a good job.  The New York Times ran an article, No Longer Their Golden Ticket, – I was interviewed for this one – which spoke about the stress and uncertainty that law school students’ face:

“[The] days of [high pay and full employment] are over. As the profession lurches through the worst economic slump in decades, with jobs and bonuses cut and the internal pressures to perform rising, associates do not just feel as if they are diving into the deep end, but rather, drowning.”

However, there has been pushback against the theory that law school even causes much psychic damage.

In an article by University at Michigan Law Professor James White entitled Maiming the Cubs, he takes issue with Professor Krieger theory and argues that the law school experience does not “. . . cause permanent and irreversible change and that the ills of lawyers cannot be traced in any meaningful way to the stresses of the three years in law school.”  He concludes:

“I wonder, too, whether the anxiety and depression that we observe in some of our law students is the unavoidable consequence of the challenge of hard learning and of confronting the looming need to prepare to behave like a lawyer.  Soon after they come to law school, students must sense that however hard Contracts and Torts is, learning to be a successful practicing lawyer is harder, and that the road to success in the profession is even less clearly marked than the road to law school success.”

Sorry, I just don’t agree.

My take on law school depression

I think we must look at what makes people more vulnerable to depression before they enter law school – those 10% who already have depression or are at risk for developing it before they register for their first 1L class. For most, there is a genetic or family history of depression. Likewise, there is a history of family dysfunction: for example, alcoholism, physical and emotional abuse and/or neglect.   These folks bring those major risk factors into law school. It is my view that law school doesn’t cause depression; rather, it may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for those who already have some risk for it. 

Pessimistic thinking and persistent stress , both powerful dynamics in law school, are known triggers for depression.  When these influences are mixed in with other pre-law school risk factors, law school creates a “perfect storm” for depression to happen.

We tend to mix up law student unhappiness and dissatisfaction with depression.

They’re not the same thing; not even close. Unhappiness and discontent are relatively transitory; other emotions aren’t pushed to the margins or extinguished. We are adaptable in response to our environment. We might feel stressed or exasperated by the law school grind, but everyone bumps up and down throughout their days.  We deal with our stress and balance ourselves out either with exercise, socializing or just by having stress resilient genes.  Not so with depression.  Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., in his best-selling book, Undoing Depression, writes:

“We confuse depression, sadness, and grief.  But the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality—the ability to experience a full range of emotion, including happiness, excitement, sadness, and grief.  Depression is not an emotion itself. It’s not sadness or grief, it’s an illness.  When we feel our worst, sad, self-absorbed, and helpless, we are experiencing what people with depression experience, but they don’t recover from those moods without help.”

There is also a biochemical poverty about depression; the scarcity of neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine that wreck havoc in our brains and set the stage for depression.  As I wrote in Trial magazine about the connection between stress, anxiety and depression, the grind isn’t just about long hours in the office or law library cubicle, but the grinding up of our nervous systems.

We have a sense that such a lifestyle can be problematic to our happiness, but we’re willing to keep marching to that beat in the hope of later rewards (e.g. money, security, partnership). Yet, I can’t help but think that we’re dimly aware, if at all, of the risk we put ourselves in for major depression.

Besides the psychological-physiological links to depression, we live in a culture that breeds melancholy.  How could this not eek its way into the law school experience?

Maybe it’s the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our times; the torpor of the imagination which fails to inspire our young people, to live an engaged and spirited life in the law, or the cynicism to think that such a life is even possible that worries me. Or, by the time young people get to law school, they’re so jaded by our consumer driven culture they just want the diploma to start making the big bucks. All of this contributes to depression, to a lonely society that undermines what it means to live a decent, healthy and happy life.

In 2008 the American Bar Association launched a Mental Health Initiative to address mental health problems on law school campuses.  See the Mental Health Toolkit for Student Bar Organizations and Administrators distributed as part of this effort.  Such initiatives’ involve mental health days (e.g. check out Marquette Law School) where they had out a document from Professor Krieger called The Hidden Sources of Law School Stress, “wellness” web pages on law school websites (e.g. check out the one at Harvard Law School) and referrals to a school’s counseling center (e.g. check out Cornell Law School).

While laudable, they’re an arm’s length effort to confronting such a deeply personal and painful human experience.  Moreover, it seems like any presentation on the issue of depression in law schools is limited to first year orientation. What about the second and third year students? Studies conclude that depression rates continue to rise into the second and third year.  If that’s true, what is being done to help these students?  Another query: Just how many of the people who speak at these programs are law students or lawyers who actually had or are currently suffering from depression and disclose it?  My hunch is few, if any.

Why should that matter?  Because students need to hear it — they need to listen to someone in the trenches of a profession they’ll soon be entering.  Without such depression experiences, a speaker is like someone trying to enlighten someone about the dangers of smoking and cancer, but has never smoked. Wouldn’t it be a more powerful, credible and informative experience for students to listen to a law student and/or a practicing lawyer, who has depression and is willing to talk about it?

Instead, students are served up programs, usually offered up by well-meaning Dean or Vice-Deans of Student Affairs and therapists from a University’s Counseling Center. There’s a lump-it-all-together approach to it all.  I was asked a few years back, when I was just beginning my advocacy work, to give a brief, 15-minute talk on depression. The school trotted out a variety of people in fifteen minute increments to talk about stress, drinking, drugging and, eventually, depression. Speaking in that big first year classroom, I was reminded of the ancient Greek amphitheaters.  Many of the Greek dramas were tragedies.  And make no doubt about it, depression is a tragedy.

I was saddened by the whole charade, the paucity of imagination and effort that went into addressing such a critical problem; the let’s pool this list of mental ills together into a small program on “mental health.”  I sensed that the students failed to see how any of this was connected to them.  The sliver of time allocated to depression couldn’t help but leave the students with the impression that the school really didn’t take the problem that seriously.

Over 130 million people suffer from depression worldwide on a planet where it is the leading cause of disability. In our country, it’s also the leading cause of disability and some 20 million people are afflicted.  It’s been characterized as an “epidemic.”  If that’s true, what does that say about the higher rates of law student and lawyer depression?  Just what adjective could one use to describe the scope of the problem?

 Addressing Depression In Law School – Really

Here’s what can be done right now:

1. Law Schools – show the thirty minute documentary, “A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession.”   Copies of the film on DVD are available form the Erie County Bar Association. A trailer of the film is on this website.

2. Have someone come in to speak to the students that are in the legal profession who has suffered from depression to reach these students.  Give it more than 15 minutes of your time and have programs for second and third year student on this critical topic.

3. Law Students – show up, watch the film and think long and hard about it.

Finally, I want to urge all of you reading this blog to write in and express your views about your law school experience, whether you’re in school now or it’s been thirty years.  There’s much to be gained by such sharing. Please write.

Further reading:

Todd David Peterson & Elizabeth Waters Peterson, Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology, 9 YALE JOURNAL OF HEALTH POLICY & ETHICS (Summer, 2009); Susan Daicoff, Lawyer Be Thyself: An Empirical Investigation of the Relationship Between the Ethic of Care, the Feeling Decision-making Preference, and Lawyer Well-being, 16 VIRGINIA JOURNAL OF SOCIAL POLICY & LAW (2008-2009); Patrick J. Schlitz, On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession, 52 VANDERBILT LAW REVIEW 871 (1999) and Depression and Anxiety in Law Students: Are We Part of the Problem and Can We Be Part of the Solution?, 8 JOURNAL OF LEGAL WRITING INSTITUTE 229 (2002).



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10 thoughts on “In the Beginning: Depression in Law Schools

  1. Thank you for what you’re doing Dan. I’m a second year law student and I have depression. I still can’t work up the courage to admit it to anyone but myself, but because of the lecture you gave at my school last year I don’t feel so alone. I at least feel like there’s someone out there who gets it. Someone understands what it feels like to wake up everyday with concrete in your veins; to have to constantly remind yourself to look happy in public so the people around you don’t suspect anything. I hope you can someday chip away at that stigma that surrounds depression so people like me don’t have to be too ashamed to ask for help. Until then, thank you for trying.

  2. I think if we had law schools teaching more than just the law students would have a different attitude about their future. One of the major obstacles for new lawyers is not the cases/clients but the marketing/business aspect to keep them afloat. Most students know what they will be getting into right after they graduate and it is stressful.

    1. Agree Noah. The marketing pressure has been ramped up because law schools are graduating too many lawyers. When I became a lawyer 25 years ago, there were about 600,000 lawyers in the U.S. – that number has doubled. Dan

  3. I would agree, every person could experience depression not only law students. But I think, law students are more prone on depression maybe because of the responsibilities of being a lawyer.

  4. If you feel depressed, tell someone. See someone. Please. There is no stigma worse than this feeling. I’m a 3L with BigLaw lined up (hooray…) and within the last few months depression hit me like a truck. I barely sleep. I get out of bed feeling miserable. But I told my friends and family and sought professional help. I couldn’t imagine keeping this to myself because I’m barely functioning. I will NOT be successful in any setting feeling like this. Don’t hold it in. Talk to anyone. Email me if you like.

    1. I’m a little late to this post (more like four years). How has everything turned out since 2013? You comments resonated very closely to my own experiences during my last year of law school. At a time when I should have been elated in having locked down a very good judicial clerkship, I was terrified to even leave my apartment. In fact, I couldn’t even muster up an ounce of excitement or enjoyment to celebrate all of my hard work in landing that clerkship. Although it’s been a tough grind, I’m so much better off now than I was four years ago.

  5. I have absolutely no idea how I stumbled across this article, especially given the fact that it’s from 2013 and I’m now replying in July 2017. However, I have yet to come across an article that accurately connects the legal field – law school and practice – to depression.

    A little background before delving into my battle with depression and anxiety brought about from my time at law school. I attended a highly reputable liberal arts college in Indiana, and graduated in May 2008. Throughout my four years, I was pushed to the max academically, as well as as athlete having played college soccer. The rigorous demand on academics resonated to the same degree as law school. However, the primary difference between my undergrad and law school was that my entire semester did not rest upon a three hour exam (most of my courses were 50% multiple choice and 50% essays). Given that it was undergrad, I understand that such heightened pressure was not practical at that level of education. Most notably – and despite the incredible pressure to thrive academically – I never experienced depression or anxiety. Many times my stress level was to the absolute max, but after I completed a test or turned in a paper, all stress was gone.

    After taking a year off to recharge, I began law school in the fall of 2009. Fortunately, my best from college (and still closest friend in general) was in his third year as I began my first year. Worth noting is that I took summer courses throughout my three years at law school which allowed me to spread classes out. As such, my first year was actually amazing. My buddy introduced me to many great people, of which about a dozen of us continue to be very close friends today. However, it wasn’t until my second year in 2010 – and after all of these now great friends began graduating – that I noticed the changes. At this juncture of my life, I had no idea what anxiety and depression entailed. And I was unable to read the early signs that each had started to take over.

    I can remember the specific moment in vivid detail that my anxiety officially took over. It was in April 2011 – during my two week break before the summer term – that I had been sitting at a stop light while in Louisville playing in a men’s soccer tournament. Out of nowhere, this overwhelming feeling of panic set in while I was waiting for the light to turn green. In hindsight, I now know that I experienced my first of very many panic attacks. From that moment on until late October 2012 (my last semester was May 2012), my anxiety continued to increase and become uncontrollable. In fact, it was so unbearable that I could no longer drive on the expressway; anytime I was in a traffic jam or construction, I would literally freak out and break into such miserable panic attacks. Unfortunately, I had no idea that I was actually experiencing anxiety and panic attacks.

    Fast forward to the start of my final semester in February 2013. At this point, I was taking six courses, as well as working 20+ hours as a tutor. I felt that all of this was necessary in order to finish in three years. However, February 2012 is when my severe anxiety – which masked my severe depression – officially kicked in. Beginning that February until I began receiving treatment in January 2013, my anxiety was so out of control that I could not sleep more than 1-2 hours per night. Eventually it turned into never sleeping, which continued to get worse by the week.

    By the grace of some higher power, I had started seeing a psychologist in the summer of 2013 who specialized in anxiety. Unfortunately, he was unable to cure me without medication throughout our many sessions together. Fast forward to Oct. 2012, that is when my entire mental health fell apart. Due to my incredible sleep deprivation, coupled with the severest of anxiety and depression – I had actually devised a plan to commit suicide. As fate would have it, my weekly meeting with the psychologist fell on that same day. It didn’t take long for him to realize my mental state was in shambles; thankfully he called my now psychiatrist out of Notre Dame, who eventually saved my life.

    Now some people – more like those who have never experienced severe depression – may think/say “suicide is never the way out. There’s always help” (or something to that extent). Being the research nerd that I am, I’ve studied this this extensively – along with discussions with my world renowned psychiatrist – and have learned that I was not consciously devising that suicide plan In fact, my brain was so chemically imbalanced, sleep deprived, depressed and anxiety ridden, that suicide was its “only way out”.

    So my psychologist arranged for me to meet my psychiatrist that same evening. However, due to my incapacitated ability to drive a vehicle due to my anxiety being so damn unbearable, my parents drove me to Notre Dame to visit my doctor and check me into their depression unit. It was at this time that I was officially diagnosed with “the most severe form of depression and anxiety that can be diagnosed”. In fact, my doctor advised that I was top 10 most severe anxiety and depression cases he had encountered in over 30 years of practicing mental health medicine. To put it into perspective, the typical amount of time one stays in that unit is 3-5 days; I was there almost 8 weeks. And that is when the healing began.

    My treatment at Notre Dame began in Oct. 2012, and I was released early Jan. 2013. I had been released in early Dec., but my anxiety and depression symptoms were still too severe and I quickly returned to the hospital. It was at that point that my doctor felt it necessary to resort to the last option of Electro Compulsive Therapy (i.e. ECT/Shock therapy); he performed 8-10 of these procedures. My cocktail of medications included: Anti-depressant; Mood Stabilizer; Stimulant; Anti-Anxiety; Lithium; Folic Acid; Omega Complex. During the course of my nearly 3 months at the hospital, my doctor was able to bring my anxiety to a halt.
    Unfortunately, it had only been masking my sever depression. So additional medications were added.

    Lastly, as a result of my mental misfortune, my then-fiance (dated 10 years) broke off our engagement the same day I returned home from the hospital in Jan. 2013. In short, she simply couldn’t handle who I had become as a result of my anxiety and depression. To think that only three years earlier she was head-over-heals in love with me, to be dumped because I had transformed into a walking/breathing and emotionless zombie merely added fuel to my heightened depression.

    It wasn’t until that July of 2013 that I FINALLY started coming back to life when I decided to help my dad coach high school soccer (I played through college). My anxiety was non-existent, and my depression finally began dissipating. However, those issues will never fully disappear. I will forever battle anxiety and depression for the rest of my life, which is a tough pill to swallow given that I hadn’t endured it for the first 27 years (I’m now 32). But hey, I’ll take it compared to the misery I had been living through at the end of law school and into my externship as a judicial clerk.

    My apologies for the incredibly lengthy recounting of my life in dealing with anxiety and depression as a direct result from my law school experience. It is my hope that others will come across this article who are dealing with depression/anxiety while in law school – or practicing attorneys – and genuinely relate to what I have written. Law school changed my life for the better and the absolute worst: I now have a very successful career in real estate as a Realtor and real estate attorney; I also continue to battle my anxiety and depression demons from law school.

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