Law and the Human Condition











Many people who went to law school didn’t have a burning passion to be a lawyer.  They did so because they didn’t know what else to do with their undergraduate degrees.  Some went on to find and embrace their calling as lawyers, some did not.  Some have left the profession.  Most have not. 

Those who haven’t left, but think of doing so – sometimes daily – are legion.  Forbes Magazine reported that a full 38 percent of attorneys say they somewhat regret their career choice.  Additionally, Harvard Law School counselors estimate that 20% to 30% of active attorneys are considering another career. 

I recently bumped into the Valedictorian of my law school class.  She told me she had chucked her law career awhile ago, went back to school and was now an elementary school teacher.  She had gone from power suit blues to L.L. Bean greens.  When I told other lawyer pals about this, they weren’t shocked – they envied her. 

Recently, I had lunch with a contract lawyer at the Oyster Bar in New York City.  He had come from a long line of lawyers and judges in his family who encouraged him to go to law school.  After graduating from Harvard Law School, he worked seven years at a large Manhattan firm.  As we slurped our Clam Chowder, he told me that he didn’t know one person that was happy being a lawyer.   That if they could get out, they would.  Now it may be that misery loves company, but let’s be honest:  there are a lot of unhappy folks out there.  Lawyers walk the halls of justice and corridors of power – or maybe just look out of a Starbucks window – and wonder why they just can’t turn things around and just feel happy.

I don’t think job dissatisfaction is unique to lawyers; it’s the daily fare for most Americans. A recent MSNBC article read:  “Americans hate their jobs more than ever in the past 20 years with fewer than half saying they are satisfied.”  People, deep down, feel broken and vulnerable, but just have to keep going in order to survive in this tough economic climate.

My friend and psychologist, Richard O’Connor, in his book, Undoing Perpetual Stress, captures the daily plight of the average American struggling to make to make it:

“Here is where I leave trying to explain physiology [how stress and depression affect the brain] and turn to something I know about – life as it’s lived in the USA.  I get to hear all about it from my patients, a wonderful cross-section – aging Yankees, rising Yuppies, farm and factory workers, teens and seniors.  Most people are living with, I think, a fear of fear.  There is a sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the way we are living our lives, but a reluctance to look closely at that.  We know deeply that we’re in serious trouble, but we live our daily lives as if everything is fine, whistling past the graveyard.  We try to purchase inner peace, knowing perfectly well that’s impossible, but not seeing an alternative.  Or we tell ourselves that someone will figure out what’s wrong someday, and until then we’ll just have to wait.  Or we’ll simply live our lives later.  Or we may believe for a while in the latest fad – a political leader, a spiritual leader, a self-help guru.  We try to follow what the fad tells us, but it usually doesn’t do much for our troubles, so we give up and try to forget again.”

I give a lot of speeches across the country to groups of lawyers about stress, anxiety and depression.  It’s always interesting how many contact me later and say that while they aren’t depressed per se, life isn’t going very well.  There have been plenty of times I’ve considered – or it’s been suggested to me – that I consider changing the name of my website from to something like  No, it’s not a real website so don’t click on it.  The point is that lawyers are stuck not only dealing with the high decibel life as a lawyer, but also the everyday crap that all Americans must try to handle everyday.

Dr. O’Connor helps us to understand the breadth of the problem for the average American:

“Then there are those without a diagnosis:  I can’t estimate the number who feel their lives are out of control because they can’t lose weight, they can’t stop procrastinating, they can’t get out of debt, they can’t speak up for themselves – “soft addictions,” bad habits that make them feel miserable and ashamed.  They are still others who are like the living dead – numb to their own existence, busy working, buying, doing – feeling vaguely empty but compelled to continue, too busy even to sit and look at their lives.  Their depression has grown on them so insidiously that it feels normal; they believe life stinks, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  And finally there are the rest of us, who still have to find confidence, connection, love, who have to raise children without guidance in a crazy world, often watch our parents lose their minds if they live long enough, and wonder about the meaning and importance of our lives.  Even those of us supposedly without emotional problems, there is still the nagging fear that we’re faking it, just making it up as we go along, and praying we don’t stumble.”

This quote isn’t meant to bum anyone out – okay maybe it’s a tad bit melancholic.  However, I would argue, not morose.  I think it’s a true picture of the dilemma that most people deal with everyday as they cross at the traffic light pounding out on their Blackberry’s, yell into the old cell phone above the din of traffic noise or wonder ten times a day where they’re going to find the energy to deal with it all.

What makes lawyers different from the average Joe (and Jane)? 

I would argue that there are a couple of things.  First, the adversarial nature of the profession:  unless you are into slugging it out everyday (unfortunately, I’ve had opponents who thrive on this), the law will wear you down physically and emotionally.  Second, it is a career that is made up – maybe to a degree that few others are – of the mentality that you’re either a “winner” or a “loser.”  Third, much of the public has a murmuring resentment or outright disdain for lawyers.

What to do about all of this?  On this score let it be clear that I am not speaking to you from the mountain top, but from the valley.  I struggle with these problems – and the potential antidotes – every day.  But, I will give it a whirl.

First, recognize that many people are in the same boat as you.  If you recognize that you are not alone in feeling the way you do, it can ease your burden.  Some of this stuff is just the human predicament.  Most people have a difficult time navigating through life.  Chalk it up as a part of the deal we all signed on for when we were born into this troubled world.

Second, change your thinking.  I call this the “stressed-out-lawyer” myth.  This doesn’t contradict what I’ve said earlier; the point is that lawyers compound their pain by telling themselves — at virtually every moment of the day —  how out of control they are.  These thoughts, which a mental commentary on reality, – just plain out don’t help.  We need to be more constructive in our thoughts.  You’ll have to make the effort on this one.

Third – and I will never tire of tooting this horn – exercise.  We can’t ever forget that we are essentially animals with high powered brains.  The law jacks up our bodies with all sorts of high voltage situations we must confront.  We must find a way to discharge this energy or it will wear our batteries out.  Your poor body is literally screaming out to you to get rid of the stress before it eats away at your health.  As the Nike commercials say, “Just Do It!”

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7 thoughts on “Law and the Human Condition

  1. Let me allow another reason why the law is different, although you’ve already touched on it here:

    “The point is that lawyers are stuck not only dealing with the high decibel life as a lawyer, but also the everyday crap that all Americans must try to handle everyday”

    Not only are we (or at least litigators) paid to fight, and have to do it every day, day after day, year after year, but our clients are those people whose everyday crap has entered a new dimension. In going to a lawyer, they’re engaged in crap transferal, and so the lawyer is carrying their own crap, plus the burden of fighting (and that’s a terrible burden), plus much of the crap that their client seeks to avoid, and has transferred on to the lawyer.

    And, to add to it, by training, and perhaps by inclination, we’re a profession made up of people who engage in logical thought. But being able to analyze something logically in now way makes a person predisposed towards mental combat, nor does it necessarily predispose a person towards services better rendered by a counselor or priest. So a sense of despair can set in about our circumstances.

    As always, your comments are truly excellent. One other slight thought I’d add is that Americans are in the funk they are in, as we’ve managed to create such terribly artificial conditions for ourselves. Reversing that would be quite a chore, and is likely not possible, but clearly we need to take some steps to a more Walden Pond type existence, and a less Dilbert cartoon one.

  2. EXERCISE. Can’t stress how much it helps me. My psychologist told me that 3 days a week, for 30 min of exercise where your heart rate is elevated is necessary to obtain the anti-depressant benefits. I truly do feel the difference. I was walking before during the day, but was still in a major funk. Now, I run and hike, keeping my heart rate up, and the difference is AMAZING. I know trying to work out when down can seem absolutely monumental. But it is a life saver. Grab onto it and DO IT. It is your prescription. Choose Life. I CANNOT STRESS IT ENOUGH!

  3. Name: Tom Roberts
    Address: 10555 Mark St
    City: Oakland
    State: CA
    Zip: 94065
    Phone: 415-367-7505
    Mobile: 510-684-7880
    “Permission Denied” when I attempted to post this:

    My friend Eddie with whom I had become acquainted at an AA meeting in a small Northwest Arkansas town in 1993 checked into a local Marriott Hotel one Thursday evening. He had only his briefcase and a loaded 38-caliber revolver. Eddie sat at the desk in his room and scribbled a quick note to his wife, Eileen. “I’m sorry,” he wrote. Eddie then pointed the barrel of the revolver into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

    Eddie left behind his wife of 18 years and two beautiful young children. He also left behind a shingle: Eddie Jacobson, Attorney-at-Law. At 42, it seemed Eddie had everything. Everything, that is, except freedom from nagging clinical depression, which he tried in vain to self-medicate with alcohol and when he got sober by working the 12 Steps of AA there was no more booze, but plenty of depression.

    “Eddie,” his AA sponsor said, “you don’t need anti-depressants. You just need to work the Steps a little harder.”

    Fear of stigma attached to mental illness keeps people like Eddie’s sponsor in draconian ignorance.

    Every death ruled a suicide should be listed as caused by depression. It is easily treatable, but the stigma attached to getting help can be fatal. My younger brother killed himself when he was 35. Our sister died by her own hand five years later at 40. My brother and sister chose to die rather than seek help.

    Our kids need better education in our public schools about mental disorders, which are the leading cause of disability in the United States. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older – about 1 in 4 adults – suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.

    This fact should not be forgotten when a 42-year-old lawyer with a wife and two young children checks into a hotel and blows his brains out and we are left to ask why.

    Tom Roberts is both a patient and mental health advocate in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a former broadcast journalist and college professor now speaking and writing full-time. His book Chewing through the Straps: Living Successfully with Bipolar Disorder will be released in December by Vision Quest Press. URL: Email:

    The above was submitted on 10/20/2009 6:57:09 AM

  4. The idea of fighting for the underdog has always appealed to me. What better way to fight than to litigate? And what more deserving underdog than a construction contractor? A match made in heaven. Seriously, though, the right litigator saved me from bankruptcy, and I will be forever in his debt. While I planned to “pay it forward” by becoming a construction attorney, sadly, I entered the mental hospital (ironically involuntarily) before attaining my goal. Some would say the two are intertwined 🙂

  5. Ah, Mermaid, but the thing there is that no litigator works for only the good guys. We’re like the Prussian General Staff. We work for pay. We all like to say it’s for a good cause, but we all work for the guilty and the innocent, the innocently accused, and the correctly accused. We sue for the guilty against the innocent, and defend the guilty against the injured. All of us.

    A client’s gratitude is a big consolation, but only for awhile. And no career can be judged by the one happy representation, as there’s always the unhappy ones.

    1. I view your chosen vocation as a giant chess game. Move, counter-move, and eventual check-mate by one party. Let the chips fall where they may. In our society, even the guilty must be defended by someone. Kind of like changing a dirty diaper on your (adult) mom or dad. Someone has to do it. :)And I know you probably don’t want to get too philosophical, but you never really know what net effect your actions have in the big scheme of things. Kind of the “working overtime at the office kept you out of a car wreck you would have been killed in had you been on time” thing.

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