The stress of the law puts many lawyers at risk for all sorts of emotional afflictions. Read the Blog
The Dreaded ‘D’ Words: Depression, Drugs, Drinking, Divorce, Disbarment
Lawyers’ Depression Leaves Clients Abandoned
The Global Legal Post reports that the public is at risk when lawyers cannot practice due to depression. Read the News
Seasonal Affective Disorder: Could You Spot the Signs
Winter is well and truly upon us. For many reasons, this means miserable weather. How does it affect your mood and what can you do about it? Read the News
When the First Treatment Doesn’t Improve Your Depression
As many as 50% of first-time users of antidepressants do not find relief from their depression. Find out what the latest research says about why this is so and what you can do about it. Read the News
Study Finds that Sleep Helps Cure Depression
As Fox News reports, getting enough sleep has a powerful impact on easing depression. Watch the News
Depression: You Don’t Have to Do It Alone
From The Huffington Post, Carol Brody writes about her recognition of and recovery from depression. Read the Blog
Are Lawyers Worry Warts?
Lawyers don’t have problems, they have catastrophes. Many lawyers feel that the problems that afflict the average person are manageable in comparison to the big decisions with big consequences they must shoulder every day. “My friends just don’t understand the burdens I carry in my job”, one lawyer told me. “I worry constantly and can’t turn it off.”
Another seasoned attorney related:
I always thought I was a worrier. I’d feel keyed up and unable to relax. At times it would come and go, and at times it would be constant. It could go on for days. I’d have terrible sleeping problems. There were times I’d wake up wired in the middle of the night. I had trouble concentrating, even reading the newspaper or a novel. Sometimes I’d feel a little lightheaded. My heart would race or pound. And that would make me worry more.
According to psychologist Jim Taylor, not all worry is bad:
Worrying is obviously not a pleasant emotion, but it is actually an essential, normal, and instinctive emotion that has been hard-wired into humans to help us survive since we rose out of the primordial muck. We worry about something because we perceive it as a threat to our existence and worry causes us to focus on it and protect ourselves from that threat. Back in the prehistoric days, carefree cave people, though probably a very fun bunch, were killed by hostile tribes or eaten by wild animals because they didn’t worry about or focus on the potential threats. Cave people who worried, though probably not the life of the party, survived these threats and passed their genes on to future generations. So, worry has been keeping us alive as a species since the dawn of humankind.
Worry is as much a part of lawyers’ lives as bagels and briefcases. I think most lawyers think of worrying as an occupational hazard of the professon, as much as an electrical lineman does about working at great heights around high voltage cable lines.
But worry can go on for too long and go to far. If it grinds on too long, it can became a type of disfunctional anxiety; a condition that is incapacitating.
What’s the difference between worry and anxiety? Psychologist Tara Bennett Goleman offers up this useful distinction:
A right-size dose of worry can mobilize us to meet a challenge well. But the tipping point from apt concern to the anxious mode is reached when added anxiety does not lead to constructive action. From that point on, we just stew in our worries. People caught in the anxious mode can feel overwhelmed, needy, fragile, and emotionally helpless, or have deep self-doubt.
Needy? Fragile? Deep Self-doubt? Lawyers? To many, that wouldn’t describe most lawyers they know. Lawyers need clients and their firms to think that they are strong and confident and, sometimes, even cocky and arrogant. Clients and firms pay them to stand up and be tough when inside, a lawyer riddled with anxiety, feels like falling apart.
Over the long haul, this way of life, this “cost of doing business”, is draining. But many lawyers feel like they have no choice. But when it comes down to it, they really do. And most lawyers know, deep down, that it is a bad one.
As author Corrie Ten Boom wrote, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows. It empties today of its strength.” Can lawyers get to the point in their lives where they see their anxiousness as a choice?
What are your experiences with worry and anxiety in your law practice?
Lawyer Fight-Or-Flight And Its Connection To Depression
Lawyers are control freaks. Okay, maybe they have to be. There’s is so much going on that they actually do have to control things to be good at their jobs. But it creates a grind of perpetual stress; every day, all-out stress seizures to control of events and people that are all too often uncontrollable leaving them depleted by the constant firing of their bodies’ fight-or-flight reaction.
We all learned in high school biology about the fight-or-flight response; a binary system of survival that kept our hairy, grunting ancestors alive in prehistoric times when meandering about the Sarengeti plains. This lighting quick response evolved to make us scamper from threats we could outrun and brawl with ones we couldn’t.
Today’s’ lawyers are embedded with the same nervous system their Neanderthal ancestors had 30,000 years ago. When they’re threatened on the job, their heart rate fires, breathing becomes shallower to divert oxygen to muscles and stress chemicals are dumped into their bodies. This all happens automatically, before they’ve even had a chance to think about it. And it happens even when they’re not being chased by a ravenous cougar or fighting a loin clothed adversary.
When our body’s stress response is triggered, it does not know the difference between true physical threats to our physical survival and psychological threats to our sense of self. Think about how much our hearts pounds in a contentious deposition, for example. Our bodies, unable to actually physically run or fist fight in the office, surge with stress hormones as if we were in a bloody life-or-death battle for control of that deposition with a dastardly adversary.
For lawyers prone to anxiety and depression, the daily surges of the stress hormone cortisol are particularly troublesome because of its impact on the hippocampus and the amygdala in the brain.
The hippocampus is that part of the brain that remembers details and helps you put incoming information into context. It is without emotions, registering and storing details of events, functioning like a Joe Friday from Dragnet: “Just the facts, mam.”
The amygdala is the brain’s early warning system and is a major cause in genetically depressed moods and negative thinking. It acts as an importance meter, registering tone and intensity and tells your brain instantly if it should prepare for trouble. It scans the environment looking for danger.
Too much cortisol, over too long a period of a time, can cause depression and result in actual changes to the brain.
Physician John Ratey writes in his best-selling book Spark:
“Chronic depression causes structural changes to the brain. Research has showed that depressed patients had measurable changes in the amygdala and the hippocampus, crucial players in the stress response. We knew the amygdala was central to our emotional life, but they also found that the memory center was also involved in stress and depression. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol kill neurons in the hippocampus. If you put a neuron in a petri dish and flood it with cortisol, its vital connections to other cells retract. Fewer synapses develop and the dendrites wither. This causes a communication breakdown, which, in the hippocampus of a depressed brain, could partly explain why it gets locked into thinking negative thoughts – it’s recycling a negative memory, perhaps because it can’t branch out to form alternative connections. At the same time, MRI shows that new nerve cells are born every day in the hippocampus and possibly the prefrontal cortex – two areas shriveled in depression. Now we see depression as a physical alteration of the brain’s emotional circuitry.
Norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin are essential messengers that ferry information across the synapse, but without enough good connections in place, these neurotransmitters can only do so much. As far as the brain is concerned, its job is to transfer information and constantly rewire itself to help us adapt and survive. In depression, it seems that in certain areas, the brain’s ability to adapt grinds to a halt. The shutdown in depression is a shutdown of learning at the cellular level. Not only is the brain locked into a negative loop of self-hate, but it all loses the flexibility to work its way out of the hole.”
In the privacy of their offices or in anonymous phone calls, I’ve heard many lawyers with depression tell me they hate themselves. They hate themselves because they’re stuck in depression and spinning their wheels. Rather than see this predicament as something that can be explained as an illness going on in their brain, they mercilessly punish themselves and feel they’re weak and lazy.
In his book Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety, and 21st Century Illness, Dr Richard O’Connor writes:
“For an overwhelming number of people today, the result of the vicious circle of perpetual stress is a state of permanent malfunction: dissatisfied, irritable, overwhelmed and hopeless, out of control, frightened, physically run down and in pain. For want of a better term, this is what I call the “Perpetual Stress Response.” Overwhelmed by too many stress hormones in our system, our cells close down receptor sites to try to compensate; but that just makes the endocrine system pump out even more stress hormones. Continually bathed in neurotransmitters telling us there is constant danger. And our brains become rewired by stress, our neural circuitry restricted to firing along preconditioned pathways, so that we are literally unable to think of new solutions, unable to come up with creative responses.”
Anxiety and depression are terrible coping mechanisms. If so, why do lawyers in such large numbers suffer from these maladies? Because they don’t know what else to do and don’t realize the damage they’re doing to their bodies and minds by living with the fight-or-flight furnace turned on high all day long.
So what is a depressed lawyer to make of all of this? Like recovery from any illness, awareness goes along way. For many with depression, it will take a long time and periods of suffering, to see, to truly see, that anxiety and depression don’t work as coping mechanisms and that they have to learn better ways in which to run their lives to help their brains.
In my next blog, I’ll explore what we can do about this situation.
Looking at 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace Contributions to Our Understanding of Depression
We all know and remember 60 Minutes hard-boiled reporter, Mike Wallace. Find out about his life-long struggle with depression. Read the Blog.
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.