How Stress and Anxiety Become Depression

Lawyers suffer from depression at an alarming rate.  I am one of them.

I have been a litigator for more than 22 years, and I didn’t suffer depression in the beginning of my career. But I did have trouble managing the stress of my practice. 

Over time, this constant stress developed into anxiety.  I started feeling like I couldn’t control everything.  I would go to bed fearing the problems and disasters to confront me the next morning.  After years of this, the pendulum swung from states of anxiety to states of depression.  Why did this happen?  It took me a long time to understand.

Recently, scientists have been focusing on the connection between stress and anxiety and the role they play in triggering and maintaining depression.  This is something that should be of concern to all lawyers, who carry high stress loads in their law practices.

Too Much Stress Can Lead to Anxiety

“Stress” is anything in our environment that knocks our bodies out of their homeostatic balance.  Stress responses are the physiological adaptations that ultimately reestablish balance.  Most of the time, our bodies do adapt, and a state of balance is restored.  However, “if stress is chronic, repeated challenges may demand repeated bursts of vigilance,” warns Dr. Robert Sapolsky, an expert on stress-related illnesses and author of the best-selling book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress Related Diseases and Coping. “At some point, vigilance becomes over-generalized, leading us to conclude that we must always be on guard – even in the absence of stress.  And thus the realm of anxiety is entered,” writes Sapolsky.

About 20% of the population will experience some form of anxiety disorder at least once in their lifetime.  Studies show that law students and lawyers struggle with anxiety at twice that rate.

Anxiety and Depression

Stress went on too long in my life as a litigator.  I had, indeed, entered the realm of anxiety.  I felt like I had a coffee pot brewing 24/7 in my stomach.  I became hypervigilant; each file on my desk was like a ticking time bomb about to go off.  At some point, the anxiety made me dysfunctional, and I was unable to do as much as I had before.  I felt ashamed of this.  I denied it to myself and hid it from others, but the litigation mountain became harder and harder to climb as the anxiety persisted over a period of years.

Sapolsky writes, “If the chronic stress is insurmountable, it gives rise to helplessness. This response, like anxiety, can become generalized: A person can feel . . . at a loss, even in circumstances that [he or] she can actually master.”  Helplessness is one pillar of a depressive disorder that becomes a major issue for lawyers because we think of ourselves as invulnerable superheroes who are the helpers, not the ones in need of help.  Lawyers often don’t get help for their depression and feel ashamed if they do.     

Many lawyers do not appreciate the connection between their stress and anxiety and their risk for developing clinical depression.  But the occurrence of anxiety disorder with major depression is frequent; in fact, 60 percent of people with depression are also suffering from an anxiety disorder.

Maybe this connection helps explain studies that find such high rates of both anxiety and depression in the legal profession.

Depression “is stress that has gone on too long,” according to Dr. Richard O’Connor author of the book Undoing Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety, and 21st Century Illness.  Many people with depression have problems dealing with stress because they aren’t “stress resilient,” writes O’Connor.  It’s not some central character flaw or weakness, but a complex interplay bewteen genetics and one’s experiences over a lifetime.

How our bodies and brains deal with stress and anxiety hasn’t changed much in the last 10,000 years.  This wonderful defense mechanism, which is wired into our nervous system, is called the fight-or-flight response.  When confronted with a threat – – whether real or perceived – – this response kicks in and initiates a sequence of nerve cell firing and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that flood into our bloodstream and propel us into action to meet a threat.  This was an essential survival device for our ancestors who lived in the jungle and would have to flee beasts or fight foes trying to kill them.

Lawyers don’t fact these types of real life-or-death threats.  But they perceive life-or-death threats in their battles with opposing counsel while sitting in a deposition or sparring in the courtroom.  Our bodies respond as if we were being chased by a hungry lion.  Accordingly, the stress response can be set in motion by mere anticipation, and when humans chronically believe that a homeostatic challenge is imminent, they develop anxiety.

Over time, this chronic anxiety causes the release of too much fight-or-flight hormones.  Research has shown that prolonged release of too much cortisol damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression: the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory) and the amygdala (a fear processing hub deep in the brain).  Another area of the brain, the cingulate (an emotion-dampening center located near the front of the brain), in tandem with the amygdala, helps set the stage for depression.

Lawyers need to learn better ways to deal with stress and anxiety to avoid the multiple triggers that can cause or exacerbate clinical depression.  Turning and facing those things that make us stressed and anxious, and doing something about it, gives us the best protection against depression.

99 Things About Depression

  1. Depression sucks.
  2. You know this if you suffer from it.
  3. You know this if you’ve suffered from it before.
  4. If you have it, you’re not alone.
  5. If you’re in the legal profession, you’re really, really not alone.
  6. 10% of Americans struggle with depression.
  7. 20% of lawyers struggle with depression.
  8. Do the math – 200,000 out of 1 million lawyers have the big “D”.
  9. Grad school is tough.
  10. Apparently, tougher law students.
  11. 20 to 40% of law students will become depressed at some point.
  12. Do more math – 30,000 to 60,000 out of the 150,000 law students.
  13.  Ok, ok, we get it.  Depression is a BIG problem in the law.
  14. I’ve felt lonely when I’ve been depressed.
  15. I’ve been bone-tired when depressed, but couldn’t sleep.
  16. People who struggle with depression are my heroes.
  17. If there are so many depressed lawyers, why do they stay in the law?
  18. Money?  For sure, what else?
  19. Status?  Yes.
  20. Very often, they’ve drifted into it.
  21. But, maybe they’d be depressed in or out of the law. Maybe.
  22. Many wonder, “What else could I do with a law degree?”
  23. Not getting help?  Not a good idea.
  24. Getting help?  Much better idea.
  25. We are people who happen to be lawyers.
  26. We’re not lawyers who happen to be people.
  27. Remember this.  Don’t forget it.  Write it down someplace.
  28. Depression changes your brain chemistry.
  29. You may need medication.  Maybe not.
  30. You’ll need to talk to someone about it.
  31. A friend?  Good start.  A therapist?  Even better.
  32. You’ll need to make changes in your life to get better.
  33. And stay better.
  34. What combination of changes those are different for everyone.
  35. You can start to feel better.
  36. I care about you even though I’ve never met you.
  37. This is so because I’ve been there and understand.
  38. You need to find people like this to talk to.
  39. Be realistic – it might take a bit of time to feel better.
  40. How long? Nobody really knows.  Just keep going.
  41. Some say, “I feel like killing myself”.
  42. Don’t do that.  Though, I understand why you might feel this way.
  43. This painful impulse is depression talking – don’t listen.
  44. Talk with a therapist about this pain – immediately – and listen to them.
  45. Take a good look at how you see the world.
  46. Take a good look at how you see yourself.
  47.  The Buddha once said, You are what you think.
  48. Psychologists say that too.
  49. True, but you’re more than just your thoughts.
  50. You are a child of God, however you conceive of Him, Her or It.
  51. You are precious beyond measure.
  52. Exercise isn’t just about losing weight.  It’s also about good brain chemistry.
  53. Don’t listen to people who say “Toughen up.” Simple ignorance.
  54.  Don’t try to handle this by yourself.
  55. It’s an illness. You’re not a bad, weak person.
  56. Depression tends to run in families.
  57. Your drinking too much might really be about depression.
  58. It’s okay to be scared.  There are millions of others who feel this way too.
  59. There are different degrees of severity with depression.
  60. Just like coffee at Starbucks – mild, medium and bold.
  61. Depression isn’t just in our heads, it’s in our brains.
  62. Does your job feel meaningless?
  63. If so, it’s no surprise that you feel unhappy – maybe even depressed.
  64. Chances are you didn’t have a healthy childhood if you have depression.
  65. Many with depression didn’t.
  66. “Nobody cares about me.” That’s depression talking.
  67. What do you really want out of life?
  68. Has anyone ever asked you that question? And really listened to your response?
  69. Have you ever asked yourself that question? What would that life look like?
  70. Most people with depression also have a problem with anxiety – about 60%
  71. Are you just unhappy or depressed?  Important question.
  72. Maybe you’re both?  You should talk to an expert.
  73. Maybe the hardest part of depression is feeling hopeless.
  74. Depression is a vicious circle.
  75. We keep behaving in ways that keep us depressed.
  76.  We keep thinking in ways that keep us depressed.
  77. As such, we keep getting depressed.
  78. What’s your greatest passion in life?
  79. Do you do enough of it?  Why not?
  80. Small children can be great antidepressants.
  81. Serving others can be as well.
  82. Depression isn’t just a sign of illness.
  83. It is a sign that you need to change your life.
  84. You need to educate yourself about what depression is.
  85. You need to educate your significant other about it also.
  86. A good book would help.
  87. When you’re depressed, you don’t feel like doing anything.
  88. That’s why you need to do things.
  89. You can’t wait until you feel like doing things.
  90. If depression had its way, you’d never feel like doing anything.
  91. For most, depression isn’t happening all the time.
  92. Pay attention to that.
  93. Are there things, people that trigger it?
  94. Are there things that help bring it down a notch?
  95. I’m no expert.
  96. I don’t have all the answers.
  97. I hope I have a few.
  98. Thanks for reading this.
  99. Adios.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Company We Keep

Life is partly what we make it, and partly what it is made by the friends we choose – Tennessee Williams, playwright

People in and out of the law often ask, “What causes such high rates of depression in the legal profession?”

I’ve written about some of the causes in law students (too much competition and too little feedback), lawyers (chronic stress which changes brain chemistry) and judges (loneliness that can contribute to and/or help cause a depressive episode).

There’s another dimension to it, though.  It’s the company we keep.  It’s not just the rough and tumble of fighting with opposing counsel that grinds on lawyers’ mental health.  It can also be more subtle forces . . . like our colleagues.

When we’re depressed, it’s like we’ve jumped out of a plane and are in free fall.  We lose our sense of perspective and hope as we speed towards the ground trying to untangle our chute.

Hanging out with cynical lawyers is like jumping out of that plane after they’ve just handed you an anvil.  This only adds more weight onto the backs of lawyers who may be already struggling to get out from under depression’s shoe. The grousing of other attorneys is unhealthy for a depressive because it only serves to reinforce their pessimistic view of the universe. 

Behind Closed Doors  

Over the years, my door has been a revolving one.  You know there’s trouble when a colleagues enter, give you a conspiratorial glance and silently shut the door behind themselves.  Often – too often – it’s to replay negative experiences they’ve had at work and how unhappy they are.  They’re usually not looking for solutions as much as collusions; confirmation that others don’t like their law jobs either and that everyones common fate in the law is misery.

A lawyer friend of mine, who used to meet me for coffee, would tell me how unhappy he was in his job.  “Most people are assholes in this field,” he would snort.  I’d then tell him about all of the positive experiences I have had — and still enjoyed — with other lawyers.   He looked like he was listening, but he had already tuned out.  It simply didn’t confirm his dreary conclusions about his professional life.  As if he hadn’t heard me, he’d just return to his diatribe about how much being a lawyer sucks.

I sometimes have difficulty saying “no” to people and setting appropriate limits.  Especially, when I sense they’re in trouble like my friend in the above story. But, I finally concluded that I wasn’t helping matters for my friend or myself.  He didn’t want to change his mind or explore options.  And the exchanges only served to bring me down.  I let the friendship go because I needed to set boundaries.  I just couldn’t spend more time with my friend.  I needed to spend time around others who, while they may be in distress, want to change and heal.  Or just hang out with others who enjoyed life and had never been despressed.

Lunchtime

Bitching about the law is common fare when lawyers break bread; a midday break which leaves one with a sort of indigestion of the mind.

These brothers and sisters in arms – those who we toil beside in the legal trenches – are usually good people.  But, that doesn’t change the fact that their inner discontent isn’t good for us.

We tend to hang out with the same people every day for lunch.  We do so because of flat-out inertia or we just don’t know what else to do with ourselves and, well, just drift into it.  I recall the times in my career when I did this too much.  My cadre of complaining colleagues ramped up my stress level to the point where I felt compelled to unload. This becomes a chorus of woe because complaining just breeds more . . . complaining.

In her book The (Un)happy Lawyer: A Roadmap to Finding Meaningful Work Outside of the Law, Monica Parker, a Harvard Law graduate, recommends  ditching your lawyer friends:

“I’m betting a lot of the people you know are lawyers.  How many of them are happy practicing law?  I can count the happy lawyers I know on one hand.  How many of them are successful at finding other opportunities?  Expecting these people to help you make a career change is the proverbial blind leading the blind.  The miserable leading the miserable blind, actually.”

Afterward my lunches, I’d walk back to my office feeling hollow and dispirited.  I kept making resolutions to not join in the negative banter.  When that failed, I just decided I had to begin to break away. This involved setting up a different routine – lunch with non-lawyers, the library, church or catching up of work at Starbucks.  They didn’t know why I had stopped going to lunch.  But, like everything else in life, they got used to it.  If I had to have lunch with them for some work-related problem, I tried to have it with only one person from this group.  It was less overwhelming when dealing with only one person’s negative views on reality and gave me a fighting chance to interject some positive elements in a way I couldn’t with the lunchtime crowd.  If all else failed, I e-mailed or sent memos.

Some Food for Thought 

Pick a person who you admire or who has a career that they like or love.  What do they like about it?  Are there some habits they have which make them happy at work, even small ones, which you can apply to your law career?  

Negativity feeds on itself.  Notice that when you don’t join in the gripe, how it brings down the fervor of your day a notch.  Moreover, when we don’t participate in it, we feel a little lighter than if we had.  Try it and see for yourself.

When we are depressed, we go into a default mode.  We don’t deliberate about going into a dark mood, so much as fall into it.  There are so many triggers that cause depression that we can feel we’re being shot at from all sides.  We commonly succumb.  The time to work our way through this swamp is not when we’re under depression’s spell.  We must prepare beforehand.  Write it out a self-care plan which includes positive people.

One thing that I’ve found particularly helpful is a reminder from my psychologist that we’re always observing ourselves as we behave.  For example, when we work out, we observe ourselves doing something good for our body.  Not participating or setting limits on colleagues dumping their negativity on us makes us feel more in control of our life and positive. This simple approach can dispel the hopelessness that so often accompanies depression. Another why of skinning the cat of depression – which requires more practice than getting to the gym for most of us – is to describe the good parts only when you are talking about situations.  In her book The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques, Margaret Wehrenberg writes:

“Get into the habit of reviewing what went right in any situation – observe what worked out fine despite stumbling blocks along the way.  For people with depression this may take some practice!  You are probably accustomed to instead focusing on what went wrong.  But ignoring what satisfies you can be a trigger to depressed mood. So learn to rate your experiences of what went right rather than on what went wrong.”

Finally, think about joining a depression support group.  While people can and do talk about difficult and sometimes painful things, the emphasis is a constructive one – learning to deal with your law job in a more constructive way so as not to facilitate a depressive episode or getting support in coming out of one.  It’s important to join one because depression can be so isolating.  Being part of a group teaches you that other people understand and truly care about you.   You can find a lawyer support group near you by contacting your state’s Lawyer Assistance Program.  If your community doesn’t have one, or you’d rather not go to a group with other lawyers, check out the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance website which has support groups all over the country.

Search out warm hearts and contented others whether in the law or not.  They’re out there.  Your happiness depends on it.

Finding Our Way in the Law

It’s in the darkness of men’s eyes that  they get lost – Black Elk

Graduating from law school is both exciting and frightening at the same time.  There’s a real itch to put our knowledge into action, to be a bona fide “attorney at law” and to start making some dough instead of spending it on tuition and books. On the other hand, we really don’t know a lot about the application of legal theory to legal combat, may have a heap of debt and pray that our first stab at competency doesn’t land us face first on the courthouse steps. 

Beyond all of these pragmatic concerns is the meatier matter of living a life in the law that matters; a life in accord with our inner core of what we truly value in life.  As author Studs Turkel once wrote:

“Work is about a daily search for meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short for a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying.”

Lawyers, young and old alike, find it difficult to live out their values in the workplace, to search for “meaning as well as daily bread.”  There are challenges and compromises, some more difficult than others.  For example, we may really value spending time with our family.  But as the demands of our career mount, we become untethered from this life-giving sustenance as we spend more and more time toiling at the office.

Andrew Benjamin, Ph.D., J.D., a lead researcher in studies about the mental health of law students and lawyers, concludes that much of the dissatisfaction in the profession comes from a widening gap between the values we truly care about and the things we end up pursuing in in our jobs as lawyers.  This takes place over time and its effects are cumulative.  Many end up leaving the profession.  Or, if they stay, are mired in unhappiness, discontent and can’t see a way out.

Dr. Benjamin found that approximately 20% of lawyers – about twice the national average – aren’t just unhappy; they’re suffering from clinical anxiety or depression. We aren’t talking about everyday stress, sadness, blues or categorical grumpiness.  We’re talking rubber to the road clinical anxiety and depression; devastating diseases that cause breakdowns in every area of one’s life.  Put in perspective, Benjamin’s studies suggest that a whopping 200,000 of this nation’s 1 million lawyers are struggling – some very badly.

Certainly a gap between our values and the way we live as lawyers doesn’t cause depression.  But it’s one of many factors that include a history of depression in one’s family and emotional abuse and/or neglect during one’s formative years that make a person prone to depression. 

Lawyers also seem to have a particularly fearsome type of stress overload; a jacked central nervous system fueled by the adversarial nature of the trade.  Modern science now knows that there is a powerful connection between chronic and remitting stress and the development of clinical depression.  As I wrote in “How Stress and Anxiety Become Depression,” chronic stress and anxiety causes the release of too many fight-or-flight hormones such as cortisol which damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression: the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory) and the amygdala (involved in how we perceive fear).

The point of all this sobering news isn’t to rain on anyone’s parade.  Law can and should be a noble calling and a satisfying way to make a living.  Rather, these warnings are meant to impart some thorny wisdom: living out your values and dreams are just as important as – to quote my brother Wally’s favorite expression, “carving out a living”.  Or, as Studs Terkel earlier surmised:  “. . . to have a sort of life, rather than a Monday-to-Friday sort of dying.”

It’s scary when you sense that you’ve wasted a lot of time doing a type of law – or law at all – that fails to connect with your deeper values.  Part of the fear is driven by the growing sense as we age that we don’t have forever – we are finite beings.  When we don’t know the way, can’t find path to move our outer life closer to our inner life, we can experience a sort of existential terror.  We may be sitting in a classroom, at court or just wandering downtown during our lunch break and a visceral sense that we yearn for something else will hit us.  How many of us quickly dismiss such thoughts as minor meanderings that aren’t worth our time.  But, these thoughts may keep coming.  Listen to them.  If we don’t, we may risk greater peril.

Gregg Levoy, author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, talks about the dangers of not following the murmurs coming from within us all:

“Of course, most people won’t follow a calling until the fear of doing so is finally exceeded by the pain of not doing so – pain that we appear to have an appalling high threshold for. Eventually the prospect of emotional and financial turmoil, the disapproval of others and the various conniptions of change, can begin to seem preferable to the psychological death you are experiencing by staying put.  Those who refuse their passions and purposes in life, though, who are afraid of becoming what they perhaps already are – unhappy – won’t of course experience the unrest (or the joy) that usually accompanies the embrace of a calling.  Having attempted nothing, they haven’t failed, and they console themselves that if none of their dreams come true then at least neither will their nightmares.”

So remember your values and where they are trying to lead you.  That’s realistic.  Our values are not set in granite; they can and will change over time.  Yet the only tuning fork you will ultimately have is trying to build a solid bridge between who you really are and what you are in the real world.  We can and will hit choppy waters as we sail our ships in our careers.  There will be many temptations – money, power.  This story has been played out for millennia.  As you go through your career, watch the currents and stir your ship bravely, with integrity and passion.

As Apple founder Steve Jobs wrote:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.  Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.  Don’t let the noise of other’s grievances drown out your own inner voice; and most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.  They somehow already know what you truly want to become.  Everything else is secondary.”

Why Are Lawyers So Unhappy?

martin-seligman-photo

“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.

Pessimism

pessimism

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

stressed

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

winloss

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

new-lawyers

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.

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