I have just begun tweeting. I hope to sprinkle news stories and other articles about stress, anxiety and depression that are meaningful and significant. I encourage you to get on board. Today’s tweet is from today’s edition of The New York Times. It’s a facsinating piece about the connection between the inability to recall specific details and depression. A study was just conducted by a team of psychologists at Oxford University. What they found was that the recall of past events in a broad, vague manner was an ” . . . unsung vulnerability factor for unhelpful reactions when things go wrong in life” and depression. Connect with Twitter and read on.
I spend time – too much it – trying to keep my desk in check.
Like a taciturn child, it erupts with tantrums of disorganization. The fact that it’s a mess today seems unfair, as if a hole suddenly formed in the ceiling above me and dropped a cache of briefs, case opinions and half-used legal pads onto my workspace.
I shuffle the papers that lay before me. They look back at me. Ten minutes go by. I reshuffle everything all over again. Sound familiar?
Mind you, on the Clutter-o-Scale, my desk is only a 4 out of 10. If so, why the grief?
Some of my angst comes from having trouble finding things. But an equal measure comes from the sense that I should be more organized. We have made a religion out of organization in this country which has sprouted temples of crazed worship like The Container Store or Organize.com. Maybe this growth industry is in reaction to how much stuff/junk/information we like or have to obtain and perpetually reorganize. This mania has even spawned an inane reality T.V. show “Hoarders.”
Too many things compete for lawyers’ attention besides the usual culprits of returning phone calls, court appearances and last minute deadlines. When you add a messy desk to an already stressed-out life, well, it becomes the enemy.
Desks are the pedestals of our productivity. How we organize the stuff on them has a big effect on how well or if we get things done in a timely fashion. But just as important as these practical concerns is the impact it has on our mental health.
What is your Organizational Style?
According to Kelly Lynn Anders in her book The Organized Lawyer, “Not everyone prioritizes about what the eye needs to feel relaxed. Some ideas work for some and not for others. That’s why it’s important to know your type.” She identifies four types of organizers:
Stackers organize by topic in stacks. They are visual and tactile and like to give the appearance of order. The busier these people are, the more stacks they have.
Spreaders are visual like stackers, but must be able to see everything they’re working on.
Free Spirits keep very few personal belongings around the work area. They like new ideas and keep reports, books, articles and magazines near.
Pack Rats have emotional ties to things. They like the feeling of fullness around them and like to tell stories about what’s in the office.
Which type are you? She has a lot of useful suggestions, among them is color coding files. On her own desk, she keeps commonly used files close at hand. Because she identifies herself as a “stacker,” Anders avoids cabinets and other hidden spaces for her files. “The reason I don’t have a lot of hidden storage is stackers have a tendency to squirrel things away,” she said. Check out some of her other suggestions at her website.
A Contrarian Point of View
While we don’t have his brain’s elephantine computing power, it’s worth considering that your desk mess might not be so bad after all.
Dr. Jay Brand, a psychology professor, argues that a squeaky clean desk doesn’t always equate with a productive employee. It can actually hinder personal efficiency because a person’s desk is an extension of his/her mind. That’s because our human memory has a limited capacity, or finite ‘cells’ available for storage and since most people do multiple things at once they almost immediately ramp their working memory to capacity. They need a place to park some of the information from their working memory into the environment and what more logical place than their desks?
According to Dr. Brand, “these cluttered desks that people use to store information from their working memory are called ‘cognitive artifacts’, and they expand a person’s capacity to think and utilize the environment”. He argues that companies with clean desk policies waste time by requiring workers to clean up their cognitive artifacts every night and re-clutter them the next morning. He points out that everyone has a different working style and piles can be organized topically, chronologically, or according to an individual system. As long as the pile means something to the person who made it, it is effective.
I’ve known plenty lawyers in this group. But I ain’t one of them. Maybe it has to do with my own depression over the years. Or, as Kelly Anders suggests, it’s just my type that determines how I lay out the work space in front of me.
The Depressed Desk
When a lawyer has depression, motivation and organization are BIG problems. A lack of energy blunts motivation. We already know that it’s a good idea to keep our desk together, but there simply isn’t much neurochemical juice to get it done. But, time or a court’s scheduling order waits for no one. If we don’t keep the paperwork on the conveyor moving, we end up a casualty of our work days and add to the stress/anxiety/depression mix.
“Many people equate depression with the inability to work. In reality, the problem is often the inability to feel like working. People who are depressed assume that their lack of motivation is a sign of weakness, and if they could just buck up a bit, they would be more productive. But waiting until you feel like doing something is the single biggest mistake you can make when you’re depressed and need to get things done.”
Yes, we need to start working in spite of our desire not to. Dr. John Preston, in the same book, elaborates further:
“Depressed people find it very hard to ignite this self-generated action due, in large part, to decreased metabolic functioning in the frontal lobes of their brain, which are responsible for initiating behavior. So if a person waits a long time and not only not accomplish the non-rewarding tasks but also miss out on the big projects that can bring big rewards.”
So it appears that folks who aren’t depressed and are motivated people have ramped up brain metabolism. I’m envious. Yet, there is something we can do about it. As I’ve written about before, consistent exercise helps boost the happy chemicals in our brains, jacks up metabolism and improves our motivation and focus. Moving is motivating.
We must outfox depression. It would have us do nothing. So we must do something. When I apply this simple wisdom to my day, I’m always pleasantly surprised at how my feelings catch up with my doing and how my doing affects my feelings.
My experience during bogged down moods, was that I’d get most things done, but it would take lots of energy. When I’d come home from work, I’d be spent.
Six Simple Solutions
I agree with an observation made by Leo Babauta on his blog Zen Habits: “The most important thing to remember is that you must have a system in place, and you must teach yourself to follow the system. Otherwise, you just clean your desk, and it gets messy again”.
Here are a couple of tried and true tips that have helped me:
1. Get rid of all those pens. Only keep three or four. More than that, and there’s too much ink in your work space. If you love pen, keep your stash at home. I often troll the pen aisle at Office Max — strange, but true. So I know how difficult it is to part with them.
2. Take home any books that you don’t use on a regular basis. It’s just more clutter and keeps you from easily putting your hands on the important stuff you need to do your job.
3. Hide cords – these are like a floating octopi with tenticles that seemingly go everywhere. Use twist-ties or coil your cords up.
4. Only keep on your desk what you need for that day. Then section off your desk and workspace so that everything has a specific space.
5. Have a dump day. Take everything off your desk and out of your drawer and then put it in a big pile. Then, sort through what is garbage and what you really need throughout the workday.
6. Schedule a date and time to clean your desk. Ideally, at the end of a workday. Weather permitting, do it on Friday’s around 4 so that I start my Monday fresh.
- Depression sucks.
- You know this if you suffer from it.
- You know this if you’ve suffered from it before.
- If you have it, you’re not alone.
- If you’re in the legal profession, you’re really, really not alone.
- 10% of Americans struggle with depression.
- 20% of lawyers struggle with depression.
- Do the math – 200,000 out of 1 million lawyers have the big “D”.
- Grad school is tough.
- Apparently, tougher law students.
- 20 to 40% of law students will become depressed at some point.
- Do more math – 30,000 to 60,000 out of the 150,000 law students.
- Ok, ok, we get it. Depression is a BIG problem in the law.
- I’ve felt lonely when I’ve been depressed.
- I’ve been bone-tired when depressed, but couldn’t sleep.
- People who struggle with depression are my heroes.
- If there are so many depressed lawyers, why do they stay in the law?
- Money? For sure, what else?
- Status? Yes.
- Very often, they’ve drifted into it.
- But, maybe they’d be depressed in or out of the law. Maybe.
- Many wonder, “What else could I do with a law degree?”
- Not getting help? Not a good idea.
- Getting help? Much better idea.
- We are people who happen to be lawyers.
- We’re not lawyers who happen to be people.
- Remember this. Don’t forget it. Write it down someplace.
- Depression changes your brain chemistry.
- You may need medication. Maybe not.
- You’ll need to talk to someone about it.
- A friend? Good start. A therapist? Even better.
- You’ll need to make changes in your life to get better.
- And stay better.
- What combination of changes those are different for everyone.
- You can start to feel better.
- I care about you even though I’ve never met you.
- This is so because I’ve been there and understand.
- You need to find people like this to talk to.
- Be realistic – it might take a bit of time to feel better.
- How long? Nobody really knows. Just keep going.
- Some say, “I feel like killing myself”.
- Don’t do that. Though, I understand why you might feel this way.
- This painful impulse is depression talking – don’t listen.
- Talk with a therapist about this pain – immediately – and listen to them.
- Take a good look at how you see the world.
- Take a good look at how you see yourself.
- The Buddha once said, You are what you think.
- Psychologists say that too.
- True, but you’re more than just your thoughts.
- You are a child of God, however you conceive of Him, Her or It.
- You are precious beyond measure.
- Exercise isn’t just about losing weight. It’s also about good brain chemistry.
- Don’t listen to people who say “Toughen up.” Simple ignorance.
- Don’t try to handle this by yourself.
- It’s an illness. You’re not a bad, weak person.
- Depression tends to run in families.
- Your drinking too much might really be about depression.
- It’s okay to be scared. There are millions of others who feel this way too.
- There are different degrees of severity with depression.
- Just like coffee at Starbucks – mild, medium and bold.
- Depression isn’t just in our heads, it’s in our brains.
- Does your job feel meaningless?
- If so, it’s no surprise that you feel unhappy – maybe even depressed.
- Chances are you didn’t have a healthy childhood if you have depression.
- Many with depression didn’t.
- “Nobody cares about me.” That’s depression talking.
- What do you really want out of life?
- Has anyone ever asked you that question? And really listened to your response?
- Have you ever asked yourself that question? What would that life look like?
- Most people with depression also have a problem with anxiety – about 60%
- Are you just unhappy or depressed? Important question.
- Maybe you’re both? You should talk to an expert.
- Maybe the hardest part of depression is feeling hopeless.
- Depression is a vicious circle.
- We keep behaving in ways that keep us depressed.
- We keep thinking in ways that keep us depressed.
- As such, we keep getting depressed.
- What’s your greatest passion in life?
- Do you do enough of it? Why not?
- Small children can be great antidepressants.
- Serving others can be as well.
- Depression isn’t just a sign of illness.
- It is a sign that you need to change your life.
- You need to educate yourself about what depression is.
- You need to educate your significant other about it also.
- A good book would help.
- When you’re depressed, you don’t feel like doing anything.
- That’s why you need to do things.
- You can’t wait until you feel like doing things.
- If depression had its way, you’d never feel like doing anything.
- For most, depression isn’t happening all the time.
- Pay attention to that.
- Are there things, people that trigger it?
- Are there things that help bring it down a notch?
- I’m no expert.
- I don’t have all the answers.
- I hope I have a few.
- Thanks for reading this.
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.
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.
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.”
Loneliness is the most terrible poverty — Mother Teresa
I’ve written a lot on stress, anxiety and depression in the legal profession, but not about the judiciary. There has been much commentary, research and Law Journal articles about what ails law students and attorneys — but not about judges.
I guess that’s not surprising. In my work over the past four years, I have spoken with scores of judges from all over the country. It’s a noble, important calling in life. But it’s also very stressful, demanding and . . . lonely.
Here’s a clip from the new documentary A Terrible Melancholy: Depression in the Legal Profession. My good friend Judge Michael Miller talks about the loneliness of being a judge:
Isolation, Loneliness & the Judiciary
In an article for Judicature magazine, psychiatrist Isaiah Zimmerman culled through twenty years of notes he accumulated from treating state and federal judges. Here are the voices of the judges in their own words:
“Before becoming a judge, I had no idea or warning, of how isolating it would be.”
“Except for those very close, old friends, you cannot relax socially.”
“Judging is the most isolating and lonely of callings.”
“The isolation is gradual. Most of your friends are lawyers, and you can’t carry on with them as before.”
“When you become a judge, you lose your first name!”
“It was the isolation that I was not prepared for.”
“After all these years on the bench, the isolation is my major disappointment.”
“The Chief Judge warned me: ‘You’re entering a monastery when you join this circuit.’”
“I live and work in a space capsule – alone with stacks of paper.”
“Your circle of friends certainly becomes smaller.”
“Once you get on the appellate bench, you become anonymous.”
These weren’t isolated comments or small pockets of pedestrian sadness. Dr. Zimmerman notes that about 70% of the judges he interviewed came up with these observations on their own.
There are several things that contribute to a sense of judicial loneliness. The Code of Judicial Conduct imposes restrictions on judicial behavior both in and out of the courtroom. Judges must avoid the appearance of impropriety and thus must be cautious and keep an appropriate distance and bearing at social and bar events. There are good reasons to have these restrictions, but if a judge isn’t careful to live a balanced life, they can help trigger a profound sense of lonesomeness.
Loneliness isn’t just emotionally painful; it’s also dangerous to your health on multiple levels. According to an article by psychologist, Hara Estroff Marano, writes:
“Evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships are not met, we fall apart mentally and even physically. There are effects on the brain and on the body. Some effects work subtly, through the exposure of multiple body systems to excess amounts of stress hormones. Yet the effects are distinct enough to be measured over time, so that unmet social needs take a serious toll on health, eroding our arteries, creating high blood pressure, and even undermining learning and memory.”
Given the pressures and isolation of the job, judges need to recognize the dangers associated with loneliness: unhappiness, discontent, health problems and perhaps . . . depression.
Judges and Depression
Judges are supposed to be problem solvers in black robes; not human beings with psychological problems of their own.
Given the position that judges occupy in our society, the stigma around disclosure to others –and perhaps getting treatment for clinical depression — is much, much greater.
One psychiatrist I know who treats judges told me that judges request very early or very late weekday or weekend appointments. Moreover, they ask not to be scheduled before or after another lawyer or judge and pay in cash so as not to attract attention or leave a paper trail.
For the first ten years of my career, much of my practice was spent litigating cases in state and federal courts in New York City. One of my best friends from those days is now a judge. When I decided to go public with my depression four years ago by writing an article for Trial magazine, my friend called me for dinner to catch up on things. He wanted to know how I was feeling and expressed concern about my plans to go public about my depression.
“Dan, why can’t you write the article anonymously,” the judge said. “But that’s the problem, isn’t it?” I replied. “Why should I have to write such an article anonymously? What do I have to be ashamed of? Depression is an illness no different than diabetes or heart disease. Would I write an article about those illnesses . . . anonymously?”
We kept in contact with dinners and phone calls over the next four years, but over time our conversations centered less on my depression and well-being and more on his. You see, my friend the judge disclosed to me that he was suffering from depression and had tried to commit suicide some years before.
I think he felt he could trust me. Moreover, I think my disclosure gave him implicit permission to talk about his pain and struggles; a hurt only his therapist and wife knew of. He spoke of the loneliness of his job and how he missed the collegiality of his old large firm. But, he said that on the balance, he’d rather be a judge and didn’t regret his change in vocation; a move from the courtroom to the chamber. He liked his job, enjoyed the intellectual challenge and the chance to do justice.
The statistics on lawyer depression are deeply troubling. They suffer from depression at a rate twice that (20%) of the general population. As such, about 200,000 of this nation’s 1 million lawyers are struggling with depression right now. No studies have been done on judicial depression.
There are 1,774 federal level judges in the U.S. Were you to plug in the 20% depression rate we see with attorneys to the number of judges, approximately 350 judges across America are suffering from depression. Even though there haven’t been any studies of judicial depression, why would we expect the 20% rate to be any different than that found with attorneys?
I couldn’t find any statistics on how many state judges there are in the U.S. New York State has 1,250. Were you to plug in the 20% depression rate we see with attorneys to the number of these judges, approximately 250 of the Empire State’s judiciary are suffering from depression.
This isn’t sadness or burnout, but true clinical depression. Sometimes, we confuse being down in the dumps with depression. They’re really not the same thing – not even close. Here’s how psychologist Richard O’Connor, best-selling author of the book Undoing Depression, distinguishes it:
“Everyone knows what depression feels like. Everyone feels the blues at times. Sadness, disappointment, fatigue are normal parts of life. There is a connection between the blues and clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.”
Perfection is also an indicator for depression. In his article Even Judges Get the Blues, Judge Robert L. Childers writes:
“Because of the weight of public expectation, judges generally feel that they should be perfect. Not only do they feel that they should be fair, impartial, and make the right decision 100 percent of the time, but the public expects this of judges as well, as do the lawyers who practice before them. This can create undo pressure for judges and, consciously or unconsciously, keep judges from admitting or recognizing the signs of debilitating disease.”
In an article from the ABA Journal, Perfectionism, Psychic Batterning’ Among Reasons for Lawyer Depression, the piece states: “Lawyers [and judges] are taught to aim for perfection, to be aggressive and to be emotionally detached. They ‘intellectualize, rationalize and displace problems on others’ . . . . They don’t take direction particularly well. They tend to have to have fairly elaborate denial mechanisms. And they tend to challenge anything they’re told.” In another article from the ABA Journal, it notes that when combined with depression, perfectionism makes it harder for a person to seek help. And in the worst case scenario, leads to suicide.
Loneliness & Depression
Depression is a multifaceted illness that has several different causes – some genetic, some physical and some emotional. In the depths of my depression, I felt very alone – like I was trapped at the bottom of a dark well.
Many with depression isolate themselves because it’s painful to be around others. I would hang out at Starbucks and do my work. I didn’t want others I knew to engage me; I didn’t want others to see the pain I was desperately struggling with.
I’ve found that loneliness and depression often travel the same road. This creates a lot of problems because the two can feed off one another.
According to psychologist Dr. Reena Sommer:
“Depression is a problem that often accompanies loneliness. In many cases, depressive symptoms such as withdrawal, anxiety, lack of motivation and sadness mimic and mask the symptoms of loneliness. In these cases, people are often treated for depression without considering the possibility that loneliness may be a contributing and sustaining factor in their condition.”
Generally, the debilitating symptoms of depression can usually be managed with antidepressant medication. But when the underlying loneliness is ignored or overlooked, the depressive-like symptoms will probably continue. Unless the reasons for loneliness and depression are separated out, it can easily turn into a ‘chicken and egg’ situation where depression leads to loneliness, and loneliness leads to depression.”
Turning It Around
While depression might not be our fault, it is our responsibility to get better. We need to start behaving and thinking in constructive ways. Here’s some food for thought:
- Get help. You can’t handle this by yourself. It is a problem bigger than any individual person. The A. B.A. ‘s Commision on Lawyer Assistance Programs recently created a Judicial Assistance Initiative. Reach out to them and they can get you pointed in the right direction.
- You may have to take antidepressant medication to help you. That’s okay. You may have a chemical imbalance that you need to address. For many, psychotherapy alone won’t help until they quieted down their somatic complaints — e.g. fatigue from sleep problems — so that they can have the energy and insight to work on their problems.
- Whether you need medication or not, you will need to confront your negative thinking with a therapist. A lot of research suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy is a particularly effective form of treatment for depression. Interview a couple therapists before you settle on one.
- Exercise. The value of exercise is widely known: It’s simply good for everybody. For a person with depression, it becomes not just about a healthy habit, but a critical behavior and habit – they absolutely need to work out. In his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey devotes a chapter to the importance of exercise in alleviating depression. Please check this book out.
- If you have a spiritual practice, do it. If you don’t, think about starting one. This could be anything from a formal meditation practice, going to Mass, or walking the woods. A lot of research suggests that people who have a spiritual practice do better with depression recovery. If you believe in God or a higher power (I am Catholic), you can avail yourself of help and support from Someone who is bigger than your depression. If you do not believe in God, maybe you believe in some other form of spirituality you can tap into. Spiritual growth and development, in my opinion, are very important pillars of recovery. Two books from my tradition include Seeing beyond Depression by Father Jean Vanier and Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach by Sister Kathryn James Hermes. Also see the wonderful guest article she wrote for my website.
- Get educated. Read some good books on the topic. As part of your education, learn about the powerful connection between stress, anxiety and depression. On this subject, I recommend Dr. Richard O’Connor’s Undong Perpetual Stress: The Missing Connection between Depression, Anxiety and 21st Century Illness. Dr. O’Connor suggests that depression is really about stress that has gone on too long. The constant hammering away of stress hormones on the brain changes its neurochemistry. This can and often does result in anxiety disorders and/or depression. Also see the article I wrote for Trial Magazine about the connection between stress, anxiety and depression. It is a companion piece to an excellent article written by Andrew Benjamin called “Reclaiming Your Practice.”
- Build pleasure into your schedule. Judges, like all those in the legal profession, are busy and have the “I will get to it later” mentally – especially when it comes to things that are healthy pleasures. We have to jettison this approach to how we live our days. We must begin to take time – now – to enjoy pleasurable things and people. A hallmark of depression is the inability to feel happiness or joy. We need to create the space where we can experience and savor good experiences and feelings.
- Practice mindfulness. In mindfulness meditation, we sit quietly, pay attention to our breath, and watch our thoughts float by in a stream of consciousness. Normally, we immediately react to our thoughts (e.g. “I am losing my mind with all of these deadlines”). With mindfulness practice, we can begin – slowly – to let the thoughts and feelings float by without reacting to them. If such an approach to depression seems far-fetched, read the best-selling book The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, for an excellent primer on how you can incorporate mindfulness into your day.
- Remember to be kind to yourself. It sounds so simple. I tell this to depressed lawyers and judges all the time and they usually look puzzled. They often admit that they have rarely, if ever, thought about it and don’t know how to be kind to themselves. I believe that it first begins with a conscious intention – “I am not going to treat myself poorly anymore.” Such a simple refrain can help us. Depression is often built on poor mental, emotional and physical habits. We must learn to acknowledge that we are worthy of love from ourselves and others and that part of such love involves taking better care of ourselves.
- Spend time outside and in nature. We humans forget that we are part of nature and the animal kingdom. We need fresh air and sunshine. Even more so when the darkness of winter strikes. If you live in a part of the country with long winters, load up on vitamin D and consider using a light box to help you.
Since you get more joy out of giving to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give – Eleanor Roosevelt
There’s a Difference
Is there a difference between discontent and depression, a lack of fulfillment and true melancholia?
The lines between murky malaise and downright clinical depression are blurred in everyday conversation, the popular media and discourse amongst professionals and academics about what troubles the legal profession. Two journal articles – which, by the way, I enjoyed immensely, “Stemming the Tide of Law School Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology” and “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession” took this approach by canvasing studies that have been done on law student and lawyer unhappiness, discontent, stress, anxiety, depression and wellness.
But unhappiness is not depression, not even close. I am not saying that this was the authors’ intentions, or for that matter, even their suggestion. Nor I am saying that these issues aren’t related to one another. Yet, I don’t think this lumping-of-the-maladies approach is particularly productive because it plays into the popular myths that depression is just an amplification of everyday sadness or, worse, a banal self-absorption with all that’s wrong in one’s life. Remarkably, a recent poll showed that 45% of Americans think of depression as a failure of will.
Another problem with the lumping together approach is that sadness and depression call for radically different solutions. In the two journal articles cited above, the first concentrates on positive psychology and how it can help alleviate distress and the later on living an ethical life and picking the right job — no doubt important considerations for everyone. Yet I’m not sure that any of these approaches is a panacea to the epidemic of depression in the law.
To me, unhappiness and discontent are part of the human predicament. It’s unavoidable that all of us will go through epochs in our lives when things unequivocally stink; we mope and wonder why meteorites always seem to pelt us when our car battery’s dead, our kids are in an uproar and the day at the office was survivable at best. In the book Zorba the Greek, the larger than life Zorba was asked if he was married and replied with great gusto, “Me? Wife, kids, job — the full catastrophe!!”
But depression isn’t part of the human condition. It’s a multifaceted illness, for some disabling and for many cruel. For many of its victims, the pain isn’t so much a feeling of sadness, but of nothingness. There’s no air to breath, little room to escape this type of pain – until one, hopefully, gets treatment or it passes, mercifully, of its own inscrutable violation.
How can nothingness be painful? Perhaps, it’s because it’s emotions that give life its vibrancy. These visceral forces energize us, heighten the intensity of our lives and make the human experience so rich. The absence of this life force leaves us impoverished, longing and mourning for that richness in our being we once knew.
Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, herself a depressive, captured this experience when she wrote:
“Others imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow, and unendurable. It is also tiresome. People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They might think that they ought to, and they might even try, but you know and they know that you are tedious beyond belief: you are irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and you’re “not at all like yourself but will be soon,” but you know you won’t.”
At least when the problem is one of discontent, we have our faculties (e.g. the ability to concentrate), are capable of making choices and bring focused energy to bear on changing matters in small or large ways. For someone in the throes of depression, the power to choose is diminished if not extinguished. Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., in his seminal book Undoing Depression, writes in his blog:
“Everyone knows what depression feels like. Everyone feels the blues at times. Sadness, disappointment, fatigue are normal parts of life. There is a connection between the blues and clinical depression, but the difference is like the difference between the sniffles and pneumonia.”
No, depression isn’t unhappiness. But discontent in one’s vocation is a real problem and often very painful. We feel like a jammed door that won’t let us open into a life that works on some fundamental level. We know something is wrong, sense that we’re stuck like in the traffic of our lives. Our happiness is trying to tell us something and we know it. Our emotional core senses we’ve been living a life out of sync with who we really are. And if we’re in the legal profession, we’re not alone in this experience – far, far from it.
Drifting Towards Unhappiness in the Law
There has been much debate about whether lawyers are really unhappy, to what degree, why that is so and what can be done about it. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Gretchen Rubin, a Yale Law School alumnus who clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor, about her book “The Happiness Project.” Here’s her take on why so many lawyers find themselves in funks:
“There’s [this] whole notion of ‘drift’ that I think a lot of people fall into with law school. They’d don’t decide, necessarily, to go to law school, but they drift into it, really for a lack of a better idea. And that’s one of the reasons so many lawyers are unhappy. They hear these lines that, on their face, seem to make sense: ‘It can’t hurt to take the LSAT.’ ‘I can always go to law school.’ ‘I can always change my mind later.’ That’s what happened to me. I drifted into it.”
Gretchen realized that she had never made any real choice about whether to go to law school, let alone join the legal profession. Yet, how many lawyers really chose their jobs? Most of us stumble around. There is a steep learning curve to life and there are few instruction manuals. It’s often through trial and error that most people find their way. The discovery that you’ve invested lots of time and money into a career that you later find was a bad fit is troubling indeed. Many aren’t willing or able to make the leap to change matters; hence, unhappiness and distress.
Perhaps the notion of happiness depends on how long you’ve been in the profession. Recently minted lawyers seem to expect something more from their jobs than their predecessors. The New York Times article The Falling Down Professions notes:
“Especially among young people, professional status is now inextricably linked to ideas of flexibility and creativity, concepts alien to seemingly everyone but art students even a generation ago. ‘There used to be this idea of having a separate work self and home self,’ notes Richard Florida, the author “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How it is Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life.” ‘Now they just want to be themselves. It’s almost as if they are interviewing places to see if they fit them.”
In a sense, it’s amazing that young lawyers are even taking into consideration flexibility and creativity; all the more so given the sour economy and the glut of law school graduates — currently about 150,000 per year. But an increasing number of young lawyers seem willing to seek a job fit that jives with their desire for not only a decent paycheck, but a decent life. Many middle-aged or older lawyers eventually get there, but often after a lot of struggle and pain. Some switch jobs to find a better fit (the litigator who starts a real estate practice) or others chuck the whole profession and start life anew in other fields.
In the new book “The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law,” the authors point out that six experiences that are critical to making a person satisfied with her life, including security, autonomy, authenticity, relatedness, competence, and self-esteem. Certainly, money can and should be part of the equation, but not to the exclusion of other intrinsic values.
There’s nothing new here, but don’t we all need to be reminded of this message over and over again? At the very least, it’s a counterweight to the popular and legal culture which puts way too much emphasis on money and deludes us into thinking that more of it will mean greater happiness.
According to psychology expert and lawyer Dan Bowling, “Common sense, though, would suggest that the happiest lawyers are those who feel they are really good at law practice, who deal with clients and can see results of their work, or who have a sense that they are involved in a greater cause. Another question about the research, he say, ‘and I think it’s a fair question is this one. ‘It’s the so-what question. It is: Whoever said law is supposed to be easy? Law is a career sacrifice for clients. . . . Who said we’re supposed to be happy?’ Bowling has an answer: ‘I think the law can be a jealous mistress, but I also think she can be kind, too,” he says.
A contrary view is offered in “Scholars Debate: Is Law a Picnic?” by Harvard Law Professor David B. Wilkins who reports that in a study of 4000 lawyers in the first decade of their careers: “. . . contrary to what many believe, there is ‘no evidence’ of ‘any pervasive unhappiness in the profession,’ he says – at least not among those who began practicing in 2000. In that group, nearly three-quarters reported being ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their jobs.
Perhaps happiness is somewhat determined by the type of law we go into. In The Happy Lawyer, the authors note that those who work for government, in a small firm, or in a solo practice, as well as those attorneys who work aligns with their values, are more likely to be satisfied with their careers.
In “On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy, and Unethical Profession,” Patrick Schlitz writes:
“This is the best advice I can give you: Right now, while you are still in law school, make the commitment—not just in your head, but in your heart—that, although you are willing to work hard and you would like to make a comfortable living, you are not going to let money dominate your life to the exclusion of all else. And don’t just structure your life around this negative; embrace a positive. Believe in something—care about something—so that when the culture of greed presses in on you from all sides, there will be something inside of you pushing back. Make the decision now that you will be the one who defines success for you—not your classmates, not big law firms, not clients of big law firms, not the National Law Journal. You will be a happier, healthier, and more ethical attorney as a result.”
We each have to take our own journey in life to find out what makes us happy. Just don’t get stuck in negative rumination about what’s wrong in your life. Think about what could be “right” in your life. Believe, at the very least, in the possibilities and follow your passion. Make no mistake about it, there will be a cost. If one follows one’s passion there may be risk, the displeasure of our peers and family members and financial concerns. But if one doesn’t take this journey, if money carries too much weight in what we’re willing to do to make a living, we will be unhappy; if this situation goes on to long, maybe depressed.
“Chicken Little: Lawyer at Law” by Stephanie West Allen
“The New York Times Dissects Lawyer Unhappiness with a Note on Following Your Dreams” by Victoria Pynchon
“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.