From One Lawyer to Another: Simple Steps Lawyers Can Take to Deal with Depression

Since you are reading a website about lawyers and depression, you are probably wondering whether you are suffering from depression, or what to do about it. You’re in good company. It is estimated that 1 in 10 members of the public suffer from depression; among lawyers the rate is 3.6 times higher. That would make it likely that about 1 in 3 lawyers are suffering from depression.

I am one of those lawyers (so, two of you are off the hook—you’re welcome). There are many articles covering the symptoms of depression. (See, e.g., this NIMH list.) If you even think you are suffering from depression: GET PROFESSIONAL HELP. At first, I refused to admit to myself that I needed help. I told myself that I could muscle my way through. It was a trap: while my higher consciousness assured myself that I could handle it all, my depression kicked in when it was time to get things done. “By the time you are sick enough to recognize that you have a problem, your ability to engage in accurate self-evaluation is significantly impaired.”

My particular form of depression involved feeling as if I was in a daze, as if I was not in control of my actions, as if someone else were running my life. I did not respond to client calls, I did not get work done until the last minute (if at all), I missed court appearances, I forgot to pay bills, I failed to monitor my trust account. I am doing much better now thanks to the help of many including our host Mr. Lukasik.

The problem—well, one of the problems—for lawyers suffering depression is that they cannot let their mental condition interfere with their ethical and legal duty to their clients. A.B.A. Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.1 requires that a lawyer “provide competent representation to a client.” And Rule 1.16(a)(2) states:

(a) Except as stated in paragraph (c), a lawyer shall not represent a client or, where representation has commenced, shall withdraw from the representation of a client if: . . . .

(2) the lawyer’s physical or mental condition materially impairs the lawyer’s ability to represent the client.

I don’t think the A.B.A. expects one-third of the lawyers to immediately stop representing their clients. Depression does not mean that you cannot ably represent your clients; but depression is also no excuse for failing in your duties. What I address in this article are some actions you can immediately take that I hope will help you keep up with your responsibilities while you seek professional assistance.

The Matrix. The science-fiction metaphor of The Matrix (what is the Matrix?) helped me understand depression. The brain functions at a level that we are not always consciously aware of. Sometimes we can override our instincts; sometimes we cannot. Think of yawning, or sneezing. When you are depressed, the Matrix has you. To deal with the immediate impact of depression, you must get out of the control of the Matrix.

Make a list, work the list. Making a list of what you need to do puts your higher consciousness in charge. Rumination is controlled by the Matrix; the list is outside. Work the list. It should be as specific as you can make it: Not “write the brief” but “write section I of the brief.” Give yourself a time estimate, start a stopwatch, and do the work. This should be no big deal: you bill by the minute, you can plan by the minute too. Don’t just think, “I ought to do X.” Writing it down is important.

You won’t necessarily get the work done in the time allotted; that’s OK. Lawyers are aggressive perfectionist. Your inner mind likes specific achievable goals. When the time is up, look at the list and chose something to do next. It could be continuing to do what you are already doing. Write down a new time goal and get at it.

There were times when my focus waned. I tried to recognize what was happening and do something physical. Give yourself a defined short respite: Stand up, walk around, talk to someone, hide in the bathroom, whatever. When the time is up, get back to the list.

Existential problems. Sometimes the consequences of (in)actions are just too dire:  failing to file an Answer, missing a court appearance. If the list idea is not working perfectly to save you from existential dangers, get someone else involved. Ask someone you trust outside your workplace to contact you every day, ask you whether your list and your calendar cover everything that needs to be done, and ask you whether you are doing what’s on the list.

You need to be brutally honest with your friend and yourself. If not have not done what needs to be done, you should articulate your next steps as specifically as possible. Not, “I’ll do this tomorrow,” but “I’ll do this at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow.” This takes a good friend.

Adjust your body. Changes in your diet, exercise and social climate may improve your mood. Depression is not a “mood.” But good mood will help address how to get through the days, weeks and months without screwing up your client’s and your lives.

My exercise regimen is simple: I take a 30-minute quick walk in the morning, enough to get my heart rate up. It is surprising what a positive effect this little bit of exertion has. My main dietary culprit is sugar. “People who suffer from depression are especially vulnerable to sugar’s evil power.” I find that exercise and diet go together: The more I exercised, the less craving I have for sugar.

As above, take the decision-making power out of the Matrix. Get an exercise buddy. Find a time for exercise (easier said than done, I know) and put in on your list / calendar. When I wake, I do not ask myself whether I should go for a walk; I say to myself, “time for my walk.” Put snack breaks into your schedule and have an apple or banana available.

Meditate. If you scoff at this, here is my challenge: close your eyes and think about nothing but your breathing for two straight minutes. Go ahead, I’ll wait. . . . . Not so easy, is it? Random thoughts kept jumping into your mind. You had an instinctual emotional reaction to these thoughts (anxiety, self-loathing, dread, etc.). The random thoughts and emotions are from your subconscious (the Matrix); where the depression lives. Do not battle the thoughts. When they happen, tell the thoughts that you will get back to them as soon as you are done meditating, and return to thinking about nothing but the breathing. (For you Matrix fans: the thoughts are spoons; you must realize that there is no spoon.)

When you meditate you are developing the skill to recognize your emotional reactions without succumbing to them. You can impress your therapist by referring to this as CBT: cognitive behavioral therapy. It takes practice, but just starting this routine will help immensely.

A day is 24 hours long—no more, no less. I cannot follow my own advice all of the time. I still eat cookies; I still get lost in my personal miasma. At the end of the day I tell myself, “that was today, I will follow the program tomorrow.” No recrimination; just observation. Try to avoid thinking on Tuesday that you have to “make up” for what you missed on Monday. Just do Tuesday.

These are stopgap measures. GETTING PROFESSIONAL HELP is the most important thing you can do. But in the meantime, I hope this helps you get you through the days ahead.

Mitchell Chyette graduated from the University at Michigan School of Law in 1979 and currently works in San Francisco, California.


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