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.

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1 thought on “The Company We Keep

  1. Everyone else hates the guy who’s not griping, because lawyers are assholes…

    I’m kidding, but it is true that the small amount of camaraderie and “Oh, he sees it too,” is often the only boost we get to our day, and the only reinforcement of our pre-law-school morality system. Also, I’ve noticed that staying above the fray makes people suspicious and can often lead more cynical attorneys to target the Pollyanna types.

    I agree with you that it’s better for a person to stay on the optimistic side, I’m just saying there are structural pressures pushing attorneys to gripe as a way to play it safe and stick with the group. So willpower alone might not be sufficient to end this cycle. There might need to be a job change with new friends, or a greater emphasis on outside activities, in order to make this shift in thinking.

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