“True Stories” is a series of guest blogs I am running. Below, a woman gives her anonymous account of developing clinical anxiety during law school and how she finally decided to get help and take care of herself.
I am a woman, an attorney, and someone who happens to struggle with clinical anxiety.
It started in law school. At first, I thought it was just the jitters from being in a fishbowl of super-competitive overachievers like me. This was Cornell Law School, after all. What did I expect?
But as my first year of law school progressed, my anxiety when from background noise to the forefront in my life. I had panic attacks, I often couldn’t sleep, and I just felt wired all the time. It seemed to fuel my drive to succeed, and I over-prepared for everything, often reading a case note four or five times. I never talked about my struggles with anyone that first year.
Once my first year was over, I clerked at a BigLaw firm in L.A. I had gotten good grades my first year and thought this job was just a reward for my hard work. Maybe, my anxiety was situational to law school, I thought. Well, it didn’t pan out that way. I found myself getting assignments with deadlines that I couldn’t meet. It wasn’t because I didn’t understand the material – – I just felt overwhelmed all the time and could not seem to focus and concentrate.
Getting Help for My Anxiety
I finally shared my struggle with my roommate from law school. She begged me to see a therapist and, after a few weeks of pleading from her, I finally did. Looking back, ten years later, it saved my life. I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety. I felt some relief in knowing it wasn’t all in my head; that there might be some solutions to my predicament. The therapy, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, helped me recognize my haphazard thinking, especially my propensity to look at everything as a potential catastrophe. I learned to reframe situations and be more realistic and compassionate towards myself.
This worked relatively well through my years at Cornell. I hit a roadblock when I started practicing law. As a woman in a large firm with a primarily male-dominated leadership team, I just kept my head down and worked my butt off. The anxiety reared its head about six months into my job. I panicked when I started to see myself panicking. I thought: “Oh no, here I go again.” I hated myself for not being able to apply the things I had learned in therapy a few years ago. So, again, I went seeking help. I was put on medication that seemed to make things more manageable and kept working 80 hours a week.
Recently, there came a time when I went through the worst patch of anxiety I’ve had since it all started in law school. My anxiety just seemed out-of-control. It got to the point where I dreaded coming into work – especially the thought of it on Sunday nights. I felt like giving up. How can I continue to live like this? My quality of life, as I saw it, was poor.
I Needed a Big Change
By this time, I had small children and a husband who worked long hours. I felt like I was giving a lot at work, and then when I got home, giving what scraps of energy I had left to my children and then, sadly last on the list, my husband. I felt spent. I reached a breaking point this past COVID year and decided I needed a change.
I have been following the news about firms and lawyers demanding change in their workplace to support their mental health and well-being. My experience at my old firm was they had no interest in these types of initiatives. The bottom line ruled: crank up the billable hours, or else. I guess you can say this was typical of any large law firm. But, as I looked more into an alternative to my current job, I found firms across the U.S. that were actually promoting their concern for their lawyers’ mental health and ways they supported their attorneys. Some had even signed the ABA Well-Being Pledge making public their commitment to mental health.
This all made me optimistic and gave me the courage to make the leap to another firm. It wasn’t as large as my first firm, more midsize, and in the smaller city of Pittsburgh. The message and vibe at the firm were more positive. Six months, I had an episode of anxiety. I had been working non-stop: I am a perfectionist, after all (and many lawyers are!). Our firm had talked about being open to taking the time we needed when we had a mental health issue. I went to my boss, a woman who had been at the firm for twenty years. She was a partner at the firm that seemed more open to women being in leadership roles.
I told her I needed the time off and she was supportive. I took a week off, regrouped, meet with my therapist twice that week who I had not seen in months and felt renewed and empowered to return to my job. It’s been going well.
It took me a long time to value my mental health as much as my drive for success. I really had to examine what was important in my life. I concluded that my mental health was incompatible with my first law firm. The message was unspoken but clear at the firm: we don’t talk about mental health problems. If you did, leadership would see you as weak and someone who couldn’t cut it, even more so if you were a woman.
The Mental Health Disparity Between Men and Women in the Law
I read an article recently, “Mental Health, Stress Have One-in-four Women Mulling Career Change.” It made me angry.
Almost 3,000 lawyers from the California Lawyers Association or the D.C. Bar were polled, and they were split about evenly between women and men.
More than 20% of women respondents said they had moderate to severe depression symptoms, compared to about 15% of men. Nearly 23% of women had moderate to severe anxiety symptoms, compared to 14.5% of men.
Work-family conflict was the top factor for whether a woman was considering leaving the law, the report found. Stress was the top factor for men.
This article really spoke to me and reflected my own experience. It angered me because not only do women lawyers have to bear more of the brunt of juggling demands at home and work – they suffer more mental health problems because of it than men.
You Can Have a Successful Career AND Struggle with Anxiety
I stayed too long at my first job, and it hurt my mental health and well-being. It’s strange, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice. But I really did. If you are a lawyer who struggles with anxiety like me, please know you do have choices in your career. To continue in a job that at best makes you miserable and exhausted, and at worst, drop into periods of abject anxiety-fueled terror, just isn’t worth it. YOU are worth more than that.
A few things I found helpful to manage my anxiety, beside therapy and medication, was to learn about and practice mindfulness meditation and deep breathing. To learn more about mindfulness, I suggest the books “The Mindful Way Through Anxiety: Break Free From Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life,” and another written by a lawyer, “The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation.” I also do guided meditations, often before bed. Check out the app Insight Timer, which offer hundreds of guided meditations for free.
You can have a successful legal career as a woman who happens to have anxiety. But make no mistake – you have to have the time for self-care to relax, sleep, go to therapy, and decompress. Please take that time like your life depends on it – – because it really does.