Revisiting The Lawyers’ Epidemic: Why Lawyers Are Vulnerable To Depression, Suicide, and Substance Abuse

As we have previously reported, studies show that lawyers are three times as likely to suffer from depression as members of other professions.  The rate of substance abuse among lawyers is twice that of the general population.  Suicide is the third leading cause of death among attorneys, after cancer and heart disease.  If you believe the research and studies, we must ask why lawyers are vulnerable to these problems. In a recent article at Legal Cheek, the author, WaitroseLaw, asked: “Does the way that lawyers are encouraged to think and work make them vulnerable to depression?”  The author answers the question by starting with the obvious answers which are common to many other professions, including long hours, heavy workload, and less job security.

But as the author points out, there must be something more insidious at work. First, the author reminds us that lawyers are trained, and often temperamentally inclined, to analyze and pick apart the issues.  However, we then turn that instinct inward.  As the author suggests, “while a bit of self-analysis can be healthy, brooding on your mistakes can be profoundly self-destructive.” Further, the author says that the “prevailing culture of 24/7 availability only makes matters worse.”  And then there is the unwritten expectation that lawyers should put their work and firm first.  WaitroseLaw concludes that if we are predisposed to depression anyway or suddenly face extra personal or professional pressures, “the way we’re encouraged to think and work can be a real problem.”

Some psychologists have suggested that lawyers are more prone than other professions to the dangerous disease of depression because of two personality traits: perfectionism and pessimismAs Lynn Johnson suggests, the legal profession attracts perfectionists and rewards perfectionism.  Perfectionism drives us to excel in college, in law school, and on the job.  But, perfectionism can have a dark side which can lead to a chronic feeling that “nothing is good enough.”  When we make the inevitable mistake, perfectionism magnifies the failure.

Dr. Amiram Elwork, in his work Stress Management for Lawyers, agrees that perfectionism is rewarded in both law school and the practice of law.  However, perfectionism can lead to negative thinking such as “if I don’t do it perfectly, I’m no good; it’s no use; I should just give up” or “I have to do it perfectly and I can’t quit until it’s perfect.”  Such thinking can lead to depression.

As Susan Daicoff pointed out in her article in The Complete Lawyer:

Perfectionism can also lead to an overdeveloped sense of control and responsibility so that individuals believe they are responsible for situations over which they actually do not have complete control.  If things do not turn out well, these individuals often blame themselves, they didn’t work hard enough or they weren’t sufficiently prepared or vigilant.  They then either “beat themselves up” or resolve to “work harder” next time, not acknowledging that some things are out of their control.  This erroneous belief causes a great deal of angst, which is then expressed either as depression or irritability and anger, which are really two sides of the same coin.

(See Daicoff, Susan, “Depression is Prevalent Among Lawyers – But Not Inevitable,” The Complete Lawyer, 12/2/08).

In addition to attracting perfectionists, the legal profession also attracts pessimists.  Recent studies have shown that in all graduate school programs in all professional fields except one, optimists outperform pessimists.  The one exception: law school.  Pessimism helps lawyers excel by making us skeptical of what our clients, our witnesses, opposing counsel, and judges tell us.  It helps us anticipate the worst and thus prepare for it.  However, pessimism can be bad for our health, as it can lead to stress and disillusionment, making us vulnerable to depression.

Let us hear from you.  Why do you think lawyers are vulnerable?  Do you agree with the research?  What else may be involved?

For further resources on lawyers and depression, check out www.lawyerswithdepression.com, a website created by Dan Lukasik, a lawyer from Buffalo, New York.

Comments

  1. Stuart Mauney says:

    Watch for my follow up post on HOW lawyers can avoid being vulnerable to these problems–some practical advice.

  2. So, we lawyers are nitpicky and perfectionist. Well, that is probably true, but I could add a few additional factors. I believe many young people are drawn to the legal profession because of idealistic commitment to justice and a desire to help people, and they also expect they will be able to make a decent living doing it. Sometimes these ideals, hopes, and expectations are dashed on the rocky shore of reality. Lawyers are thrust into the torrent of life problems that people have created for themselves (criminal activity being only the most obvious example) of grave proportions, and which often are not easily solved or addressed. Indeed, sometimes, it is not possible for the lawyer to “fix” things, no matter how hard they try. Further, when the justice system turns out results that may seem skewed or unjust, and which either are outside the lawyer’s ability to control (or which make the lawyer feels as if they have failed), it may feel as if the current is washing those ideals out to sea in an undertow as strong as a rip tide of injustice. Add to this the emotional toll of constant immersion in a hostile, adversarial environment, and financial pressure and a sense of intense professional responsibility which can result in grueling work hours, and the perfectionism which you have already mentioned, and there is a recipe for depression, anxiety, and resulting risk for substance abuse. Thanks Stuart as well for your follow up post on how attorneys can avoid burnout: http://bit.ly/17qz8jR

  3. Very interesting read. Thank you for posting.

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