Revisiting The Lawyers’ Epidemic: How Lawyers Can Avoid The Vulnerability To Depression, Suicide, and Substance Abuse

We have previously reported on the prevalence of depression and substance abuse in the legal profession and why lawyers are vulnerable to these problems.  Let’s turn our focus now to how lawyers can avoid these problems and achieve a balanced life and fulfillment in the practice of law. In 2003, the ABA published a book, Lawyer Life – Finding a Life and a Higher Calling in the Practice of Law, written by the Honorable Carl Horn, III, who at that time was the U.S. Magistrate Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.  Judge Horn later retired from the bench and entered private practice in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Judge Horn’s book addresses the daily problems facing lawyers and the general dissatisfaction many lawyers experience with their profession.  After a thorough examination of the profession and its various problems, including lawyers’ vulnerability to depression and substance abuse, Judge Horn set forth “12 Steps Toward Fulfillment in the Practice of Law,” which is based on choices that the individual lawyer can make to enhance professional fulfillment.

1)         Face the Facts

By honestly and openly asking the right questions, we increase our chances toward a balanced, fulfilling professional life.  Do you feel good where you are professionally and personally, and where your life appears to be going?  Let honesty be the rule here.  We must face these facts on a regular basis if our lives are to remain balanced and on-course.  Lawyers who do not ask these kinds of questions, who fail to engage in periodic introspection, are more likely to experience what has been described as “the lingering feeling of emptiness despite material success.”

2)         Establish Clear Priorities

Judge Horn says that if we aim to live balanced lives, lines must be drawn beyond which we are not willing to go, at least not on a regular basis.  He suggests making time with your family a top priority, and to be sure your daily and weekly schedules reflect it.  Clearly, making enough money should be a priority.  However, the proper priority, in a balanced life, that should be given to making enough money, must not be a license for workaholism or what one commentator has called a money-centered world view.  If balance and happiness are among our life goals, we must be vigilant not to allow money to become an end in itself.

3)         Develop and Practice Good Time Management

Whatever time we spend on our work should be arranged for maximum productivity.  Judge Horn suggests that there are at least five areas in which many lawyers could begin to make significant progress simply by paying close attention.  These include better planning; minimizing interruptions by phone or in person; more careful scheduling and planning of meetings; mastering the paper flow; and more thoughtful and efficient delegation.  He suggests that if you live by the rule that the way to get things done right is to do it yourself, get over it.  The time and energy you alone have to give, can and will soon run out.  What you can accomplish by the thoughtful and efficient delegation to others is significantly less limited.  Anything that can be done by others, should be done by them.  Those who learn to delegate effectively, will free up many of their own hours and see their productivity significantly rise.

4)         Implement Healthy Lifestyle Practices

Judge Horn suggests that there is a positive correlation between lawyers who self-reported a sense of subjective well-being and those who engaged in certain habits or practices that are deemed “healthy.”  Those practices include regular exercise, attending religious services, personal prayer, hobbies, engaging in outdoor recreation, pleasure reading, and taking weeks of vacation.

Lawyers with other serious interests, those who successfully resist the “all work and no play” syndrome, also consider themselves the happiest.

5)         Live Beneath Your Means

The focus of Judge Horn’s comments in this section is that unless we actively struggle against it, we will find ourselves engaging in consumer spending that severely limits our ability to choose a healthier, more balanced life.

6)         Don’t Let Technology Control Your Life

How we do this is something each individual must work out.  Some get up early and work, either at home or in their offices, so they can have dinner with their families most evenings.  Others decline to carry cell phones or check email or voicemail much of the time they are away from the office.  Whatever our strategy, the core objective is the same: to establish boundaries that prevent technology from controlling our lives.

7)         Care About Character – And Conduct Yourself Accordingly

Judge Horn exhorts us to vow to do what most of us already know is right: strive to conduct ourselves honorably, which means refusing to lie, cheat or steal, however much pressure we are under, or however profitable the wrong choices may appear to be at that moment.  Do not pad your timesheets; do not tell lies to partners or clients or opposing counsel; do not misrepresent legal authority to judges; do not break your promises.  Do not do anything else that is contrary to the values that you now hold.  If we care about our character, and conduct ourselves accordingly, we will be able to sleep well at night.

8)         “Just Say No” to Some Clients

Judge Horn suggests that we should be scrupulously honest with our clients, including but not limited to, the work we choose to do and how it is billed.  We must be exceedingly careful not to cross the ethical lines and to keep a measure of professional distance, particularly where an objective third party might see our client’s conduct as deceptive.  We should strive to provide wise counsel, which often requires more of a big picture approach to problem solving and conflict resolution.  And sometimes we should “just say no” to some clients.

9)         Stay Emotionally Healthy

Judge Horn suggests that we must seek a healthy balance between our rational, cognitive sides, on the one hand, and our feelings, emotions, heart and imagination on the other.  We must pursue balance not only in how we spend the limited hours of our lives, but also between our outer and inner selves.

10)       Embrace Law as a “High Calling”

If we are to have a realistic hope of regaining professional self-confidence, Judge Horn says we must reaffirm ideals that transcend self-interest, including our individual and profession-wide commitment to the common good.  We must not allow the legal profession to become an amoral, dollar-driven business; indeed, we should not be afraid to make value-based decisions or give advice surrounded in moral conviction.  In short, if we are to find fulfillment in the practice of law, we must embrace law as a high calling.

11)       Be Generous With Your Time and Money

Judge Horn acknowledges that his primary point here is fairly selfish, that being generous with our time and money will make us feel better about our profession and our lives generally.  He notes that those who have been revered for their wisdom and empathy are often people who believed that the very purpose of life is to be of service to others.

12)       Pace Yourself for a Marathon

Striving for professional excellence is a good and worthy goal.  In sharp and important contrast, trying to achieve perfection is not.  Allen Dershowitz wrote a brief reflection which he titled “The Perfect is the Enemy of the Excellent,” in which he observed that “every book, painting, symphony or speech could be improved.  The search for perfection is illusory and has no end.”

We would do well to strive for professional excellence but be wary of any tendency we may have toward perfectionism. The challenges set forth by Judge Horn are those with which we can expect to struggle for the rest of our lives.  Thankfully, they are not impossible struggles and if we diligently take these steps, we can realistically expect to move closer to our goal of finding balance, success and fulfillment in the practice of law.