A month ago, I logged into Facebook and saw a suicide note. Through the comments, I found out, my friend had passed. The situation reminded me of the last suicide I had heard of – a young lawyer- and the mental health problems that disproportionately affect attorneys. While some commentators have tried to explain why attorneys suffer from depression, I wasn’t convinced so I looked into it myself. So why are lawyers so depressed? Here are my thoughts.
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We Need to Talk About Lawyer Suicides
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that lawyers ranked fourth in proportion of suicides by profession (adjusted for age), right behind dentists, pharmacists and physicians. Lawyer suicides are a constant news story, particularly among lawyers.
There are varying theories as to why lawyers are prone to suicide. According to the American Psychiatric Association and numerous other sources, depression is the most likely trigger for suicide. Dr. Andy Benjamin of the University of Washington found that, by the time students graduated law school, 40 percent were suffering from depression. This doesn’t improve when they enter the legal world. According to the American Psychological Association, attorneys are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-attorneys.
- Lack of Meaningful Work
- Chasing the Wrong Values
- Unresolved Childhood Trauma
- Lack of Status and Respect
- Disconnection from the Natural World
- Lack of Security
- Lack of Hope
After learning of my Facebook friend’s suicide, I realized how little I knew about depression. Searching the internet didn’t seem to provide the answers I was seeking. People just seemed to make stuff up (how now Internet?). Instead, I read two fascinating books about depression. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari and Depression Is Contagious: How the Most Common Mood Disorder Is Spreading Around the World and How to Stop It by Michael Yapko. (Side note: these books are phenomenal and fun to read. I recommend everyone read them).
For a long time, I had believed that depression was a genetic disease caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s just a misfire in our brains and if you can readjust the brain chemicals, then everything will be fine.
But lawyers are much more likely to suffer depression than the general population. There is no reason why lawyers, as a group, would have more chemical imbalances than the general population. In fact, whenever articles would discuss depression in the legal field, they always discussed lifestyle.
We often talk about depression as something we can’t control or change (“it’s a disease”). Yet WebMD lists depression risk factors such as death or loss of a loved one, conflict, abuse, stressful life events, or other illnesses.
I realize it’s potentially controversial to say that there’s anything that can be done for depression besides meds and therapy. I’m going to try to make this as uncontroversial as possible.
When we talk about depression’s prevalence among lawyers, we are talking about depression caused by the stresses of legal life.
There is no biological defect that disproportionately affects lawyers – it’s how lawyers live their lives. Depression is a complicated problem and if depression is, even in part, caused by a stressor, then medication isnt going to solve the problem. When we talk about curing or alleviating that depression, we must talk about alleviating the stresses. But before we can talk about relief, we have to know what stresses cause the depression.
According to an article from Harvard Medical School:
When genetics, biology, and stressful life situations come together, depression can result. . . If the stress is short-lived, the body usually returns to normal. But when stress is chronic . . . changes in the body and brain can be long-lasting.
So, for some suffering from depression, stopping the chronic stress trigger could be restorative. And that makes sense, because even if meds made you feel better, the depression will return if the stress still exists. Rather than being a brain misfire, depression could be your body’s signal to end the stress before your body and brain are forever changed.
But what kinds of stress trigger depression? Hari, in Lost Connections, leans into this lifestyle connection. He posits that, in addition to genetics, the lack of seven “connections” to biological needs increases the likelihood of depression. These are: lack of meaningful work, isolation, chasing the wrong values, unresolved childhood trauma, lack of status and respect, disconnection from the natural world, and disconnection from a hopeful or secure future.
The life of a depressed lawyer fits neatly into Mr. Hari’s framework. Read the book for the research, but I will discuss how these disconnections are prevalent in legal life.
Students enter law school with big dreams of defending the oppressed and making the world better. The reality is more likely extremely mundane and repetitive, while also being extremely stressful. Spending 70-80 hours a week working at a stressful and boring job is not what they dreamed up after spending three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a degree.
And after all this mind-numbing and stressful work, cases can settle suddenly and unexpectedly. Appeals take years to resolve. Even if you believe you are doing meaningful work, there are always more people who need help. In corporate law, there are always more deals to be had. It can seem like one is constantly working, with nothing lasting to show for it.
Loneliness is the epidemic of our modern times – and it obviously also affects lawyers. A lot of people don’t like or trust lawyers. It probably isn’t a surprise that a lot of lawyers don’t like or trust each other. I remember a summer associate asking me once, to whom he could confide. In his mind, his colleagues were all land mines, and confiding in the wrong one could be a terrible error. It was a very pessimistic outlook, and sadly, one that many lawyers share. Despite lawyers always being connected to their phones and laptops, this paranoia (or, perhaps, reasonable fear) can cause real loneliness in the office.
This fear of confiding in others may extend to mental health professionals. Some commentators posit that lawyers don’t want to feel or look like they might not be fully in control of their lives. Still, there’s a very practical reason why lawyers might not seek help. Seeking help might mean that they can’t work or could get disbarred.
Additionally, lawyers often work so much that it’s hard to find time to connect with their real friends. When one thinks of their time in 6-minute increments, as many law firm attorneys do, it’s hard to justify “wasting time” with friends and family when you could be billing and earning hundreds and thousands of dollars (for your firm).
When people think about lawyers, money and prestige are usually closely correlated. The legal world is set up to emphasize external values as well. Students generally start law school with lower rates of substance and alcohol abuse and strong internal senses of self. But law school emphasizes external values like status, comparative worth and competition. Some studies indicate that this focus on external values twists people’s psyches and law students graduate significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility.
According to Hari, seeking materialism/money or extrinsic values (such as prestige/the approval of others) can lead to depression. It is impossible to maintain your self-esteem when you base your self-esteem on moving targets like material goods acquired and the approval of others.
Mr. Hari noted research to demonstrate that those who suffer from depression are much more likely to have unresolved childhood trauma and some people diagnosed as depressed are merely in the grieving process.
Of course, it’s not obvious that lawyers would be more likely to have grief or childhood trauma than people in other professions. It is possible though that many people are drawn to a field dedicated to justice because of some motives buried deep from childhood. Lawyers have the ability to defend the poor, underprivileged, the wrongly convicted, and often have roles in writing legislation and changing the government. This desire to help the downtrodden may have its roots from some experience in their past.
Further, in keeping with lawyers’ busy schedules, lawyers may brush over any traumatic experiences, rather than deal with them. I knew a lawyer who had postponed his OWN wedding a few times, just for his work. If you can’t take time for your own special day, you probably aren’t making time to deal with the hard issues in your life as well.
I’ve said repeatedly through this post that lawyers command respect. And while that’s often true on a macro level, it’s not always true on a micro level.
In law school, your rank (how you compare with your classmates) determines what kind of opportunities you may have. In legal life, lawyers are competing with one another for partnerships, clients, or jobs. In my law firm, there were clear distinctions between how the partners, associates, staff attorneys, paralegals, and secretaries were treated. Though we certainly worked with people at all ranks, each group tended to socialize among themselves. The pecking order was always kept intact, at every level.
Forest bathing and spending time in a natural environment has caught on as a way to relieve stress and improve one’s mental health. Attorneys typically do not work outdoors. Instead they sit in an office staring at a computer or smart phone, travel in cars or planes, and/or appear in courtrooms or other offices for an extraordinary number of hours of their week.
Attorneys are often so committed to their jobs that they neglect to take care of their own health. In one account of a lawyer suicide, the author notes:
Of all the heartbreaking details of his story, the one that continues to haunt me is this: The history on his cellphone shows the last call he ever made was for work. Peter, vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness, had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call.
The legal worlds obsession with perfection can also lead to depression. Though it is rare for attorneys to be fired from law firms or federal government work, stress is a lifestyle for attorneys. Recruiter Harrison Barnes outlines the stress as follows:
All along the way, you are under a microscope where people are always waiting for you to make a mistake—miss a deadline, make a typo, upset a client, upset someone senior to you and more. In large law firms, even small mistakes can have fatal repercussions to your career.
He notes the following terrifying example:
An attorney’s entire career can be ruined by making a single small mistake. I once saw a woman lose her job after working 3,000 hours a year for over ten years in a law firm because she forgot to get a client to sign a form. The results of this were catastrophic, and the client ended up losing the case due to this attorney’s error.
Lack of Financial Security
According to Alex Yufik, clinical rehabilitation coordinator for the State Bar of California’s Lawyer Assistance Program, besides depression, anxiety, and job stress, common contributing factors for lawyer suicide include unfulfilled expectations and a perceived sense of failure.
Some studies have shown that the mental and psychic toll of heavy student debt can mirror the stages of grief. And though many enter law believing it to be a safe bet as a job, high student loan debts and a limited number of high-paying jobs have caught many lawyers off-guard.
The emotional nature of legal work can lead to pessimism for the future. According to clinical psychologist Rachel Fry:
Lawyers tend to score higher in pessimistic thinking, which often results in higher success rates and becoming a better lawyer. However, this type of thinking is also highly correlated with depression.
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that if you spend all your hours thinking of worst case scenarios, as lawyers often do, that all the negative thinking could negatively impact your mental health.
And even after all those reasons, successful respected attorneys with good relationships are not immune. Even a great life is not enough to secure hope.
I have a friend in a PhD program who noted that grad students work just as much as lawyers, if not more. Grad students get paid much less and don’t have nearly the same prestige. Still, counterintuitively, he noted that grad students were less miserable. I asked him why he thought that was. He said,
the difference between grad students and lawyers, is that grad students have hope.
Conclusion to Why Are Lawyers So Depressed
When I originally started writing this post, it got to be about 5,000 words before I split it into two parts (you’re welcome). The first part is explanatory; the second part is constructive and focuses on what we can do to help lawyers who suffer from depression.
What do you think makes lawyers so depressed?