June 28, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
While lawyers have the potential of earning significant incomes, in one respect law is a high risk profession. Attorneys suffer from depression and substance abuse more often than any other occupation in the United States.
Depression – either true clinical or just down in the dumps and blue – has a very real cost to clients. In this two-part series, we will take a look into why lawyers are more prone to depression, and answer a question many people ask: Are lawyers really a different breed of animal?
Chicken or the egg?
Research studies conducted by the American Bar Association, Johns Hopkins University and mental health researchers throughout the United States have found that lawyers are more likely to suffer from depression, alcohol and drug abuse than other occupations. To some, it is a “Which came first — the chicken or the egg?” question.
As an attorney, law professor, and psychotherapist, Susan Daicoff has done a great deal of research into this very real problem. I spoke with the Jacksonville, Floridian recently, discussing these issues which “are important for anyone considering a career in law, as well as clients. There is a reason lawyers are frequently seen as being cold and distant, and it is something not well understood by the public,” she feels.
“If your lawyer suffers from depression or substance abuse, then your case could be at risk,” she maintains.
The problems often start in law school
“When we hear the statement that lawyers are somehow different animals, it may be true. There are specific characteristics making lawyers very different from nonlawyers, as a generalization. What is valued in so many other occupations — warmth, empathy, emotional concerns, caring about others — isn’t generally emphasized in the law.”
“As law is practiced today, there is often a real gulf between what clients and lawyers care about. It’s almost as if lawyers are from Mars, clients from Venus,” she told me.
“Unlike virtually all other professional educational programs — medicine, psychology, business, accounting — law schools tend to develop a cold, logical, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock mentality. It can be a show me the money attitude, frequently ignoring the client’s emotional concerns,” Susan added.
“My research shows that as a group, lawyers tend to be insensitive to the feelings of others. We seem to be hard-wired this way even before coming to law school. Law school only encourages us to be even more this way,” she stressed.
“I’m amazed at a frequent occurrence in law school: A student answers a question, attempting to be involved in the educational experience, and is laughed at by classmates. This does not typically occur in other graduate programs, so why in law and what does this say about those future lawyers?” she asks.
“It may be evidence of the competitive nature of law, winning, proving yourself correct, a high achiever, less concerned about feelings and emotions,” she believes.
“As law school is super competitive, students who were used to getting all A’s and B’s now, on a mandatory curve, get C’s. We find this leads to becoming disillusioned and a large number suffer depression. In private practice, we may easily suffer true clinical depression when we lose a case, a client, or things don’t go well for us, because we can be so motivated by winning, money, and proving ourselves right. Because of a lawyer’s depression, clients can be neglected and mistakes can occur,” she notes.
“But those law students who are not obsessed with grades or seeking recognition may not get depressed, finding satisfaction in other areas — such as focusing on the good they will do when they get out of law school, on building community in the law school environment itself, or just enjoying learning.”
We find that where law students are able to focus on things other than external rewards — grades, class rank review, prestigious clerkship — they are likely to have a greater sense of well being,” she advises.
Too many cases. Too many hours
“Depression in the world of lawyers is the perfect storm of too many cases taken on, 12-hour days, six days a week, holding yourself to an impossibly high standard, blaming yourself when a case is lost, even where the case should have been lost. Relief found in too much alcohol or drugs can be an early warning sign.”
An often heard complaint about the legal profession is, while lawyers speak of wanting justice, so often right and wrong don’t seem to matter.
“We tend to see ourselves as hired guns, doing whatever it is that the client wants, regardless of right or wrong. Some lawyers are never bothered by this lack of morality, rationalizing the harm which might result as simply good lawyering,” she concluded.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.