Lawyers and Depression: Understanding the Connection

BY ELIZABETH TRENARY — A recent CNN report is drawing attention to a disturbing statistic: “Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.” There are many reasons why lawyers may suffer from depression at a much higher rate than non-lawyers or other professionals.

Being a lawyer can be stressful in many (perhaps unexpected) ways. Lawyers often feel that they lack control over their work. Instead of enjoying personal autonomy, lawyers are controlled by their clients, the law, and professional regulations. The course of a case is dependent on many actors, including the judge and opposing counsel, which can cause lawyers to struggle with a lack of control. Lawyers may not agree with their clients, but they are expected to represent them and are trained to put their their own values or morals aside. The disconnect between personal beliefs and the profession can take a psychological toll.

The adversarial system can also cause stress.  As Yvette Hourigan said, “Being a physician has stress. However, when the surgeon goes into the surgical suite to perform his surgery, they don’t send another physician in to try to kill the patient. You know, they’re all on the same team trying to do one job. In the legal profession, adversity is the nature of our game.” The adversarial process can also be isolating, which can lead to depression.

Moreover, long hours and deadlines are part of the lives of many lawyers. The long hours can affect day-to-day life, which can mean less time to release stress and enjoy hobbies. Lawyers often suffer from lack of sleep. Tight deadlines, long days, and the pressures of billable hours can be exhausting for attorneys.

Many lawyers do not realize that their environment can affect their mental well-being. Attorneys are trained to look for the negative: every conceivable issue with a contract, every conceivable issue that a client may address, every conceivable liability. “[P]essimism helps [lawyers] excel: it makes 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. But pessimism is bad for our health: it leads to stress and disillusionment, which make us vulnerable to depression.” Attorneys are also trained to keep most of the information given to them confidential. Keeping things from friends and family can be burdensome.

In addition to a stressful environment, attorneys often find themselves without support. Public perception can be summed up in a common joke: “‘What’s wrong with lawyer jokes? Lawyers don’t think they’re funny and people don’t think they’re jokes.’” Lawyers may be sensitive to what they perceive to be an attack upon their character, especially when they work long hours and try to take pride in what they do.  Some attorneys have accused the state bars of proliferating the issue with the “character and fitness” requirements.  Law students and lawyers alike are apprehensive about receiving treatment for their depression because they fear they will not meet the requirements and be barred from practicing law.

States have realized the growing issue and bar associations are starting to respond. Some states, including Florida, have “added a ‘mental health’ component to [their] mandatory continuing legal education.” The North Carolina State Bar has created a program to try “to reach out to troubled lawyers,” while the Oklahoma State Bar has created a hotline for depressed and suicidal lawyers.

In Florida, the Bar has funded a non-profit organization, Florida Lawyers Assistance to help identify lawyers who suffer from mental health issues as well as to offer support and assistance. Florida Lawyers Assistance “takes the firm position that . . . psychological problems are treatable illnesses rather than moral issues” and encourages the community to reach out to those who are struggling. The organization offers weekly support groups throughout the state, which are open to lawyers, judges, and law students. Some groups focus on substance abuse, while others focus on mental health issues.

Regardless of the role of the bar associations in the state, lawyers can take action by monitoring their own mental health and reaching out to those around them who appear to be struggling with depression. Below are some of the symptoms of depression; however, this list is not exhaustive. If you believe that you are suffering from depression, you should seek help from a mental health professional immediately.

Recognize the Symptoms of Depression

  • Depressed mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure
  • Change in appetite or weight
  • Change in sleeping patterns
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Speaking and/or moving with unusual speed or slowness
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness
  • Withdrawal from friends and families
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Suicide attempts

If you have had several of these symptoms for an extended period of time, the most important thing to do is get professional help for diagnosis and treatment. Do not assume that the problem will go away.

Attorneys can take preemptive action to manage their stress level and improve their mental health. Below are several suggestions.

  • Be Aware of Your Stress
    By figuring out where the stress is coming from and what is causing it, attorneys can take action to either mitigate the issue or find ways to handle the stress itself.
  • Use Relaxation Techniques
    By finding a way to relax, lawyers can lower their stress levels and improve their mental health.  Although finding time in a busy schedule can be difficult, even doing simple stretches can improve outlook.  Deep breathing is also easily practiced even in the busiest of offices.
  • Taking Time
    Both small breaks and vacation time are necessary to recharge batteries and avoid burnout.  Attorneys should also be sure to take time to get the proper amount of sleep. Lack of sleep can reduce cognitive functions, making it difficult for lawyers to solve difficult problems, and can increase irritability, leaving lawyers unable to cope.
  • Find Support
    Whether through friends, family, or organizations like Florida Lawyer Assistance, it is crucial to have social support to help cope with stressful events.
  • Create Short Term Goals
    Setting short-term goals can help attorneys feel more accomplished with day-to-day activities and can diminish “future workload” worries.

The legal profession is a challenging one. It often means long hours, stress, and difficult problems. These challenges can often build into major depression issues that can endanger the lives of attorneys across the nation. However, by identifying the causes of depression early and acting quickly to treat the depression, lawyers can improve their mental health.

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