A majority of American lawyers experience significant anxiety, depression, or substance abuse during their career. Attorneys have a higher incidence of anxiety and depression than any other professional group. Depression begins during the first year of law school and attorney’s emotional distress grows throughout their career. Attorneys don’t start out being more depressed than other people—first year law students have levels of depression and anxiety similar to the general population. However, anxiety and depression increase among law students during their first year. After a year in law school, 50% of law students show signs of clinical depression. Law students also experience higher levels of obsessive compulsive disorder (a clinical sign of severe anxiety) compared with veterinary, medical, pharmacy, and dental students.
Why are Attorneys Distressed?
Most likely, the demands of law school and the stresses of practicing law are responsible for high levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse among lawyers. Also, attorneys tend to deny their mental health problems because it may harm their career. Hiding mental health problems is counterproductive and can lead to substance abuse or attempted suicide. It’s the stress of being a lawyer that causes health problems, poor quality of life, and low self-esteem.
Unfortunately, the very structure of law makes attorneys prone to emotional distress: lawyers love logic; they face an adversarial legal system; their job is to “fix” difficult problems, and the value of an attorney is measured in “billable hours.” There is nothing inherently wrong with these four pillars of the law, but they can have negative effects on lawyer’s personal and family life. Reason and logic are crucial to crafting winning legal arguments and the adversarial system is an effective way to resolve disputes where both sides feel passionately about their positions and are not willing to compromise. Clients look to attorneys to fix difficult problems and lawyers could not earn a living without recording billable hours. So, what’s the problem, why do so many lawyers feel anxious and depressed or abuse substances?
Difficulties occur when lawyers carry their “legal” habits home with them. Trying to manage your family by reason and logic ignores other important human traits like intuition and emotion. Moreover, your family doesn’t want to be fixed, they want to be heard. And, if you deal with your family as adversaries, they will respond in kind and create severe emotional stress for everyone. Finally, the demand to work overtime places enormous pressure on a young lawyer. Billing sufficient hours to earn a decent living is important, but that shouldn’t be your top priority. Your health and family are more important. When you are constantly focused on work, you don’t have time to relax and experience life.
Denying you have emotional issues is dangerous. Avoiding dealing with anxiety or depression and trying to work when you are emotionally vulnerable generally makes matters worse. Every human being is vulnerable to fear and fatigue–denial can damage your well being. Pay attention when you experience significant emotional distress and seek help immediately. Avoiding dealing with the stress only makes matters worse.
If you truly want to lower your stress level and gain a better work-life balance, you need to think carefully about your habits and attitudes. Being mindful of who you are and why you work can help make you aware of the important people in your world. Focusing on the fullness of life rather than just work will go a long way toward creating better balance for you and lowering your stress level.
Mental Health Problems Among Attorneys
The incidence of mental health problems among attorneys is shocking. Over twenty-five percent of lawyers show signs of significant mental illness at any one time. The most frequent problems are anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Lawyers have the highest rate of depression, alcoholism and drug abuse of any professional group. Suicide rate among attorneys are second only to health care professionals who have easy access to drugs. A recent study by the American Bar Association found that associate attorneys in large law firms feel they have the most miserable job in America because of the unrelenting pressures for more billable hours, the stressful demands of litigation, and a lack of control over their lives.
The legal profession is notorious for having poor work-life balance. Women attorneys have been aware of the problem for years and are striving to fix it. Men, on the other hand, are just beginning to recognize the health hazards of practicing law. Nearly one-third of female attorneys leave the legal profession to raise a family or find less stressful employment. Many other women attorneys stay in law but forego achieving partner level because they choose family and other life goals rather than working 60-hour weeks. Most associate attorneys report that their day begins around 4:30 a.m. with a baby crying or an alarm clock ringing, and it may not end until midnight when they finish that legal brief their managing partner assigned and demanded “yesterday.”
A major problem for many men is that they have unconsciously accepted the role of bread winner and are reluctant to risk their career to enjoy family life. The implicit assumption is that because mom is with the children, everything’s fine. But, placing the entire burden of child care on modern mothers is not realistic. Most women work outside the home and couples must share child rearing and household tasks if they are to achieve success and well-being.