So… you want to be an attorney? Great! Most of the general population views a career in law as empowering, lucrative, rewarding, exciting, and prestigious. Parents encourage their children to go to law school, and the profession attracts some of the brightest and most ambitious students.
But what is life really like as an attorney? Let’s look at the statistics:
These numbers are sobering. What, exactly, is creating such misery in the profession? Is it the profession itself, the culture, the expectations, the consequences of mistakes? Or are people who are naturally inclined toward depression and anxiety drawn to the practice of law? The answer is “all of the above.”
A refrigerator magnet reads, “Lawyer: someone whose primary duty is to protect their client from other members of their profession.” By its very nature, law can include conflict. Conflict is ubiquitous for litigators, but it is also present in one form or another in most other types of law. Even if your practice involves drafting agreements or estate planning, your eye is on potential interpretations or outside forces that could derail your client’s best interests. Some of us thrive on such conflict (which may indicate other problems), but this conflict can wear us down physically and emotionally. It may even follow us into our private lives, where conflict is not so welcome.
The profession may also force us into a strictly rational, pessimistic approach to life, which may also be inconsistent with our personalities. “Pessimism,” Psychologist Martin Seligman writes, “is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence.” Surprisingly, the emotional urge to help those in need that may have gotten you into the profession may have been stifled before your first summer associate position. “Any time I voiced a concern about anything remotely touchy-feely in class, like money not equaling redress, I usually got mocked either by the professor or my fellow students,” says a former attorney, “It felt awful, like I didn’t count and like I was being dismissed (only because I was).” (10).
“It is a badge of honor if we can put in a 60-70 hour work week. The more exhausted we are, the better the week,” attorney Keith Anderson wrote in an ABA article about his depression. Many attorneys are under extreme pressure to bill hours. Not only does this directly impact the anxiety we feel during our work day, which is linked to our job security, income, and advancement, but it also impacts our resources outside of work. “New associates in some of the major law firms will be billing 2,500 hours a year,” says one law school Dean, “and you’re not going to bill every hour you’re at work so that basically bills into 10, 12, 14-hour days for 50 weeks a year. Now, people can’t have a real life under those circumstances.” It is exactly this “real life” that can help us weather through the anxiety and depression filled work lives.
There is more to the legal culture than billable hours. There is also a strong competitive culture that limits job security and pushes each attorney into ever-increasing commitments to their career over other aspects of their lives. In many firms, there is an “up or out” mentality, and if an attorney is not advancing at the rate of their peers (at any level of the firm), they may be seen as not as committed to the firm. This leads to receiving less work/responsibilities, leading to fewer billable hours/accomplishments, leading to being viewed as less committed to the firm, etc. This downward spiral is seen frequently with attorneys who take a “reduced hour track” to spend more time with small children, only to discover that this track derails the train.
Expectations go both ways. While law firms demand more and more from the attorneys, attorneys tend to expect more and more in terms of income from the firms. Lifestyles increase with increased income, and many of us end up with “golden handcuffs” keeping us in an unhappy life. According to author/analyst Jim Hollis,
One of the most obvious conflicts of duty that we all live with is that you have to earn a living to support yourself and your family and on the other hand, the price of the particular way in which you are doing it is psychologically and perhaps, physically, costly to you. So already, there is a significant conflict there. If the ego continues to override that conflict without addressing it, we could expect the symptoms, including the symptoms associated with depression, to show up.
Consequences of Mistakes
In law, we live in a world of consequences. Most of these consequences are suffered by our clients, and our jobs revolve around making those consequences as positive as possible. We are also held to an ethical standard, in which our own mistakes may result in humiliation and loss of our career. Mistakes are not an option, and perfectionism runs rampant in our profession, along with the accompanying anxiety and depression. In the Prologue of What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life, author/analyst James Hollis writes:
All of us feel shamed by life. All of us consider ourselves failures of some kind, screw ups in something really important to us. Notice how shame, consciously or unconsciously pulls us away from risk, ratified or negative sense of worth through self-sabotage or compels us into frenetic efforts of overcompensation or yearning for the validation from others that never comes; how much each of us needs to remember theologian Paul Tillich’s definition of grace as accepting the fact that we are accepted despite the fact that we are unacceptable.
According to Lynn Johnson (11), perfectionism can lead us to success, but also to a conclusion that we are never good enough. “Perfectionists are more vulnerable to depression and anxiety, harder to treat with either therapy or drugs, and much more likely to commit suicide when things go very wrong,” says Johnson.
Perfectionism and pessimism do not start in law school. Perfectionism and competitiveness in students, as well as a pessimistic approach to life may predispose them to a life in law. (12). Another self-selecting attribute is a disconnection from true passion. As Coach Jennifer Alvey describes, many high-achieving students who are not passionate about any particular career will default to law school in order to please their parents and to jump onto what seems to be a conveyor belt to security. This discounting of their own passion and happiness can lead to depression.
If you are an attorney, you can probably list many more potential causes and contributors to the statistics listed above. The question remains, though… what can be done? Read Part II by clicking here.
Rose Rigole is an attorney and a psychotherapist in private practice in Costa Mesa and Los Angeles, California. She is currently accepting new clients and can be reached by telephone at (424) 571-2273, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via her website at https://counselingsocal.com.
1. Greiner, M. (Sept, 1996). What about me? Texas Bar Journal.
2. Lynn Johnson, Stress Management, Utah State Bar J., Jan./Fed. 2003.
4. Eaton, W.W. (1990). Occupations and the prevalence of major depressive disorder. Journal of Occupational Medicine, 32 (11), 1079-1087.
5. Krieger, L., Institutional denial about the dark side of law school, and fresh empirical guidance for constructively breaking the silence, Journal of Legal Education.
6. Dolan, M. (June 28, 1995). “Disenchantment growing pervasive among barristers,” Houston Chronicle, 5A.
7. Jones, D. (2001). Career killers. In B.P. Crowley, & M.L. Winick (Eds.). A guide to the basic law practice. Alliance Press, 180-197.
11. Lynn Johnson, Stress Management, Utah State Bar J., Jan./Fed. 2003.