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Well-Being

Depression in Lawyers: Bad News and Good News

Keep the big picture in mind.

By Gray Robinson

When lawyers start talking about stress and depression, they are usually talking about the effect their law practice has on their sense of well-being, self-value and self-esteem.

In a recent ALM Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey, 31.2% of lawyers surveyed felt they were depressed — that is four times the depression rate of the general population.

Most alarming about these statistics is that they are not going down, even though every state bar association has programs to support depressed lawyers and more and more resources are being thrown at the problem. Even more troubling is the reluctance of some lawyers to admit they have a problem. So, it is conceivable that depression in lawyers is even worse than surveys reveal.

What Are Symptoms of Depression in Lawyers?

Depression is defined as a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest and can interfere with your daily functioning. It can be temporary or long-term, low-key or intense. Not only can the symptoms vary, but the causes can vary. Genetics, biochemistry, environmental or situational factors, and even personality can cause depression — and the causes can be multilayered.

There are several symptoms cited as indicating depression in lawyers, including these warning signs:

  • Absence of joy or happiness
  • Pervasive negative emotions
  • Focusing on worst-case scenarios
  • Substance overuse and abuse
  • Difficulty resting or getting quality sleep
  • Fluctuations in weight and appetite
  • Chronic pain
  • Isolation, withdrawal and listlessness

So, what is the “good news” about depression?

Depression — situational depression in particular — is your psyche’s way of protecting itself when there is a glitch in the system. In other words, you may be perceiving the practice of law in a flawed manner, and the good news is that can be corrected.

Depression is treatable and there are a number of ways you can practice self-care to reduce the symptoms.

Lawyers Often Wonder Why They Are Susceptible to Depression

The truth is, the same personality traits and factors that make a person choose to become a lawyer can also cause depression.

  • Compassion. Most lawyers decide to become a lawyer for altruistic reasons (as well as seeking financial compensation and respect). They see problems in the world and want to do something about it, which is the true definition of compassion. Depression arises when they run head-on into the reality of practicing of law, which is highly competitive and critical. All a lawyer can do is their best, based on their education, skill and experience, which does not guarantee any outcomes. When you allow the disappointment of unachieved results to overwhelm you, you are subject to depression.
  • Perspective. One universal truth is that we see what we want to see. Our biases, beliefs, opinions, traumas, and our tribes influence our reactions to life’s ups and downs. Depression arises if those components do not support you in times of stress. You crack under the strain of law practice.
  • Excellence/Perfectionism. Lawyers are trained to be perfect, or at least more perfect than their opponents. Throughout our education, the rubric for success was clear and excellence was rewarded. Once we begin practicing law, however, the results on which we judge ourselves are beyond our control — and we don’t always get what we want. Anxiety and depression come into play when lawyers begin perceiving this reality as failure — because failure is unacceptable to many lawyers. Simply doing a great job is not good enough.
  • Imposter syndrome. It doesn’t matter how experienced or highly trained you are, the uncertainties of practicing law can be overwhelming. Some lawyers feel like they don’t know what they are doing (primarily because of the complexities of the practice of law) and that if clients discovered this incompetence, firing or disbarment would be a certainty. Most have gone through law school with the expectation that, at some point, they will finally feel competent and in control. The truth is that the uncertainty of the practice of law is fundamental to the profession. Until you can come to grips with that uncertainty, you are at risk of depression. This is true whether you are a trial lawyer, criminal lawyer, business lawyer or estate planner.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder. This syndrome applies to not only first responders and military personnel but to lawyers and staff as well. Secondary PTSD occurs when caregivers are exposed to their clients’ trauma over a long time period. Without proper wellness practices in place, depression is inevitable. Ironically, the more compassionate the caregiver, the more they are at risk for secondary PTSD.

The Practice of Law Is Like a Three-legged Stool

To maintain health and wellness, a lawyer needs:

  1. A sense of humor
  2. Strategies for managing stress and maintaining good health
  3. A supportive group of people around them

Without any one of these three legs, you are more susceptible to depression, anxiety and burnout.

Take Care

When you feel symptoms of depression, it is a red flag that you need to stop and bolster the foundation of your wellness. Otherwise, your symptoms will intensify.

Our thoughts, behaviors and emotions are interconnected. I have seen rapid improvement in depression and stress levels once lawyers take heed of their symptoms and make adjustments to change their mindset, physical health and emotional well-being.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Gray Robinson Gray Robinson

Gray Robinson is a lawyer, writer, speaker, mentor, consultant and coach for lawyers who are struggling with their practices. He was a divorce lawyer for 27 years and handled hundreds of divorces, custody and support cases. Gray quit in 2004 due to stress and burnout and has devoted himself to helping lawyers and clients deal with the pressures of practicing law. Gray is the founder of Lawyer Lifeline, a restorative program that guides legal professionals through anxiety and stress to fulfillment and passion. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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