After a recent talk about depression in the legal profession, one of the lawyers in the audience walked up to me and said "you know, having one out of four lawyers depressed really isn't all that bad. I mean that's probably about the proportion for everybody, right?"
His comment came as a complete surprise. In fact, reports suggest that lawyers are three times more likely to suffer from depression than the general population. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how little information the legal profession has about its psychological state of affairs. It isn't that the information isn't available, its just spread in a number of places.
The other side of the coin is that there seems to be little concerted effort among either psychologists or lawyers to make sense of the information we do have. Given this lack of information and reflection, it is fair to say that the legal profession is literally unconscious ("not aware") about its psychological condition.
This creates a situation that can be expected to give rise to more insistent symptoms, more acute breakdowns.
So here are a few "facts":
One in four lawyers suffer from elevated feelings of psychological distress. Highest on the list of complaints are interpersonal feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, followed closely by anxiety, social alienation and isolation, and depression.
Out of 105 occupations surveyed, lawyers rank first in experiencing depression.
44 percent of lawyers feel they don't have enough time to spend with their families, and 54 percent say they don't have enough time for themselves.
Over 50 percent of all lawyers say they do not have a mentor that is interested in their career.
In 1990, only 33 percent of all lawyers said they were "very satisfied" with their work, down from 41 percent in 1984. Among male lawyers, 28 percent said they were dissatisfied with their work while 41 percent of female lawyers said they were dissatisfied -- both numbers are roughly double those reported in 1984.
A disproportionate number of lawyers commit suicide, often "at an age when they would be expected to be most socially productive."
More than 60 percent of lawyers polled in the Northern District of Illinois believe lack of civility is a significant problem within the legal profession and that this is a marked change from past practice.
Substance abuse is a factor in up to 80 percent of all disciplinary complaints.
This last fact points to the only area that has been seriously addressed by the legal profession in a system-wide way. Across the nation, (including Illinois) lawyers assistance programs have been set to assist members of the legal profession who have problems with drugs or various kinds. Such programs are sorely needed, and yet current statistics show that for every ninety dollars spent on disciplinary proceedings, less than one dollar is spent to support lawyer assistance programs. In Illinois, for example, lawyers are accustomed to receiving their annual bill for dues. But not one penny of those dues goes to support the State's Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP) which instead has to spend valuable time and resources soliciting funding from bar associations and private entities. Imagine. We are willing to demand mandatory contributions for disciplinary proceedings while organizations dedicated to prevention and care go wanting. Add that to our list of facts. What does this preference for discipline say about the profession's psychological condition?
In most states, there currently is no organized way of responding to the needs of lawyers beset by psychological problems that are not related to substance abuse. Most lawyer assistance programs are not set up to address such issues. Although I am sure there are many ways of responding to this problem, it seems reasonable to me that a small portion of our professional dues could go to finance programs designed with enough breadth to address both substance abuse and other psychological concerns (I would like to hear the reader's thoughts about this.)
As a profession, we must remember that not all psychological problems are individual. The legal profession as a whole also is displaying symptoms of wide-spread fragmentation. Whether it is the dissolution and break up of long standing firms, the profession's loss of control over billing methods and procedures (and increasingly over how cases are managed), the manic spread of specialization, or the paranoid decay of collegiality and community, the situation clearly calls for serious and imaginative responses. This is not to presuppose that the profession's fragmentation is not called for, or that the breakdown and restructuring may not be necessary. As is so often the case with psychological symptoms, inappropriate responses to a symptom can sometimes create more problems than the symptom itself.
It is easy to put psychological affairs to one side during rough times. The paradox is that this is precisely when psychological contemplation is most needed and can be most insightful. I once had a person tell me that they wanted to see a therapist but didn't think they were strong enough emotionally to "handle it" at the time. They wanted to wait until they were "more together." It reminded me of someone wanting to wait until they were rescued before putting on a lifejacket.
One outgrowth of the increased lawyer-bashing of late is that it makes lawyers reluctant to act on problems within the profession for fear of fueling further public discontent and ridicule. We must be careful not to fall into the insidious trap of closing our ranks and closing our eyes.
During Freud's time, psychoanalysis was a social taboo.. Sessions were often held in secret. This silly victorian repression has lifted significantly, but much remains to be done within the legal profession to de-stigmatize the process of seeking assistance, whether for substance abuse or other psychological problems. As long as the legal mind denies its own weaknesses and limitations, and continues to irresponsibly insist that lawyers constantly wear masks of strength and independence, it will insure increased psychological stress.
About the author: Benjamin Sells is a psychotherapist and counselor whose practice specializes in working with individuals and groups within the legal profession. Apart from his psychological background, he also is a former litigator with a large Chicago law firm. His syndicated collumn appears nationwide, and he writes and lecSells tures widely on psychological aspects of individual and cultural life. Sells also is the author of The Soul of the Law (Element Books, 1994). He welcomes comments and questions at 417 Shenstone Road, Riverside, IL 60546. This collumn is sponsored by The Florida Bar's Quality of Life/Stress Management Committee.