Lawyers and law students face a uniquely stressful experience that results in much higher rates of depression as compared to the general population. While many factors in the study and practice of law affect a lawyer’s mental health, a common factor among many with depression is a sense of isolation. This isolation is rooted in the idea that the distress a lawyer feels needs to be hidden from others, where depression is assumed to be a personal or professional flaw and asking for help is considered a weakness.
The stigma surrounding mental health issues continues to be one of the most significant impediments to getting the help that lawyers need. But this is changing. More attention is being paid to the negative effects of neglecting one’s mental health in service of projecting an invulnerable veneer. Yes, the legal profession is undoubtedly stressful, but it does not have to be a detriment to your mental and physical health. Common across recommendations for healthier coping is the simple concept of focusing your efforts on the things that you can control and accepting the things that you have no control over. Here are some things that are within your decision-making power. Let’s consider some common pitfalls and strategies for the road ahead.
Without healthy boundaries, we are in essence handing over control to someone or something other than ourselves—and this common way of losing a sense of control over one’s life can have a negative effect on mood. If, for example, you think that you cannot say “no” to a request that you must “be on” 24/7, or if you typically work until you fall asleep, you are effectively surrendering your power over important life decisions.
A related pitfall is the tendency of so many lawyers to sacrifice sleep to get ahead or catch up on work. In fact, you need to take care of yourself before you can effectively help anyone else. Poor sleep has a negative effect on your mental functioning, problem-solving, emotional state, and physical well-being. You’ll do yourself and your clients a favor by developing and maintaining a regular and sufficient sleep schedule. If insomnia or poor sleep are problems, many resources on behavioral “sleep hygiene” practices are available. Common recommendations include limiting daytime naps, avoiding caffeine or other stimulants late in the day, exercising (usually not just before bedtime), keeping your bedroom dark, quiet and moderate in temperature, and rising at the same time each day. It may be helpful to relegate your bed only to sleep and sex, rather than use it as a place to watch TV or catch up on cases, etc. These days, we all tend to keep checking our smartphones; the problem doing that at or near bedtime is that it can stand in the way of winding down toward readiness to fall asleep. If possible, we’d recommend avoiding nightly use of sleeping pills. Within the realm of medication, though, the safer ones (in terms of dependence) are those that don’t tend to be habit-forming, some of which are available over the counter.
When lawyers feel depleted (from overwork, burnout, unrealistic expectations, poor sleep, etc.) they are more likely to rely on unhealthy coping methods to deal with their stress. Unhealthy coping approaches are those that provide a quick effect, do not require much energy or effort, do not address the source of the stress, and have detrimental effects over time. These include smoking, gambling, avoidance, addictive behavior involving alcohol, drugs, food or sex, etc. Coupled with the common tendency in the profession to avoid asking for help, lawyers can find themselves feeling overwhelmed by the stressors with no clear way to address them. So balancing work with, for example, meditation, relaxation, prayer, exercise, and time devoted to family/friends/community is more than gratifying—it is preventative.
Social connection and communication
Keeping genuine feelings and vulnerabilities to yourself, while consistent with “lawyer culture,” deprives you of one of the main ways that people cope with stress, fear, disappointment, etc. Denying or ignoring such feelings is often ultimately destructive. Even people who are very socially active or facile, involved in civic or professional organizations, may keep deeply felt concerns in an internal lock-box, shielded from even those closest to them. Simply speaking from the heart to one or two people with whom we can be open and honest can help provide crucial support and validation, which can go a long way toward warding off the development of depression or other maladies. Support groups can also be tremendously helpful in this way, through a particular kind of trust that evolves among people who share similar experiences, difficulties, and vulnerabilities. Of course, an additional option is to see a therapist, especially when dealing with subjects that you cannot bring yourself to discuss with a friend.
Sense of empowerment
The term “learned helplessness” was coined many years ago to capture a situation that readily generates a discouraged and less active mental and behavioral state—even among laboratory rats. Feeling disempowered or trapped, or believing that nothing you do makes much of a difference, can feed depression. Many lawyers are prone, partly based on their professional training, to focus on the negative, not only with a set of facts or a legal argument (abilities that may enhance legal practice) but also in how they view the effect of their own efforts. It thus becomes helpful and important to both recognize and practice behaviors/activities/choices that clearly do have an impact, in both professional and personal life. Think about some of the ways that your work or input has contributed to improved outcomes or client lives. Outside of work, even small things like mowing the lawn, hanging a picture, or handling a task for someone who needs assistance, can help with a sense that your behavior creates results.
Similarly, some lawyers may apply negative thinking to how they view themselves. Zeroing in on what’s wrong may be productive in evaluating a case, but not in surveying one’s life. The legal field has a pervasive tendency to attribute value to those lawyers who make a lot of money or hobnob with the rich and famous—though there is no evidence that these lawyers are happier. (In fact, what data exists suggests that lawyers in lower-income public service jobs are actually most content.) Aside from money or prestige-based notions of what constitutes “success,” many people went to law school with lofty expectations, such as being the next Alan Dershowitz or Gloria Allred or perhaps even serving on the Supreme Court. Needless to say, the clear majority of attorneys live less extraordinary lives. To base self-esteem on being exceptional only works in the kind of fictional world where “all the children are above average.” In the realm of valuing ourselves and others, nonjudgmental observation, acceptance, and gratitude are much more nourishing to one’s mind and mood than applying externally derived standards.
Prioritizing and practicing self-care early and often is an effective way to maintain or restore your mental well-being. Recognize and reject the notion that “I’ll take better care of myself once happens.” Something new will always fill in that blank. Don’t wait. Create and maintain healthy boundaries, identify and use your social supports, practice good sleep hygiene, learn and practice healthy coping skills, and develop healthy and realistic expectations of yourself. Do these things consistently and long before it feels like you really need them.
In fact, taking the time to identify resources before you need them will enable you to navigate stressors much more effectively. To that end, spend some time familiarizing yourself with the services of your state/local lawyer assistance program (LAP), attend or organize bar association panels on well-being, explore support groups, or begin talking with other lawyers about the stress of the profession and how you all try to cope with that stress. Above all else, don’t do it alone. Our burdens are lighter when we share them.
About the Authors
Jeffrey Fortgang (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Shawn Healy (email@example.com) are clinical psychologists at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, the Boston-based lawyer assistance program, where they provide clinical consultations and support/discussion groups to law students, lawyers, and judges. They are co-authors of The Full Weight of the Law: How Legal Professionals Can Recognize and Rebound from Depression, published by the Law Practice Division.