Illustration by Whitney Sherman
A Northern California litigator we'll call David knew something was very wrong. He was having trouble concentrating. His sleep and appetite were off, and he felt as though all color had drained out of the world.
"I knew I was depressed as hell," says David, who asked that his real name not be used, to protect his privacy. "And I knew it had something to do with being a lawyer."
Since the recession, traffic to the website lawyerswithdepression.com
has soared 25 to 30 percent.
"It makes a lot of sense, because young people are facing the stress of not finding jobs, or of finding jobs with crummy pay," says the site's creator, Dan Lukasik, who practices in New York state and coaches attorneys with depression. In addition, "a lot of middle-aged attorneys with mortgages and children are losing their jobs, and that's a tremendous stressor. Law school isn't the ticket it once was."
Of course, lawyers aren't the only Americans who are struggling emotionally: The British medical journal The Lancet
reported in 2012 that between 2008 and 2010 the U.S. suicide rate rose four times faster than it did in the eight years prior. But lawyers face intense financial strains: pressure for billable hours, a reduction in clients' resources, and stiff competition from online services, says Richard Gottfried, a corporate transactional lawyer turned psychotherapist and counselor in West Los Angeles. Gottfried, who sees attorneys referred by the State Bar of California Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), says some stresses inherent to lawyering - such as the push to win every case - are a potential "setup for disaster" in people prone to depression.
"Short spurts of stress can actually enhance the immune system, but longer-term, high-level stress - the kind routinely faced by lawyers on deadline - can be debilitating and exacerbate depression," Gottfried says.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University quantified a link between practicing law and depression two decades ago. They found that lawyers had the highest rate of depression among workers in 104 occupations: about 3.6 times higher than average. More recent research suggests the seeds for this phenomenon are sown early. Florida State University law professor Lawrence S. Krieger, who has studied law students' mental health for more than a decade, says more than 30 percent are depressed by the time they graduate.
Richard Carlton, acting director of California's LAP, says many sole practitioners attribute some of the stress that leads to depression to relationships with difficult or toxic clients they feel they have to accept in order to make ends meet. Another contributing factor, says Alex Yufik, the program's case management supervisor, is the aging of the bar: "Depression can sometimes masquerade as dementia, and vice-versa."
Even useful traits, like perfectionism, can backfire in the face of the messy reality of practicing law. The profession also tends to promote adversarial relationships between colleagues and with the world at large, which can be isolating.
"Some lawyers find they like the practice of law in theory, but they can't bear to work with people in that environment with the emphasis on billable hours," says Liz Brown, a former litigator and author of Life After Law: Finding Work You Love with the J.D. You Have.
In a 2007 survey of roughly 1,500 lawyers by the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program, two-thirds of respondents said law school didn't expose them to day-to-day practice - and 30 percent reported they would choose a different career if they "had it to do over."
David, the Northern California lawyer, is taking medication and seeing a therapist. And he's hoping to move into a different practice area.
"At least I'm taking action now," he says. "And that's made a huge difference."
Help for Depression
- The State Bar's Lawyer Assistance Program offers members struggling with mental health issues up to two free counseling sessions. Call 800/341-0572, or email LAP@calbar.ca.gov
- The website Lawyers with Depression offers news, tips, and coaching. Visit lawyerswithdepression.com
- Also consider Uncommon Counsel at daveneefoundation.com