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A 'Mental-House' Divided, Cannot Stand

Lawyers and Depression
Lawyers and Depression
public domain

Drawing on the popular Boston Legal ABC program, I recall an episode where William Shatner who plays Denny Crane Esq. and James Spader, as attorney Alan Shore, are sitting around the law office late one night smoking cigars and drinking Scotch - the stereotypical pomp-extracurricular of attorneys (at least male attorneys) - during which Crane utters to his friend and colleague, "This is an ugly profession... but we live for it." All the while, Shore nods in agreement. There, the episode ends on that note; preceding these attorneys' conversation however, Crane laments over having missed out on the love of his life, one of several wives, because of his marriage to the practice of law.

Misery and disillusion on the surface do not underscore Crane's dilemma, a choice between marriage to the practice versus love, family, etc. Yet, outside of the often vapid conversations of attorneys portrayed in television series or movies when it comes to their personal lives, the statistics are that misery and disillusion, otherwise depression, have a deep affect on the lives of many lawyers. In an article titled Why are Lawyers So Unhappy? by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph. D., this author examines both the dissatisfaction and depression amongst attorneys in the U.S. At first glance, Dr. Seligman presents the statistic that 52% of attorneys are dissatisfied with their careers despite the prestige and money that are enjoyed by many in the profession. What is alarming, Dr. Seligman also notes that:

     "When adjusted for sociodemographics, lawyers topped the list, suffering from depression at a rate    of 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally. Lawyers also suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than non-lawyers. The divorce rate among lawyers, especially women, also appears to be higher than the divorce rate among other professionals. Thus, by any measure, lawyers embody the paradox of money losing its hold. They are the best-paid professionals, and yet they are disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy."

After being out of law school now for six years, even this author admits to the stresses and toils of the job, especially when dealing with adversity outside of the office. Client problems coupled with personal ones can be, at times, draining. When going through my divorce a few years back, it invaded me nearly every day at work during that time of my life to the point where despite demanding some time off for a few days only slowed down the widening cracks forming in my own mental health. Fortunately, I was able to treat my eroding mental health without resorting to the drastic self-medicating used by what are the great many unfortunately using drugs and alcohol to cope.

Looking at the life of one of our most well respected attorneys in U.S. history, Abraham Lincoln is determined by historians to have suffered from very severe depression during the time that he practiced well into his Presidency. Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk, is a lurid depiction of this attorney and Great Leader told from the focal point of Lincoln's suffering from what is likely to have been a clinical form of depression. Though melancholy as a personal character trait was somewhat in vogue, as Shenk explains, during the time of Lincoln, life was much harder then with the great loss of life many experienced through disease and war. Lincoln himself experienced losses of family and his own child in addition to having failures in business and politics that caused his depression to worsen during various chapters of his life. Some accounts of Lincoln's depression, as also told by Shenk, show a man that was in serious dysfunction during times that his ailment was at its nadir. Lincoln was not alone, another great attorney and judge, Benjamin N. Cardozo, is also speculated to have suffered from depression as well.

Without belaboring the point, the obvious issue here is that attorneys need to deal with their mental health whether that means to practice or not to practice. Or, if even one wishes to continue in the practice they ought re-examine which area of law they enjoy the most and stick to that area, doing less work in the areas that are less desirable. This may be easier said than done. However, a "transcendentalist approach" to any pursuit in life is good for some - not to be overly "Thoreau"esque about the matter. To take such a following requires an attorney, perhaps, to be more "Spartan-like." Such may not be the ambition for those who worship and live for the "Ivory Tower," as opposed to those who loathe it.

Regardless, the mental-house that is divided cannot stand! Depression eats away at the psyche and can lead to a horrid downward spiral for many, particularly when it leads to substance abuse. I worked alongside one attorney with great ability who became hospitalized as a result of conditions caused by heavy drinking and smoking. Missing work for over a month, this colleague and the law office both suffered from his absence. The stresses of the practice are overwhelming at times. Any lawyer should be willing to admit, except maybe the psychotically and "rare-gifted" drones that feel no pain, that the work done by lawyers can lead to great stress, anxiety, or anguish. Let the ones who would hold to the contrary stand apart from the plurality of those in the profession who are but mere mortals.

The mental sufferings of attorneys bespeak of a greater problem in America, possibly even in industrialized society, and that is depression is a widespread disease of the mind and one of the most under treated illnesses suffered by vast numbers of people. A "side-effect" that often accompanies it is "social death" and "spiritual death," if not death itself. Depression can lead to hospitalization, institutionalization, suicide, and physical conditions that result therefrom. Preventative medicine and treatment are definitely lacking, though we boast of how great the American health care system is when mental health care is severely deficient when compared to other countries like Sweden. My intention is not to stir debate over U.S. health care, but to call attention to the depravity in our wealthy nation when it comes to basic mental health treatment and prevention. I need not back up these statements here when if you seek the sources verifying my contentions you will find that they are voluminous; just start with the literature provided through the National Institute of Mental health at

Although a troubling topic, the consensus is that attorneys need to deal with their mental health issues as it, moreover, begs the question as to competency and fitness to practice when a disease, whether it be alcoholism or the underlying problem leading to substance abuse or depression itself, diminishes the lawyer's ability to ethically practice. Young lawyers especially should be aware of how the practice can lead to concerns that need to be addressed and dealt with early on, as this author can by personal experience tell any of them. If suffering do not deny the problem, and get proper treatment. Live well, eat well, and budget time for others we care about and are devoted to; and, budget some time for the things we enjoy. "An ounce of prevention is a pound of cure."


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