The life experience of many lawyers together with research data show that a disturbingly high percentage of lawyers are extremely unhappy personally and dissatisfied with the practice of law.
A 1990 study revealed that one-third of Washington State lawyers were impaired by depression or alcoholism. The study found that 18% of lawyers had problems with alcohol (versus 10% of employed persons in the United States), and that this figure rose to 25% for lawyers in practice over 20 years. A further 19% were suffering from significantly elevated levels of depression (versus three to nine percent of the general population).
A 1990 study at Johns Hopkins University found that of 28 occupations studied, lawyers were the most likely to suffer depression, and were more than 3.6 times more likely than average to do so.
A quality-of-life survey by the North Carolina Bar Association in 1991 revealed that almost 26% of respondents exhibited symptoms of clinical depression, and almost 12% said they contemplated suicide at least once a month.
Why are so many lawyers depressed? The usual theories are:
- Time constraints and deadlines
- The high stakes involved for clients
- The high expectations of expertise
- The constant scrutiny and critical judgment from opposing counsel, the courts and clients
- The legal process in general, which is inherently conflict-driven
- The threat of malpractice and the perceived need to cover your backside from other lawyers and even your own clients
- Professional training that requires us to notice and anticipate the negative and the downside in all situations
- Law firm culture which carries certain expectations for high billable hours
- On top of work obligations, continuing legal education requirements, bar activities and community service work, all expected from the “good” lawyers
- The risk of burn out that comes from high demands, strong focus and the need to stay on task for long periods of time, especially for solos or small firm lawyers
Substance abuse and stress are contributing factors in many disciplinary cases. The Law Society of BC in 1990 reported there were 1,000 complaints about professional conduct and 600 reports of potential or actual negligence claims. The toll on lawyers’ personal and family lives also cannot be discounted.
There are many wonderful things about the profession:
- Intellectual challenge
- The opportunity to learn every day
- The ability to help people
- Education and skills which can enable you to effect positive change through advocacy and other means
- Perceived high status occupation (sort of)
- The ability to earn high income (although depends on practice area, location and firm/employer type)
For many lawyers, it’s a constant challenge to focus on the positives and effectively deal with the stresses and environmental factors that make so many lawyers unhappy.