Lawyer blues

By Legal Eagle

I’ve written extensively on this topic before (here, here, here, here and here). It’s one of my bugbears – why are lawyers so prone to depression? Is it something about the kind of person who is attracted to studying law, or is it something which is created by the way in which the law functions? Or maybe a bit of both? The latter is my suspicion.

Yet another study has found a significant correlation between being a lawyer and depression:

More than 40% of law students report psychological distress, with little improvement in sight when they become barristers and solicitors.

According to a study described as the largest Australian survey of lawyers and law students, almost a third of solicitors and one-in-five barristers suffer levels of depression associated with disability.

The results are to be presented tonight  in an annual lecture addressing the issue of depression among lawyers.

Personally, as I have outlined in my previous posts, I think that law students and lawyers are more likely to be high-need achievers and perfectionists with unforgiving standards. So that’s a basis for depression in the first place, because you tend to be very hard on yourself if you make mistakes.

But I also think there are aspects of the way in which the law operates which lead to depression in individuals who would not otherwise suffer from depression. In law firms, individuals often have no control over the way in which they work or the volume of work. Further to this, there is a culture where long hours are glorified, which leads to exhaustion and alienation from one’s family. Or, if you choose not to work the long hours, your contributions are not valued.

And of course, some areas of law are naturally confrontational, like commercial litigation (the area in which I worked). I quite liked the challenge of a fight sometimes, but at other times, it really got me down, particularly if I didn’t feel that there was much justice in the claim I was fighting. Or if the other side was being unreasonably pig-headed and refusing to see the writing on the wall.

I also think many senior lawyers are appalling at managing staff. There are significant exceptions to this rule, but many of them really have no idea how to manage junior staff, although they are excellent at managing clients. So they blame junior staff for their failures in management, cause simple tasks to be last-minute disaster areas, and fail to adequately instruct junior staff in what exactly it is they are supposed to do. There’s nothing more demoralising as a junior staff member than being shouted at for something which really is not your fault.

And then there’s the culture of drinking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no wowser. I like a drink or two. But I don’t like to get absolutely smashed, and drinking is not my main way of socialising with other people. Often, the main way in which lawyers wind down is to go out drinking and I don’t think this is healthy. It also doesn’t help anyone who happens to have mental health issues into the bargain.

It’s not a simple matter of providing counselling, or making working hours shorter (although these things will help). It is about looking at the bigger picture and understanding how the way in which legal work operates can cause individuals to become demoralised and depressed. It is about changing the culture of law firms.

It is also about trying to make depression more of an issue which is openly discussed rather than stigmatised. Even though I’m a pretty open person, depression was not something I ever felt I could chat to my bosses or colleagues about. One felt that even to talk about such a thing would be to brand one’s self unreliable or a “looney”. So all these lawyers go around feeling terribly miserable with no one to talk to about it, and with “self-medication” (ie, alcohol) as the only option of forgetting one’s problems.

Unfortunately, despite all the noise that is made, I don’t think things are going to change in a hurry. But I’m going to keep on writing about the issue and making my own small noise, in the hope that perhaps it might help someone out there.

14 Comments

  1. Posted September 18, 2008 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I am glad you are making a noise about this.

  2. Posted September 18, 2008 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    LE:

    We’ve all heard about the stress response but how many people know about the relaxation response? CF

    http://hropucop.edu/employees/eap/relaxation.html

    Relaxation Response

    The Relaxation Response is a simple practice that once learned takes 10 to 20 minutes a day and can relieve the stress and tension that stands between you and a richer and healthier life. The technique was developed by Herbert Benson, M.D. at Harvard Medical School, tested extensively and written up in his book entitled The Relaxation Response.

    Set aside 10 or 20 minutes today and try it. The following is the technique taken verbatim from his book.

    Sit quietly in a comfortable position.
    Close your eyes.
    Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed.
    Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word, “ONE”, silently to yourself. For example, breathe IN … OUT, “ONE”,- IN . OUT, “ONE”, etc. Breathe easily and naturally.
    Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.. .
    Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace. When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating “ONE.” With practice, the response should come with little effort. practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal, since the digestive processes seem to interfere with the elicitation of the Relaxation Response.
    – The Relaxation Response, Herbert Benson, M.D.

  3. Posted September 18, 2008 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    LE,

    May you be cursed. Since reading your post I have been spending all afternoon going over my archives. I’ve read a great many research articles on depression and in just the last few weeks some research has revealed what may well be the “final common pathway” to effective antidepressant treatment. That being: the re-invigoration of cell proliferation in the CNS, particularly the hippocampus.

    As I go through my old notes I realise that it all begins to make sense. Strangely enough I just began a new course of antidepressant treatment, now into my second week. I told the doctor what type I wanted and what dose. I chose this type because it has an immunomodulatory effect and also targets norepinephrine. These two effects are very important in preserving brain health. This is my third strategy for cognitive enhancement and the effects are already kicking in, much earlier than I expected.

    So the lesson is:

    Depression is not just about feeling blue, it involves the actual destruction of the brain. For example, one study found that those individuals who experienced major depressive episodes totally 4 years had a hippocampus 20% smaller than the controls. A Nature Medicine study found that older individuals with rising cortisol have a smaller hippocampus than those with steady cortisol levels. Cortisol is a key stress hormone and is typically association with immunosuppression but this is misleading. In depression sustained cortisol expression can induce glucocorticoid resistance, this leads to inflammation via il1,il6, and others which induce nitric oxide and oxidative damage. This is why major depression is also associated with latter dementia, heart disease, and cancer, and probably gut problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

    My long winded point is this: Sustained depression is dangerous, it causes damage throughout the body.

  4. Posted September 18, 2008 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Oh dear, poor John! It seems I sparked off a storm of inquiry.

    Oh don’t worry about that, it was good to wet the feet again. Just a toe though, understanding the pathophysiology of depression is a fascinatingly frustrating endeavour.

    http://healthycuriousity.blogspot.com/2008/09/conquering-depression.html

  5. Posted November 23, 2009 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I found this piece very interesting as I’ve wondered if the ever rising rates of depression are linked with the general culture of many workplaces in the UK, for much the same reasons as you state here – lack of control, long working hours, etc. I usually consider this from the point of view of those doing low wage jobs, so this is a salutory reminder that the same issues affect higher earners too.

  6. Posted January 2, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, despite all the noise that is made, I don’t think things are going to change in a hurry. But I’m going to keep on writing about the issue and making my own small noise, in the hope that perhaps it might help someone out there

    I commend you LE for raising the issue.

    I see it got a mention in a recent LIJ article.

    I think it would be helpful if the Regulatory Body would perhaps let Lawyers go to GPs.

    I will give one example of Lawyer X who was asked to give an account of their health after being on the other end of a harrowing experience 10 years previously.

    Lawyer X was asked to describe their health regime in a statement along the following lines:

    ‘I enjoy sports, catching up with friends, reading, going to the gym, being with family, outdoors and volunteering. I have worked in satisfying jobs and am happily married. I havn’t had any counselling for seven years and my Doctor doesn’t see any clinical need for it. However if there is something I feel I cannot discuss with my friends I confide in my GP who has been effective as a counsellor”

    Said GP, as it turned out, who has an average waiting period of three weeks to see patients (quite unusual these days) and spends about 45 minutes with their patients is actually a Professor and has a number of post graduate degrees in mental health. It wasn’t known by X that the doctor had these degrees, although it later became relevant.

    Doctor Y stated on a number of occasions that Lawyer X had no mental health issues.

    Legal regulatory body took Lawyer X’s statement regarding their health regime and stated as follows:-

    “We refer to your comment that you see your Doctor who has proven to have been an effective counsellor to you. This confirms our belief that you havn’t gotten over your problems”

    I think America learnt a lot earlier that taking this line was really counter-intuitive, as it tends to make Lawyers go to Doctors and pay cash or worse still not go at all.

    Lawyer X’s Doctor, a specialist they later got a report from (who agreed with LawCare Psychologist) and quite a few other Doctors who read what the Regulatory Body had actually put in writing were very concerned by the implications of what the Regulatory Body had said. They saw this seeking out of help, a woman patient who partly talked with their doctor about private matters, resulting in good outcomes as a sign of awareness, and a sign that Lawyer X had insight and was willing to seek out appropriate help if needed.

    Doctors in Victoria expressed a great deal of concern over it because it could be applied to any professional and found it quite anomalous that a legal regulatory body could behave in such a markedly different way than another body, such as a health regulatory body.

  7. Posted January 3, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    @LE

    It is really scary when they put it in black and white. I mean they put it in black and white.Your average HR consultant would understand the implications from a discrimination standpoint.

    Over the last few years the LIV have been condemning any body that claims the statutory exemption against discrimination, publicly proclaiming that they think the exemption from discrimination has to go.

    There is such an exemption from the operation of the Equal Epportunity legislation in the Legal Profession Act, however they have rallied against it, called for it’s reform on so many occasions.

    Yet when it came to Lawyer X getting a ruling from VHREOC, LIV said “we claim the exemption”.

    That is both stupidity plus hypocrisy.

  8. PAUL WALTER
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Yes it wouldn’t be so bad if depression was only suffered to the extent that other facets of life are not ground to a halt, with it. But depression can be “physical” – if you are being mongrelled by it , you do the “doona dive” and don’t bother showing your face for days, also.
    Am not a lawyer, but can understand that the subject matter of certain cases would do ones digestive system not a lot of good also. and seeking releif with alcohol and medication can’t work, if its going to further compromise the brains capacity to produce the endorphins that relieve stress.
    Holes are wondrously easy things to fall into and perilously difficult to get out of again, sometimes.

  9. Posted January 4, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Yes it wouldn’t be so bad if depression was only suffered to the extent that other facets of life are not ground to a halt, with it. But depression can be “physical” – if you are being mongrelled by it , you do the “doona dive” and don’t bother showing your face for days, also.
    Am not a lawyer, but can understand that the subject matter of certain cases would do ones digestive system not a lot of good also. and seeking releif with alcohol and medication can’t work, if its going to further compromise the brains capacity to produce the endorphins that relieve stress.
    Holes are wondrously easy things to fall into and perilously difficult to get out of again, sometimes.

    How true PW.

    I wouldn’t want to see lawyers who decide to resort to taking drugs or plying themselves with alcohol not to get the treatment they need, particularly where it is interfering with their functionality. I mean once it gets to that point there is a risk to the public…

    However Lawyer X didn’t fall into this category. Lawyer X had depression many years ago, exogenous reaction to two years of violence and stalking.

    Lawyer X didn’t take drugs or drink alcohol as Lawyer X preferred the kind of endorphins you get from exercise. They just chose another job and continued on with life. However 16 years later they are being harangued about a depression that was proportionate to having their head bashed in on a weekly basis, threatened and which basically burnt itself once the perp was put in jail and life went on.

    Strange how having gone to a doctor and talking to them about ‘current issues’ like alzheimers of a parent and/or IVF is somehow conflated with mental illness or lack of per se functionality. Actually, astounding according to some Doctors who know Lawyer X.

  10. Posted January 4, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Put simply people dig themselves out of holes, not caused by biochemical depression, continue with life and function satisfactorily.

    That is I understand the difference between a 16 year long biochemical depression, treatable possibly by anti-depressants, and a 16 year old exogenous or reactive depression which quickly burns itself out.

    I think it is a bit of a stretch to call the latter depression where no less than 5 medical experts are ad idem that the person who had a touch of the exogenous 16 years ago is a suspect if they swipe their medicare card through the system and talk to a GP about some fertility issues which have a medical angle to them in addition to a psychological one. Put it this way. I think that is what doctors are for. They deal with medical issues too.

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