Mental Health in the Legal Profession

People in the legal profession are much more prone to mental health issues than the general population. The high-stakes career can leave many people with negative effects on their mental health. Research shows that lawyers are more prone to stress-related illnesses like burnout, insomnia, clinical depression, gambling addiction, and substance abuse. Despite the high rates of addiction and depression among lawyers, there is not much public discussion or acknowledgment of the problem. Even those who seek treatment do so somewhat secretly. Many attorneys don’t want to expose their mental illness to clients, managers, and employers for fear it will harm their reputation and career success.

The statistics are staggering and point to a serious problem. A John Hopkins study in 1990 concluded that lawyers are three times as likely to develop clinical depression as people in 25 other professions. Further research shows that about 15% of lawyers will encounter depression during their career. In a study of 2,500 attorneys in North Carolina, 25% reported clinical symptoms of depression at least three times a month in the past year. Surveys say that 18% of lawyers will develop problems with substance abuse, compared to 10 or 11% of the general population.

Like many high profile careers, there are high demands for flexibility and commitment in order to get bonuses or promotions. “In large law firms, antisocial behaviors are often rewarded” says Andy Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association for People with Disabilities (AAPD). AAPD is the largest membership organization promoting political and economic empowerment of people with disabilities in the nation.

Imparto was diagnosed with bipolar disorder around the time he graduated from law. Regardless, he has had a very successful career and shares his story openly in order to encourage more people to speak up and get help

According to Imparto’s research, there is a sense of loneliness in the profession that exacerbates the already stressful situations lawyers have to face. There are often time constraints and unreasonable or rigid deadlines. The legal process is inherently conflict-driven and many cases have very high stakes. People may be facing or dealing with loss of property, freedom, and life and they depend on lawyers to stand up for them. There is not much camaraderie with colleagues. Not only do a lawyer’s personal relationships suffer from their high workload, but they also often deal with clients’ strained personal relationships that require legal counsel to deal with.

There are very high expectations for lawyers; they are supposed to be experts at many topics and they are under constant scrutiny from the courts and opposing counsel. There is also pressure in a firm to show success i.e. having high billable hours. The threat of malpractice suits is always looming and the attorney can tend to assume a lot of burdens for their clients. All these high demands can leave lawyers strained and depleted.

Dr. Stanish McClearly, a former lawyer who has been a psychologist for 20 years, believes that lawyers habituate to a high workload and it is hard for them to slow down. They eventually experience depression and turn to substance abuse or addiction to cope.

For women who are lawyers, there may be pressure to sacrifice domestic responsibilities or even having children in order to achieve their ambitions. These sacrifices can have a toll and may lead to substance abuse or depression down the road.

As far as dealing with emotions, it may not be a lawyer’s strong suit. Many are better with intellectualizing things and dealing with concrete rules, not feelings. So in order to avoid feeling feelings, they often turn to gambling, alcohol, or drugs. Many lawyers deny that they have a problem until it is too late and they face the consequences in the form of disciplinary action from their bar association.

It seems that lawyers, with their ambitious nature, desire to outperform others and impossible standards have very few outlets for stress which could all be the cause of their tendency for mental illness. Perhaps what everyone can take away from this is the importance of slowing down and taking time to de-stress.

References

Andrew Imparato, “Mental Illness in the Legal Workplace,” Diversity & the Bar (May/June 2005).

Mitchell, Scott. “Mental Health in the Legal Profession.” MCCA. Diversity &the Bar, Oct. 2007. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

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