Depression, Suicide, and Lawyers

The legal profession can be a rewarding and lucrative career choice.  Many people go to law school with dreams of professional stability However, the financial realities of becoming a lawyer in the 21st century are a far cry from the old days.  New lawyers are sometimes surprised that compensation rarely exceeds six figures and often starts much lower, particularly for non-profit and government jobs.  And even for the young associates who land one of the few high-paying law jobs, the billable hours requirements, usually in excess of 1800 hours per year, raises some serious questions cost/benefit questions.  Add the pressures of paying off massive student loan debt, and you have a very very anxious group of young people.

Thus, it should be no surprise that lawyers are among the most mentally depressed professionals in the nation.  It is estimated that lawyers experience depression at a rate of 3.6 times the average of the general working population.  The risk of suicide is 6 times greater among lawyers than that of the general population.  The American Bar Association and other organizations have written extensively about the issue.  Many state bar associations, for example the California Bar Association, even require Continuing Legal Education hours in mental health and substance abuse.  Yet, the problems persist.

Clinical depression is still seen by many as a mysterious illness that, despite its common symptoms, can be difficult to overcome.  Common character traits among lawyers and consistent problems in the profession reveal possible reasons for the mental health crisis among attorneys.  Consider that attorneys are often perfectionists, having spent most of their life overachieving for good grades and high exam scores so they can be admitted to law school and succeed.  That innate drive to perfection follows a lawyer into his career.  However, case outcomes are rarely perfect for either side.  Compromises must be made, and failure to compromise results in a trial where someone wins and someone loses.  This reality alone makes being a perfect lawyer impossible.  Factor in competitiveness among colleagues and between opposing sides, and the fact that case outcomes affect client assets, livelihoods, or even freedom, and the stress can become unbearable.  It is no wonder that lawyers experience suicide risk factors, such as anxiety, substance abuse, stress, and divorce, at a higher than average rate.

There is an abundance of resources available to attorneys experiencing depression.  Bar associations typically foster support groups for both depression and substance abuse.  The website Lawyers With Depression, published by a lawyer who suffers from depression, offers numerous resources, such as articles, podcasts, statistics, and contact information for support groups.  However, no matter the resources available, a lawyer with depression should seek direct professional medical assistance as soon as symptoms develop.