The Full Weight of the Law
Successful lawyers these days, as readers of this publication know, need to pay attention to legal technology. Staying up to date with the available tools of the profession can help you thrive as a lawyer. However, one common (and avoidable) mistake that many lawyers make is when they fail to see the whole picture. Improving one aspect of your legal practice while neglecting another crucial area results in a waste of time and energy. It would be like investing in smart technology for your home to save on utility bills but neglecting the cracked foundation of your house. When lawyers ignore or minimize their mental health needs, they are ignoring their foundation.
The most satisfied lawyers are those who see their professional, personal, physical, mental, and emotional health as all interconnected. Therefore, making an investment in improving your mental health is an investment in your professional success.
Have You Ever Noticed that Studying and Practicing Law is Stressful? You’re Not Alone.
The statistics on the rates of depression, alcohol abuse, and anxiety in the legal community are troubling. It seems clear from the research that the start of law school begins a difficult journey for which few are fully prepared. And how many could honestly say they felt fully prepared for the experience of law school? Rates of depression skyrocket in law school, starting at about 7% of incoming law students (equal to the general population) and reaching approximately 34% at the end of the first year. This upward trend slows but continues until the end of law school reaching a high of about 40%. Depression rates trend downward to 28% after law school, but even that figure is more than three times higher than the general population. Given the strong correlation between depression and alcohol abuse, along with the multiple stressors of the legal profession, it’s no wonder that the prevalence of alcohol abuse is twice as high among lawyers than the general population.
Statistics are Helpful, but What Can You Do about it?
The first step in addressing a need is to recognize that the need exists. For example, before you can upgrade your office technology you must identify what areas are lacking, how your practice could be improved, and what processes or routines you continue to engage in that are no longer efficient. You can apply a similar approach to your mental health. Start by taking an inventory of the sources of stress you encounter. Identify how those sources of stress affect you (regarding your mood, your outlook on life, your relationships, your professional satisfaction, etc.). Next, list all the ways that you attempt to cope with that stress (both the healthy and unhealthy ways). Then identify and utilize the many sources of support that are available to you.
A good place to start is with the Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) in your state or province. LAPs vary in how they are staffed and what they offer, but each is a helpful resource for any law student or lawyer who would benefit from talking to professionals who know well the stresses that face the legal community. Either through or in addition to your local LAP, other resources in the community such as therapists, psychiatrists, and groups can be an invaluable support. If you have never had the experience of meeting with a mental health professional or group, it can be helpful to talk to someone who can demystify the experience and answer your questions; for lawyers, the LAP is the obvious source for that kind of guidance.
But What Will People Think?
These two contradictory statements are both true: 1) there is greater acceptance of mental health treatment as time goes on, and 2) individuals still experience a fair amount of stigma about mental health issues and substance abuse. This stigma is the #1 barrier for lawyers seeking help – the fear that others will find out and think less of them professionally. This same trepidation can be heard from law students who think that admitting that they have a need and addressing that need would be worse than ignoring it so that they can avoid mentioning it on their bar exam application. (Some states require the disclosure of mental health records while others do not). This fear can be summed up in the question, “Will I ruin my reputation if I seek mental health treatment?” The answer is no. Identifying an issue and seeking to remedy that issue is a sign of competence and strength. Reputations are most often ruined when the lawyer ignores a problem, resists getting help, and hopes that no one notices.
For example, if you suddenly realized that your paper file system with colored sticky notes was no longer adequate for today’s legal profession standards, it would not be a sign of weakness to then consult with a law practice advisor and learn effective ways to upgrade your law practice technology. Identifying and addressing a concern is a way to maximize your professional fortitude and survival. Doing so often and without hesitation increases your resilience. The same is true for your mental health. The legal profession is stressful and pretending that you are unfazed by that stress will only make matters worse.
Law students and lawyers report having a significantly higher rate of depression than the general population. When untreated, depression affects lawyers and their clients, families, friends, and colleagues.Read More