Updated: Mar 23, 2019
Although I’m deeply hooked on “How To Get Away With Murder” right now, one of my favourite television shows of all time is ‘Frasier.’ And one of the most memorable lines from the show was quite possibly from the episode where the character of Niles says to Frasier: “I hate lawyers but they make wonderful patients: They have excellent health insurance and they never get better.”
For a profession that has yielded some of the greatest and most inspirational leaders of our time – from Mahatma Gandhi to Barak Obama - the practice of law has a reputation as being, well, uninspiring. At least to those behind the casebooks. Consider the research: In a study of over 100 occupations, lawyers lead the United States with the highest prevalence of depression. Research has also indicated that the profession has one of the highest rates of suicide, and up to 20% of lawyers in the US struggle with alcoholism or another form of substance abuse.
We all know that the legal profession is hardly the glitz, glamour, and downright darkness that is the life of Annalise Keating and her photogenic associates. And although the legal profession in and of itself is probably not the only cause of mental health issues in lawyers, it may be a significant instigator of them much of the time. The need for better mental health services for advocates is evident. But so is the need to understand just why the practice of law is notoriously fraught with stress. And what to do about it.
To that end, here are the top reasons why I believe lawyers have such high instances of psychological distress, and tips on how they can address each one of them:
1. Training and Personality. It starts in law school. There is a particular type of teaching style – termed “The Socratic Method” – that is often used in the American system. It involves asking a question and calling on a student at random from the class list to provide an answer on the spot. It usually creates anxiety and tension in students. A think-on-your-feet and have-the-perfect-answer mentality is both the expectation and the norm in the practice of law. To go even further, the very students who select law as a profession tend to naturally exhibit personal traits and values that correlate strongly with anxiety, such as: Achievement-oriented, prestige and status seeking, ambitious, perfectionistic, etc. They may already be predisposed to being more vulnerable to stress to begin with.
Solution: Remind yourself that you can’t and won’t be perfect, and that it won’t make or break you as a lawyer. Prepare as best as you can, but do not catastrophize the outcome should you get caught out and find you need to hit the drawing board to figure something out. Set realistic expectations of yourself, and stick with them. Be self-forgiving and self-accepting. We all make mistakes in work and life, from typos, to calling someone the wrong name, to saying something that might be incorrect. Try to roll with them whey they happen. They won’t mean the end of the world.
2. Negativity Bias. As a young lawyer once put it when I inquired as to what law school is like: “They train us to be paranoid.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. But one thing I do know, having worked with dozens of lawyers as clients, is that they have a higher propensity to view the world in general from a more negative place. This is likely because they are hired and valued almost exclusively for their expertise in spotting potential holes, issues, problems, and assorted “things that could go awry” in whatever dealings they are involved in. And the skill of seeking out the negatives sometimes bleeds into their non-working world, potentially rendering them the “Debbie Downers” in the room among family, friends, and loved ones. A strong negativity bias has been shown to increase the risk of depression and anxiety.
Solution: A crucial skill for a Psychotherapist is to leave work at work. Including the so-called ‘analyst hat.’ We usually don’t go around analyzing friends and family after hours and if we did, we wouldn’t have many friends left! The same is true for lawyers. Become aware of the behaviour pattern of looking for the negatives, and reframe it as a skill or ability. It’s part of your tool kit. But here is the tricky part: Compartmentalize it so that it does not fundamentally become an attitude. Take on this mentality outside of work: “If a situation is neutral, assume a positive outcome to it.” If you can do this, negativity won’t follow you like a dark cloud every time you leave the office.
3. Win, win, win! This is especially true for litigators. In law, winning is the name of the game! Lawyers are trained to argue pretty much any issue from any side. A great skill indeed, but invariably they will be hired to be on one side. So they do an awful lot of butting heads with other lawyers. And frankly, clients want them to win. The legal system in North America isn’t set up to seek justice; it’s set up to seek a winner. And whosoever presents the most artful and convincing case is deemed the winner. This win/lose/argue every point mentality can also trickle over into one’s personal life, causing distress and in particular issues with personal relationships.
Solution: In a game of hockey, it is perfectly legal to slam another player up against the side of the ice rink, thereby potentially causing damage to organs or even the human brain. If you did the same thing to someone on the street, you would be arrested! Practicing law is the same: It’s a bit of a game. And you need to recognize when the game has ended and you’re no longer playing. It sometimes helps to ask oneself regarding personal life and relationships: Do you want to win/be right? Or do you want to be happy? Choose happy.
4. Pressure from clients. This one is self-explanatory: Clients want lawyers to perform and to get them what they want. Lawyers often experience intense pressure from them to deliver on tight deadlines, even when making a deadline is out of the control of the lawyer. I have counselled lawyers who felt the weight of this pressure to such a large extent that in extreme cases, they resorted to very poor decisions that in the end hurt both the client and lawyer. The negotiating, facilitating, consensus building, and placating that is often involved in the legal profession can leave lawyers exhausted and mentally drained.
Solution: Learn solid techniques for stress management. Taking breaks from work, and ensuring a good work/life balance is a key start. Deep breathing and guided meditation are superb stress and anger busters. Become part of a peer group where you can talk to one another about difficult cases, or simply to have an understanding listener hear out your stories. Seek supervision or the advise of more senior lawyers if necessary. And if levels of distress become high enough that they have begun to impact overall functioning (i.e. eating, sleeping, hygiene, mood, personal relationships, etc.), don’t shrug it off. Talk to someone, be it a therapist or a friend/loved one, and get the help you need.
NKS Therapy offers services such as Career Counselling Toronto, Couples Counselling Toronto, Relationship Counselling Toronto, Family Counselling Toronto, Psychoeducational Assessment Toronto, Toronto Mental Health Services, Psychotherapy for Depression Toronto, Toronto Psychologist Services, and Child Psychologist Toronto Services. Call us today at 416-745-4745. We love to help.
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