A new study finds higher status means higher likelihood of depression and less career satisfaction among American and Canadian lawyers.

By John Matias

Lawyers Mental HealthA new University of Toronto study has found high-earning lawyers are more likely to report depression and poorer health.

The researchers found that the more lucrative the role, the more likely a lawyer was to experience symptoms of depression, lack of work-life balance, dissatisfaction with their choice of career, and substance abuse.

Authored by sociology professor Ronit Dinovitzer and PhD canadidate Jonathan Koltai, the study looks at thousands of surveys from American and Canadian lawyers admitted to the bar in the same year in their respective countries.  It finds that higher-status lawyers in large firms reported more depression than lower status lawyers; poorer health in the American survey, and no health advantage in Canada. Demanding hours with limited opportunity for achieving work-life balance were the major contributing factors.

James Gray Robinson, a third generation trial attorney and business consultant based in Portland, Oregon has been there. “Depression begins with the fear of losing what you have or not getting what you want,” he said. “I have experienced this myself and seen it in many other lawyers that the more successful you are, the more you stand to lose.”

Lawyers and DepressionDecades of research has established that one’s mental health typically benefits from higher status and success. What these new findings show is that high earnings and  success does not enhance well-being across all professions; particularly when it comes to lawyers working in large, private sector firms. Burnout, substance abuse, and depressive symptoms were more prevalent among these high-status positions, than with lawyers earning a living in lower-status roles.

Self Care Rarely Stressed

“Lawyers are taught to think negatively,” says Dr. Mel Borins, a family physician and associate professor at the University of Toronto. “They are often thinking of worst-case scenarios and thinking about what can go wrong, and how to prevent this from happening. Also, lawyers are in a profession that is very combative and adversarial, which is stressful. Usually lawyers come in contact with clients who are under distress and this is very challenging to always be working in a stress-filled situation. Self support and self compassion are not part of the culture of lawyers. Lawyers are expected to be tough and hard-nosed, and when deep inside many feel vulnerable. Large firms are very competitive and self care is rarely stressed.”

Borins said it is imperative that beginning in law school,  and after practice, that self care and dealing with stress be an important component of their education.

The authors of the study urge the legal community to address the mental health challenges it faces, especially larger private sector firms, who could facilitate greater work-life balance by providing more flexible work arrangements.

“Successful lawyers often struggle with the fear that they could lose everything with one bad decision or one bad result,” Robinson said. “They often think that they have to be successful to be happy. The truth is success is getting what you want, while happiness is wanting what you get.”

“The Status-Health Paradox: Organizational Context, Stress Exposure, and Well-Being in the Legal Profession” will be published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour.

John Matias is the editor and content coordinator at Family Lawyer Magazine.

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