When family lawyers start talking about stress (which is becoming an increasingly common topic of conversation), they are usually talking about the effect their law practice has on their feelings of well-being, self-esteem, and happiness. In a recent ALM Mental Health and Substance Abuse Survey (2020), 31.2% of lawyers surveyed felt they were depressed. This is four times the depression rate of the general population.
What is most alarming about these statistics is that they are not going down – even though every state Bar Association has programs and resources to support depressed lawyers. And even more troubling is the reluctance of some lawyers to admit they have a problem, which can lead to self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. So, it is conceivable that the reality of depression in family lawyers is even worse than the survey shows.
Understanding the Root Causes of Depression in Family Lawyers
First, depression is defined as a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest and can interfere with your daily functioning. It can be temporary or long-term, low-key, or intense. Not only can the symptoms vary, but the causes are varied as well.
Depression can be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain that can be inherited or by a stressful environment which is a source of traumatic reactions in the brain. There are several symptoms cited as indicating depression in lawyers.
7 Warning Signs of Depression
- Absence of joy or happiness.
- Pervasive negative emotions.
- Focusing on worst-case scenarios.
- Substance overuse and abuse.
- Difficulty resting or getting quality sleep.
- Fluctuations in weight, appetite, or chronic pain.
- Isolation, withdrawal, and listlessness.
The Good News about Depression
So how can we say there is “good news” about depression? We must understand that depression is the psyche’s way of protecting itself when there is a glitch in the software. In other words, we are perceiving the practice of law in a flawed manner, and it can be corrected.
The same set of factors that make individuals choose to become a family lawyer also can cause depression.
Lawyers often wonder why they are susceptible to depression. The truth is that the same set of factors that make individuals choose to become a family lawyer also can cause depression.
5 Factors That Often Lead to Depression in Family Lawyers
- Compassion. Most lawyers decide to become a lawyer for altruistic reasons (as well as seeking financial compensation and respect). They see problems in the world and want to do something about it, which is the true definition of compassion. The problem of depression arises when they run head-on into the practice of law, which is highly competitive and critical. All lawyers can do is the best they can based on their education and experience, which does not guarantee any outcomes. When we allow the disappointment of unachieved results to overwhelm us, we are subject to depression.
- Perspective. One of the universal truths is that we perceive what we want to see. In other words, we see the world through colored lenses that are installed by our life experiences. Our biases, beliefs, opinions, traumas, and tribes (friends and family) influence how we will react to life’s ups and downs. If those components do not support us in times of stress, we will crack under the strain of a family law practice.
- Excellence/Perfectionism. Lawyers are trained to be perfect, or at least more perfect than their opponent. Through their education and law school, excellence was rewarded. When we start practicing law, the results upon which we judge ourselves are often beyond our control. It doesn’t matter how hard we work, sometimes we won’t get what we want. This reality can be viewed as failure, which is unacceptable to many lawyers. Simply doing a great job is not good enough.
- Imposter Syndrome. I see this in many of my clients who feel like they don’t know what they are doing (primarily because of the complexities of the practice of law) and if their clients discovered this supposed incompetence they will be disbarred or fired. It doesn’t matter how experienced or highly trained they are, the uncertainty of practicing law can be overwhelming. Most have gone through law school with the expectation or hope that, at some point, they will feel competent and in control. However, the truth is that the uncertainty of the practice of law is fundamental to the profession and until we can come to grips with that uncertainty we are at risk of depression. This is true whether you are a family lawyer, trial lawyer, criminal lawyer, or trusts & estates lawyer.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This syndrome is applicable to not only first responders and military personnel, but to lawyers as well. Secondary PTSD happens not only to the lawyers but to their staff as well. Secondary PTSD occurs when caregivers are exposed to their client’s trauma over a long period of time. Without proper wellness practices in place, it is inevitable that the caregiver can experience depression. Ironically, the more compassionate the family lawyer is, the more at risk for secondary PTSD they are.
Is Depression Inevitable for Family Lawyers?
In my experience, the practice of law is like a three-legged stool. To avoid the stress and depression affecting a significant portion of lawyers, a lawyer needs:
- a sense of humor,
- strategies for stress management and health, and
- a supportive group of people surrounding them.
Without any of these, a lawyer is susceptible to burnout. When lawyers experience symptoms of depression, it should be a red flag that they need to bolster the foundation of their wellness.
I have seen rapid improvement in depression and stress if family lawyers take heed of their symptomology and make adjustments to change their mindset, health, and well-being. Our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are all interconnected and must be observed. Otherwise, the symptoms of depression will intensify and burnout will occur.
How the Practice of Law Affects Your Brain
Understanding how the brain works can help family lawyers bring their emotional & rational lives into balance. Allowing your Neocortex to run riot over your Limbic Brain is a sure path to burnout.
New Study Connects Lawyer Well-Being & Employer Values
Are the perceived values of employers associated with lawyer well-being, stress, and work overcommitment? This study found a health hierarchy within law firms that appears to be linked to employer values – for better or for worse.
Addiction and Mental Health Issues Among Family Lawyers
The legal profession has a serious problem with addiction and mental health issues; thankfully, several national lawyer organizations have stepped up to help.