Lawyers and Depression

by Gray Robinson, Esq.

            Out of over 100 professions studied at John Hopkins University in 1990, lawyers were found to be the most likely professionalsto be depressed and in 1996 became the profession with the highest suicide rate. Approximately one in four lawyers have a substance abuse problem. 

Personally, I became dysfunctionally depressed in 2004 and had to quit practicing law. I was exhausted with managing clients, fighting with my partners over my compensation and managing a stressful domestic law practice. The fact that I was successful didn’t matter, my marriage had failed, and my children were having severe personality disorders. 

When I quit practicing law after 27 years to pursue alternative healing and counseling, I had not spoken to my wife in four years. While at the time I didn’t particularly recognize I was depressed, I was surprised in counseling years later that the counselor said that if I wasn’t situationally depressed, they would have worried about me.

            Looking back on my legal career, I realized I was not prepared to deal with the downside of the profession. I was judged based on my results, not my talentsI

was competing with my partners rather than collaborating with them.Only lawyers would come up with a compensation scheme with their partners which was based on “eating what you kill.” 

I was the fourth largest producer and the tenth highest paid partner. Apparently, I was the only one that thought that was inequitable. Probably the most destructive aspect was my senior partner was also my father, a highly successful trial lawyer who felt “support” meant “criticize”.  I woke up one morning and could not force myself to literally “suit up” and go to work. I was done.

            In the last 15 years educating myself on health, wellness and spirituality I look back on those days and realize that I was not trained to deal with these issues. There are a few concepts that lawyers need to know but are not trained in. Some of these include:

  • Lawyers are perfectionists but there is no such thing as a perfect lawyer. The pursuit of perfection causes inflexibility and stress. We forget that being a competent lawyer is good enough. Most “Type-A” lawyers feel that winning is everything and losing means incompetence. Even competent lawyers won’t get the biggest verdict or bank account. 

I was an AV (best) rated attorney by my peers in Martindale-Hubbell Law Directories but I did not feel that way. I was focused more on not losing than I was doing the best I could. I was my biggest critic (next to my father) rather than being my own biggest cheerleader. I knew that no lawyer wins every case unless they do a really good job of screening and vetting their clients and even then you don’t always get everything you want. The problem is that when you are depressed, it is nearly impossible to be positive.

  • Losing does not mean that the lawyer did anything wrong.In many divorce cases, clients have unrealistic expectations that the lawyer needs to manage. Oftentimes I had to realize that my real role was to simply hold their hand through a rough time in the client’s life. Quite often I run into former clients who were truly grateful for my efforts on their behalf although we did not get the result they wanted. 

If I had been able to realize that nuance back then, I may have practiced law longer. I assumed that since we didn’t get what the client wanted, they didn’t like me or thought I was incompetent. In fact, they appreciated what I was doing for them. I just didn’t know it.

  • If you are stressed, you have to balance the stress with stress management. Exercise, healthy diet, avoiding substance abuse, support of your peers all can help reducing the negative effects of stress. If you are in a position that requires unhealthy billable hours you need to consider changing that position. Losing your mental health is not worth a partnership or high income. Listen to your family and friends if they are concerned about your mental and emotional health.
  • Ask for help. If you are struggling with self-respect, self-esteem or insecurity, especially if you are combining that with mind- and mood-altering drugs, you need help before it gets too toxic. You can lose everything you worked so hard for, including your marriage, your bank account and your reputation. Every bar association has a section with counselors for emotional and mental health. Take advantage of it. These services are confidential and can be lifesaving.

The practice of law is simply that, a practice that involves a new opportunity with every new client. One of the more profound aspects of a law practice is every case is different and has different results. 

The practice of law must satisfy the practitioner, otherwise it is a potential for disaster. If you are feeling stressed, do not ignore the warning signs. They are telling you something.

About the Author

James Gray Robinson, Esq.was a third-generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, for 27 years in his native North Carolina up until 2004. Since then he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations, and leading corporations. Robinson’s mission is for all people to have fulfilling, peaceful career experiences and work environments. At the age of 64, Gray passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney.You can learn more about his work by visiting www.JamesGrayRobinson.comand to begin a dialogue about supporting you and/or your business, write him directly at [email protected].