Why Are So Many Lawyers Depressed?
by Brent Hale
Do lawyers suffer more depression than other professionals? Do the demands and pressures of a legal career make lawyers particularly prone to burnout and other stress-related illnesses? Consider the following comments taken from ABA publications and websites:
• Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore interviewed 12,000 workers about depression. Lawyers ranked number 1 on the list of occupations that were most depressed. Of the 28 occupations studied, lawyers were more than 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than average.1
• While 3 to 9% of the general population at any given time may experience depression, a quality-of-life survey conducted by the North Carolina Bar Association in 1991 reported that almost 26% of that bar’s members exhibited symptoms of clinical depression. Almost 12% of them said they contemplated suicide at least once each month.2
• Suicide currently ranks as one of the leading causes of premature death in the legal profession.3
• One research study surveyed 801 lawyers in the State of Washington and found that 19% of the respondents suffered from depression and 18% were problem drinkers.4
Why the high risk?
It is suggested that although lawyers didn’t invent stress, they improved upon it. One does not need to look very hard to see why so many lawyers are suffering from stress-related illnesses. As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” Even a cursory glance at the real world problems of lawyering highlights just how stressful the fast-paced, demanding life of a lawyer can be. The legal profession is often characterized as aggressive, adversarial, and competitive. Lawyers and judges are notorious for working excessive hours throughout their professional lives. The sheer number of hours many lawyers are forced to work makes it extremely difficult for them to find balance in their personal and professional lives. The ABA has reported that the desire for more time to meet personal and family needs is one of the major reasons lawyers experience burnout and consider leaving the legal profession.5
Burnout, the “romantic disorder”
Burnout has been called a “romantic disorder” in that it frequently occurs as a consequence of the heroic work ethic so admired in the legal community. Lawyers entering burnout find that the treadmill seems to have lost its meaning. Rather than feeling invigorated by the challenges of the profession, they experience a loss of control and personal power over workloads and deadlines. Burnout is sometimes defined as a mild form of depression characterized by fatigue, apathy, declining productivity and effectiveness, and negative feelings about work, career, and life. Irritability, sleep problems, lack of joy, and changes in eating habits often accompany burnout.6
Lawyers suffering from burnout report a significant drop in their ability to function. They find themselves procrastinating and struggling to meet their professional commitments. They have a difficult time concentrating and engage in all sorts of creative, yet counterproductive avoidance behaviors. Many increase their consumption of alcohol, sugar-laden snack foods, or stimulants to try to make it through the day. Others find themselves engaging in mood altering behaviors such as pornography, gambling, or unreasonable risk taking activities. Some approach the problem merely by driving themselves harder, becoming more and more rigid in their lives and less flexible, reasonable, or spontaneous.
Burnout makes it much more difficult to connect meaningfully with spouses and family members. Instead of spontaneously responding to family members in a safe and caring manner, many find themselves overreacting to difficulties, withdrawing from closeness, and straining the very relationships that are the most important to them. Their immune system becomes suppressed resulting in an increased incidence of illness, sometimes even serious medical concerns. Lawyers with burnout fight against a dark, persistent mood and are already experiencing many of the symptoms used to describe clinical depression. Unless the lawyer takes realistic steps to address burnout, it often will progress into a full-blown episode of major depressive disorder.
What’s the big deal with depression?
Depression is a serious medical illness that is much more than just struggling with a low mood. The impact of depression on a lawyer’s life can be devastating. It can have negative effects on their relationships, finances, fundamental capacity to function as a lawyer, and future prospects. Depressed attorneys often develop thought disorders and begin to believe the delusion that suicide really does make sense. Depression is significantly detrimental to a lawyer’s health and well being. According to a World Health Organization study reported in September 2007, depression has a greater impact on overall health than arthritis, diabetes, angina, and asthma.7
A person meets the diagnostic criteria for major depressive episode when at least five or more of the following symptoms have been present nearly every day during the same 2-week period and represent a change from previous functioning:
1. depressed mood most of the day;
2. markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day;
3. significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain (e.g., a change of more than 5% of body weight in a month), or decrease or increase in appetite;
4. insomnia or hypersomnia (wanting to sleep much more than normal);
5. psychomotor agitation or retardation (not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down);
6. fatigue or loss of energy;
7. feelings of worthlessness, or excessive or inappropriate guilt (which may be delusional);
8. diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness;
9. recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.
Depression is treatable
Fortunately, 85% of people with depressive illness who receive treatment significantly improve. Unfortunately, only 1 in 3 people with depressive illness seek treatment. There is evidence that lawyers, comfortable in their roles as trained helpers and problem solvers, tend to be less willing to seek professional help for a broad range of distressing and sometimes debilitating personal problems. This is extremely unfortunate. Not only does this result in needless suffering, reduced productivity, and broken marriages, it also can impact a lawyer’s career. According to the ABA, a large portion of lawyers who face disciplinary action suffer from depression, anxiety, or substance abuse.
Responding to the challenge
The legal profession is attempting to respond to the challenge of distressed lawyers. Today, all 50 states, the Canadian provinces, and Great Britain have comprehensive lawyer assistance programs. The Utah State Bar has taken this matter seriously. In March of 2006, as an adjunct to the excellent services traditionally rendered by the Utah Lawyers Helping Lawyers (LHL) program, the Utah State Bar acted to expand the professional counseling resources available to lawyers. It created the Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) and contracted with Blomquist Hale Consulting to provide members and their families with an expanded array of free professional assistance.
What is the LAP?
The LAP provides professionally licensed counselors free-of-charge to Bar members and their immediate dependents. It provides face-to-face help to resolve such concerns as: marital difficulties, family problems, stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, personal cash flow management difficulties, elder care challenges, and assessment for drug/alcohol dependence. Importantly, the LAP is:
• free of charge to the Utah State Bar and their eligible dependants;
• a short-term, solution-focused counseling resource with no set limit to the number of free sessions;
• a resource for good recommendations when longer term care is appropriate;
• available 24/7 to help with crisis and emergency situations;
• available for critical incident stress debriefings;
• a resource for free, multi-week groups that focus on relationship skills, parenting, raising kids with ADHD, and personal growth;
• confidential under HIPAA as well as Utah’s Rules of Professional Conduct 8.3 (which expressly provides confidentiality during participation in an approved lawyers assistance program).
Lawyers or their family members who access the LAP find that most difficulties are addressed in just a few sessions over a couple of months. Unlike more traditional therapy approaches that seek primarily to help clients achieve insight, solution-focused therapy assists clients in developing strategies and skills to successfully address their problem themselves. Using this supportive approach, clients are encouraged to take the steps necessary to effectively resolve their difficulties.
Some types of problems are not appropriately treated by short-term therapy, and the LAP therapist will provide recommendations for community providers within your insurance panel. Thus far, over 95% of the cases have been handled completely within the free services of the LAP.
It is easy to get help through the LAP
Access is as simple as calling the LAP and scheduling an appointment. No paperwork or approval is needed. If you live outside the Wasatch Front, you can access the LAP by calling 1-800-926-9619. If you live along the Wasatch Front, call directly to the Blomquist Hale office listed below that is nearest you.
Salt Lake City ............ (801) 262-9619
Ogden ....................... (801) 392-6833
Orem ........................ (801) 225-9222
Logan ....................... (435) 752-3241
Brigham City ............. (435) 723-1610
Where can I get more information about the LAP?
There is a link on the Utah State Bar website that takes you to the information Blomquist Hale provides at www.blomquisthale.com. This resource contains more detailed descriptions of services, profiles of the counselors, useful articles, and links to a vast array of helpful information and services.
1. Michael J. Sweeney, The devastation of depression: Lawyers are at greater risk – It’s an impairment to take seriously, ABA Division for Bar Services Website,
3. Myer J. (Michael) Cohen, Bumps in the Road, GP Solo Magazine, 18, 5, July/August 2001, ABA, GP | Solo ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Division.
4. A. Harrison Barnes, Esq., Builders and Destroyers, BCG Attorney Search Associate Resources website, www.bcgsearch.com/crc/destroyers.html.
5. Jatrine Bentsi-Enchill, J.D., CPCC, Six Steps for Creating Greater Work-Life Balance for Lawyers, ExpertLaw Website, Submitted Nov. 2004, http://www.expertlaw.com/library/practice_management/work_balance.html.
6. Adrian Hill, Preventing Burnout Live Well, Laugh Often, 21, 7, GP | Solo Magazine, October/November 2004, ABA, GP | Solo ABA General Practice, Solo & Small
7. Salynn Boles, Louis Chang, M.D., Depression a Big Factor in Poor Heath, WebMD Medical News, September 6, 2007.