Perfection, Depression and Lawyers

Perfection, Depression and Lawyers

There’s been a lot written about depression and suicide in the wake of Robin Williams’ death. But nary a pixel of that coverage about depression and suicide has been devoted to lawyers’ struggles with these demons, with the notable exception of Lawyers With Depression.

What's your favorite mask to wear when you're feeling depressed, anxious, and wishing you could get out of law?

What’s your favorite mask to wear when you’re feeling depressed, anxious, and wishing you could get out of law?

The complete blind eye in the legal press about lawyers and depression mirrors the wholesale denial among most lawyers that we have a whopping problem, Houston:  (Skip ahead if you know these statistics by heart.)

  • 18% of lawyers exhibit signs of clinical depression, 3.6 times that of the average population;
  • 25% of lawyers exhibit symptoms of anxiety, the close cousin of depression;
  • 18% of lawyers who practice 2 to 20 years have substance abuse problems (nearly twice that of the average population); after 20 years of practice, the substance abuse jumps to 25% of lawyers; and
  • Lawyers are 4th on the list of professions whose members are most likely to commit suicide.

Indeed, a therapist I know once told me that between the elevated depression, anxiety, and substance abuse rates among lawyers, he estimates that 80% to 90% of the profession is suffering from Continue reading

Choosing the Right Job Match for Your Lawyer Personality

I just spent a week teaching art camp to children between 6 and 11. We did some super-cool projects, and the kids got to do real art. As in, the non-Pinterest Perfect kind, with room for experimentation and failure, and the kids’ own brand of creativity. No one’s projects came out looking alike. It was all the things I love to teach about creativity.

But by the end of it, I was a an exhausted, irritable, impatient mess.

How can that be? you’re probably thinking. She’s doing something she loves and believes in. And, what does any of this possibly have to do with being miserable in law?

Only everything, grasshopper.

What’s in a Personality?

Let’s start with some personality basics. I’m an introvert, like 3/4 of lawyers. Introverts not only process life primarily in their heads, they also get overstimulated and thus overwhelmed by constant noise and action. When you’re dealing with a bunch of 7 year-old boys, trust me, the noise and action are non-stop. Every year, I walk away from this art camp in awe of pre-school to 2nd grade teachers, who every work day step into what feels to me like chaos. I could never, ever do their job and expect to stay out of the looney bin.

Bolting the wrong job to your personality feels even more uncomfortable than walking around with staples in your skin.

Bolting the wrong job to your personality feels even more uncomfortable than walking around with staples in your skin.

So if you’re an introvert and in a job that demands regular, sustained interaction with others, you’re going to feel stressed. Ditto if you are subject to constant interruptions. While it may not be 7 year-olds whining. asking for help or acting out, you may get constantly pinged by emails, texts, phone calls, or even actual humans appearing in your office. This creates a lot of stress, because you just can’t finish a thought or a project. It’s very stressful to many introverts.

On the other hand, if you’re an extravert and work constantly behind the computer, and don’t have much interaction with others, you will feel equally stressed and out of sorts. Lack of stimulation can be a very serious problem for extraverts, particularly if they’re in law. It can make them feel flat and depressed. Moreover, extraverts tend to be misunderstood in law. Their need to process out loud can be viewed as irritating, and as wasting their colleagues’ time.

Either way, being in an environment that pushes you way past your default personality traits can make you hostile Continue reading

The Summer Reading List for Miserable Lawyers Who Want to Change

It’s officially summer, though here in the South, it has been dripping hot for at least 6 weeks, probably more. The heat and particularly the humidity long ago fried my brain. But I digress.

If you’re working on a big deal, big case, or big project, you probably don’t much care that it’s summer. It’s not like you’re going to get to enjoy it, right?

Even if getting away to the beach isn't in the cards, a book could take you there, or lots of other places uninfested by lawyers.

Even if getting away to the beach isn’t in the cards, a book could take you there, or lots of other places uninfested by lawyers.

Yet even if that’s true, you can pretend, to a certain extent. One way I’d suggest doing that is creating beach reading time for yourself, even if your only travel plans are to and from the office for the foreseeable future. If you really want to embrace the idea, put on your bathing suit and find an umbrella to sit under. At the very least, get a cold drink, stick a tacky paper umbrella in it, curl up on the couch, and put your nose into a book for a few hours.

Most of the books listed below aren’t new, and aren’t necessarily bestsellers. But they’re absolutely worth your time.

1. Be Who You Are

The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown.

If you really want to crack the code of your unhappiness, Continue reading

Stop Sucking It Up, You Miserable Lawyer You

You may think, since I no longer practice law, that I lead this idyllic life and never struggle with shit. Particularly since I’m a career and life coach. Let me let you in on a secret: I struggle all the time! I struggle especially when it comes to things that sound or look right, but my gut says “No Way, No How.”

If you're not saying no to things that make you feel boxed in, you're doing it wrong. Crawl out of your box and into freedom.

If you’re not saying no to things that make you feel boxed in, you’re doing it wrong. Crawl out of your box and into freedom.

I was asked to be part of a new group forming in my area, whose purpose is to help give women in transition the tools they need to empower them. Sounds right up my alley, right? Of course it does. So I went to an organizational meeting. We decided to have a big, brainstorming, white-boardy meeting this month, to flesh out ideas, put a schedule together, etc.

The closer the date got, the more I felt myself not wanting to go. I didn’t move a client call that conflicted with the meeting. I started fixating on what I didn’t like about some of the people involved. I started rationalizing that I really needed to go to they gym regularly, and this group’s schedule conflicts with my gym time.

But part of me kept on: What is wrong with you? This is a great opportunity to make a difference! You need to get out and meet more people, this is perfect! And, I felt guilty because I’d made a commitment. Plus, I really like the woman who asked me to be part of it, even though she does financial services and I usually have a severe allergy to people who focus on money for a living. She had in fact said to me, “We really need you. We need someone with your skills.”

Well, trust me, flattery can get you pretty damned far with me. I become a total sucker Continue reading

Jumping Without a Parachute: The Lawyer Approach to Getting Shit Done

When the work starts to pile on, lawyers not only fail to put on their oxygen masks, they head for the cabin door, rip it open, and jump out. From 5,000 ft. And then they wonder why they end up drained, dispirited and depressed about their jobs and their life.

What lawyers envision their 80-work weeks achieving . . .

What lawyers envision their 80-work weeks achieving . . .

You think I’m engaging in just a teeny bit of hyperbole? Possibly. But I swear there is a secret lawyer code of conduct that requires adherence to this routine. Nearly every lawyer I know instantly shifts to this behavior when they get that big, time-suck of an assignment, or when that looming deadline breathes down their neck with noxious, warm fumes. Yeah, been there, done that.

5 Steps to the Loony Bin

So in case you never got the secret memo, here’s what you do:

Step 1: Immediately start working much longer hours. Ignore any fatigue or feelings of being overwhelmed. Do not let yourself slack off. You have shit to do, and lots of it!!

Step 2: Within a few days, and certainly within a week, slow down or stop any exercise. You don’t have time for that kind of self-indulgent luxury.

Step 3: At the same time you’re scaling back or stopping your exercise, also start skipping lunch. Or at the very least, do not under any circumstances take a break and leave your desk for 45 minutes to get lunch and let your mind rest. You can make a quick pit stop by the vending machine Continue reading

What Wannabe Lawyer-Writers Can Learn From My 10 Year-old

So my 10 year-old son is writing a novel. Naturally, I’m thrilled.

He is so excited about this novel. Gleeful that he gets to work on Mom’s computer with the cool fonts. Over the moon as he completes a chapter or a page, which so far have worked out to about the same thing. He started out by writing in a notebook, and then, as he transferred that to the screen, got even more ideas for chapter 1, which he was psyched about. Also, since he learned long ago that Mom is The Walking Dictionary, he is letting me into this process by shouting out random spelling questions. (My suggestion that he keep a paper dictionary next to him as he wrote was flatly rejected. Sigh.)

Seriously, I gotta know about capitals and spelling before I can tell a story? You people are nuts!

Seriously, I gotta know about capitals and spelling before I can tell a story? You people are nuts!

I am so ecstatic at his joy in this process, and feeling just a little pride in how I’m nurturing this along. When he asks me what I think of a sentence or paragraph, I find something about it I genuinely like. As long as I don’t compare his work to an adult or teen’s work, this is pretty easy.

Here’s what I am not doing: Criticizing these efforts in any way. And yeah, I know there are tons of you whose instant response is: “But he’s going to think he’s a great writer when he’s not.”

And my response is, “So the hell what? He’s 10, he’s just starting out, and he needs to be excited about the things he does right. If he’s confident now, and praised for stuff he does that’s genuinely good, he won’t quit when the expectations increase. Because he’ll have felt joy in the process to keep him going.”

This is actually a good tip for any Continue reading

Why Are There So Many Asshole Lawyers?

When people ask me why I left law, I usually tell them that my personality didn’t fit into law, that I found it excrutiatingly boring, and that I really wanted to do something I liked. Which is all true. I also sound less bitter than if I l tell them that frankly, I couldn’t deal with all the asshole lawyer behavior. That was the bottom line for me.

The most consistent complaints I hear from clients about law firms are the toxicity and dysfunctionality of firms, and billable hours. Those two things are actually related, but for now I’m going to focus on the asshole side of things. Fun!

Probably not the most emotionally intelligent way to interact with colleagues.

Probably not the most emotionally intelligent way to interact with colleagues.

For the 25 or so years I’ve been in and around law, the disdain the majority of law firm lawyers have for feelings and values has done nothing but grow. I recently read that as far back as the Stone Age, aka the 1950s,  this has been a problem for the legal profession. No less a luminary than Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law School in the 1950s, said, “Many lawyers never do seem to understand that they are dealing with people and not solely with the impersonal law.”

One of the big drivers of lawyers’ inability to appreciate and deal with emotions stems from a core skill of any competent lawyer: the ability to analyze problems in a detached, objective,  and logical manner. This is the Thinker default, in Myers-Briggs personality terminology. In other words, being dispassionate and logical is the default, the comfort zone for the vast majority of lawyers. (The opposing end of the Thinker axis is the Feeler, who are primarily concerned with values and what is best for the people involved.)

According to research of Dr. Larry Richard, a legal consultant, psychologist and former practicing attorney himself, about 70% of lawyers are Thinkers. Some place that number even higher, near 80%. I’d take a wild guess that for law firm leadership, it’s more like 90%. The high percentage of Thinkers controlling law firms, and the almost universally dysfunctional work environments of law firms, are not just an accident or coincidence.

Lawyers Are Emotional Idiots

Just because people default to Thinking as their preferred problem-solving tool doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings, or that they cannot use a Feeler approach to solve problems. But what it does mean is that they often are not very adept at situations that require facility with managing feelings.

Another way of looking at the source of law firm dysfunction and toxicity is via the Calpers Personality Profile. I’m not any kind of expert on it, but Ronda Muir, author of The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers (an excellent read), is. She pegs something important about law firm dysfunction when she says:

[S]kepticism is a trait that ranges from being cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative and self-protective on the high end to accepting, trusting and giving the benefit of the doubt on the low end.  The general population has an average score of 50 on skepticism, while among lawyers it is consistently the highest scoring trait, averaging 90.  This trait can be very useful in the practice of law, particularly litigation, tax and M&A.  However, most people tend to use their strongest traits in every arena of their lives, so this high level of skepticism is also carried over into partnership meetings, team deliberations and committee work (as well as personal relationships) that may call for more trust and collaboration. (emphasis added)

Also, when it comes to emotional intelligence, Muir points out that lawyers often don’t perceive their own, let alone others’, emotions. So “the emotional data that they are analyzing day in and day out is likely to be incomplete or inaccurate Continue reading