I want to expand a bit on yesterday’s post. How much does a BigLaw environment cause depression, as opposed to exacerbate a disposition toward it?
Turns out there are some studies and articles out there on the topic. This 2001 article in Cardozo Law Review says that pessimism is actually a trait that make a strong lawyer, since viewing the world as full of things that are going to go wrong helps lawyers see how best to help their clients. Stands to reason. The authors also say that pessimism is a trait that predisposes one to depression and unhappiness. And it’s quite difficult to turn off pessimism when you leave work. Do you know any happy pessimists?
I find even more interesting the fact that when 1Ls start school, their rates of depression are the same as the general populace, yet by the end of their first year, those rates have tripled or quadrupled. You can still make a decent argument that law draws people who are predisposed to depression, but I’m not entirely convinced.
When lawyers find themselves paralyzed and doing things that they despise, and for which they do not want to take ownership, they often engage in psychological splitting. In other words, they try to retain their self-respect by claiming that their professional actions are not reflective of their underlying selves but rather a role that they are forced to play, much like a gladiator who is thrown into the arena and forced to battle until death. This splitting mechanism between the true-inner-self and the false-outer-self naturally leads to dissociation and a growing sense of unreality about one’s character.
And to depression, wouldn’t you think? When what you do 10 or 12 hours daily is at complete odds with your soul’s needs, you will get depressed. Your soul is starving – that’s what depression is about. Without doubt there’s a very real chemical imbalance element to depression, but my own belief is that chemical imbalance is triggered in many lawyers by the stress of psychological splitting. You’re making too much cortisol and other stress hormones, hour by hour and day by day, and it throws off the body’s very delicately balanced hormonal system.
Here’s the takeaway: You’re caught in a structure that is designed to smash your psyche to bits. You cannot single-handedly change that structure — The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard is fiction, after all — but you do have the power to start addressing your depression. Please do. We need all the bright, creative, happy people we can get in this world.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer, writer, and career coach who adores a good BBC show. You can reach her at jalvey AT jenniferalvey.com.