Lawyers, Schools and Depression

There’s a fascinating article in the Oct. 7 edition of the Washington Post about “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary by a lawyer-mom. She looks at the literal ill effects that achievement pressure can wreak on college-bound kids these days. There are some great insights there for lawyers who are in the midst of their own career crises, as well.


stick figure under cloud of depression
When work makes you feel like this, it's time for a change.


Filmmaker Vicki Abeles told the Washington Post that “there is tremendous pressure on all kids to get the grade, to get the test score … which is creating an epidemic of unhealthy kids who are also arriving at college and at the workplace unprepared.”

In other words, the pressure to achieve is robbing kids of both joy and learning. They’re taught to the test—not to be generally educated—and cram in enough to snag a good grade, but then promptly forget what they spat out for the test. Not what I’d call learning, and certainly not joyful.

In essence, what we’re teaching kids is that they should live for external gratification. The notion of studying something because it interests you, or doing something because you enjoy it, is increasingly foreign to adolescents who want to go to good colleges and post-grad schools. That is unbelievably sad and short-sighted. You can’t sustain a happy life living out others’ dreams. Not that lots of people don’t try. I was one of them. Didn’t work, and I have yet to see it work for anyone else.

Yet even if you don’t care a whit about happiness, the fact is that most innovations come from people who are pursuing what interests them, and who are relaxed enough to think creatively about them. If we push kids away from what truly interests them in the name of achievement, where is that innovation going to come from? And where are we going to get enough therapists and coaches to help all these people with quarter- to mid-life crises? (OK, I’m mostly joking about that last point. Mostly.)

Legal education seems to do even more than standard high school and college education to divorce people from their interests and passions, and as a result create depression. While the rates of depression amongst entering 1Ls is the same as the general population, 6% to 9%, within 6 months of starting school the rate jumps to 30%. That is staggering, friends.

And it gets even worse—a study cited by a GWU law professor Todd Peterson found 44% of law students exhibit clinically significant levels of psychological distress. That’s right, almost half of law students are highly anxious or depressed before they even start practice! It’s a much higher rate than for medical students, even though med students have an even more arduous education than lawyers.

Other studies have found that 18% to 28% of lawyers are “clinically distressed,” compared to 2% of the general population. Translation: lawyers are seriously on the precipice, as a group.

A 1998 study, conducted by Larry Richard, JD, PhD and funded by Altman Weil, gives a glimpse into the causes of lawyer depression. That study uses Caliper Profiling, which measures 18 personality traits to assess characteristics, potential and motivation of employees. It’s administered by the Caliper Corp. consultants.

Interestingly, the Caliper Corp. notes that “People who are working in roles that are consistent with their personality, values and interpersonal characteristics generally outperform those who are less well matched—by a ratio of two-to-one.” So not only positive psychology theory, but data backs up the idea that we need people to be intrinsically motivated.

The Richards study found that lawyers demonstrated high skepticism, coming in at the 90th percentile. The study defines skepticism as “cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative and somewhat self-protective. People who score low [on skepticism] tend to be accepting of others, trusting, and give others the benefit of the doubt.” But other critical thinking professions, even doctors, don’t have as high a rate of depression that lawyers do, so skepticism alone isn’t what’s creating lawyer depression.

On the other hand, the Richards study ranks lawyers at 30% on their resiliency levels —the ability to bounce back from criticism or rejection. So lawyers are brittle skeptics. Yikes.

I think what tilts lawyers toward depression is that lack of resilience, which comes straight from our education. We’re taught that there is a correct answer, and it depends on authority. Not moral reasoning, or even precedent mixed with other things, but on what somebody else says is right. Note that that person probably lived under different circumstances and maybe is dead, but still they get to say this is the way you must decide your issue today. (Also, notice the zero-sum thinking: if I’m right, you are wrong. No win-win in lawyer education.)

Using authority as the basis for decision-making means divorcing your own insights and opinions—you learn not to trust yourself, in essence. If you can’t rely on yourself, you don’t have resiliency. Which means when life or work hands you a set-back, your problem-solving toolbox is pretty empty. It’s one of the chief ways lawyers get stuck in career paths they hate—they see one or two tools, and that’s it. As in, they can switch firm type or size, or maybe go work in-house or for government. Then, when those tools don’t help diminish their misery, they get really, unbearably depressed, rather than looking further afield for different tools and solutions.

So, whew, a lot of theory today. Here’s some practical take-away: Some depression in lawyers is learned behavior. Great news, because it can be unlearned!

One excellent way to unlearn depression-creating behavior is to connect with the things that excite and motivate you. Not things that sound good, or that would make your parents/spouse/friends proud, but things that you just think are cool and fun. That’s one reason I harp on doing self-dates, aka Artist Dates for those of you who are into creativity. It doesn’t really matter what you do, just make a date with yourself to go do something festive and fun for you and you alone, for at least half an hour. An hour is even better. Do it every week, and you’ll start to reconnect with your authentic self.

If you are a blocked writer, you could also sign up for a writing class. I happen to know of one specifically for lawyers who want to write. It starts Oct. 28.

If you’re one of the many depressed lawyers out there, there are lots of options to help get you back to a happier place. Medication, therapy, coaching, or maybe even all three. There are some great blogs out there too on lawyer depression. Just start somewhere. The world needs happy, productive people—badly. Come back from depression and be one of them.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches lawyers on living more instrinsically satisfying lives and  careers. What fuels you from the inside out? Drop her a note at jalvey AT


  1. I love your blog. The road to leaving law, which I’m trying to get on, is not easy. Reading your posts keeps me inspired and gives me hope. Thanks!

  2. LL says:

    “Filmmaker Vicki Abeles told the Washington Post that “there is tremendous pressure on all kids to get the grade, to get the test score … which is creating an epidemic of unhealthy kids who are also arriving at college and at the workplace unprepared.””

    I certainly arrived at college unprepared. For me, college was actually a worse experience than law school. I suppose I am extremely brittle, since I was never able to turn myself around for that five year adventure.

    Then I arrived a the law firm unprepared to practice law. That was fun too.

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