As I talked about in Part 1, you entered law school already disconnected quite a bit from what you’re really all about. But that alone isn’t what makes you so miserable now that you’re an attorney. Nope, it’s the law school pedagogy itself that is a huge part of the problem, and really deepens and almost cements that disconnect. It’s the second whammy.
I got this insight just recently, while having lunch with Dave Shearon, an attorney with a master’s in positive psychology who was instrumental in leading Tennessee to be the first jurisdiction to approve resilience coaching for attorneys as CLE-eligible. He is working on a fascinating book, Thriving Through the Five Challenges of Law.
As we were talking, Shearon noted that law school does a real number on people psychologically in many ways. Law students enter law school with the same rate of depression as the general population (6% – 9%), but within 6 months are depressed at 3 times that rate. (More on that below.)
Law School Deepens Disconnection
One of the chief reasons for this spike, Shearon thinks, is that legal education teaches us to disconnect from our emotions and moral code—our values—and instead utilize logic and analysis exclusively as problem-solving tools. As he says in a draft he kindly shared with me:
[L]aw school teaching subtly (and without conscious intent by law professors) trains students to treat arguments based on values, social consequences, and ethics as “throwaways.”
I didn’t think the teaching was all that subtle, frankly. Any time I voiced a concern about anything remotely touchy-feely in class, like money not equalling redress, I usually got mocked either by the professor or my fellow students. It felt awful, like I didn’t count and like I was being dismissed (only because I was). This is not a surprising experience for someone who is an F (Feeler) in the Myers-Briggs Typology Indicator.
But then, I did what most law students do: I quit listening to my more touchy-feely side. I sucked it up and said to myself that I needed to not care, that caring was a liability. Yeah, those were some really fun years.
Whether you’re an Feeler or a Thinker, there are some pretty heavy-duty consequences to this aspect of law school pedagogy. Psychologically speaking, when you split your behavior and daily activities from your core values, you can create serious internal conflicts that aren’t even recognized as a problem by you or your colleagues. They are brushed aside as “Well that’s just how you practice law. If you want to be all touchy-feely go be a therapist.”
That’s not a helpful response, to put it mildly. To successfully navigate this kind of emotional chasm, between what you believe and what you’re doing, requires a high level of self-awareness. Of course most attorneys have that in spades, right?
Otherwise, these kinds of unaddressed, unresolved conflicts often—maybe usually—lead to things like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicide. Which all, not surprisingly, occur at a much higher rate among lawyers than in the general population.
The depression rates, for example, don’t spike until after students have been in law school for about 6 months. Coming in, law student show the same depression rates as other college graduates, between 6% and 9%. After 6 months of law school indoctrination, the depression rates in law students have skyrocketed to 30%. That is disturbing. 3Ls actually show even higher depression rates, up to 40%—one study even pegged the clinical depression symptom rate at 53%. It gets a little better once students become working lawyers, dropping back down to around 30%. Oh, yipee!
Lawyers also exhibit 5 to 15 times the rate of anxiety, phobias, and interpersonal sensitivity than the general population. Again, the rates for anxiety and hostility look the same for entering 1Ls as for the general college senior population; they start climbing during law school. That’s right, it’s not just the people in your firm or practice group: lawyers overall are, in fact, extremely thin-skinned and take offense at just about anything. And, they are proven unproductive worriers (i.e.., the anxiety). What a horrible price to pay for disconnection.
These number, folks, are why I blather on constantly about connecting with your joy, your dreams, your inner wisdom, whatever label you like. I don’t care about the label. I care that you reconnect with whatever it is, that real you. Because that disconnection is what is causing your unhappiness, more than anything else.
You can reconnect with your soul’s dreams for life and work, no matter how long you’ve been disconnected. It’s waiting there for you. You knew, once, before those dreams got buried under a bunch of shoulds and oughts and the punch-list lifestyle. Next time, I’ll talk about ways to rediscover who you really are and tap into your true nature. Listening to your true nature guides you the most quickly to the work and life you deeply crave, as I discuss in Part 3.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys reconnect to their dreams and hopes, and grow those dreams into a better career and life. Find out what that’s like with a discounted sample coaching session. One hour that can change your life! Email firstname.lastname@example.org today to schedule yours.