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 some mild to severe form of mental illness. Yup, there we are again, lawyers at the top of the class. Awesome.

Seriously, though, it’s a really disturbing thought. At a gut level, it rang true for me. Most of the lawyers I practiced with seemed, at best, unbalanced in some way. I remember an associate a year ahead of me at my first BigLaw firm, who popped Tums like they were candy and shrugged it off as “it’s just because I work for Peter,” one of the big rainmakers, and even bigger asshole, in the firm.

Perfection Pressure

While elevated depression rates show up by the end of 1L, it’s actual law practice that really turns the screws tighter. The perfection pressure is enormous in BigLaw and a lot of other firms. Mistakes, no matter how minor, are viewed as permanent blots, character flaws that cannot be fixed. This is one of the many ways in which lawyers are brittle and unresilient. (Resilient, successful people actually view mistakes as a chance to learn. Fancy that!)

The anxiety level that the profession inflicts upon itself, pursuing some mythical version of perfection, likely leads to the high depression rates. At least, one of the current theories of depression is that it is the result of high anxiety levels sustained over time.

Here’s the thing: Far too much of this “perfection” that partners demand, and that lawyers demand of themselves, is not about trying to obtain an objective standard of excellence. Instead, it’s trying to conform to a few people’s ideas of HOW THINGS MUST BE.

That idea usually doesn’t coincide with any real prospect of malpractice or a bad result for a client. (Consider the $20,000 comma meetings you’ve been to, BigLawyers.) Instead, it’s something, or some procedure or method, that one or two lawyers picked up from another lawyer along the way. They used the model religiously, because that validated the person they were learning from (a senior partner or rainmaker). Thus, the junior lawyers became convinced it was The Way, The Truth and The Light of how to practice law.

Lawyers as a group are incredibly good at discerning and following precedent. In other words, they are good at aping the past. It’s one of the only things we learn in law school that gets used in practice, for better or worse. But this rigid mimicry is an illusion that feeds the idea that there is only one way to do things. That idea, of course, is utter shit. Yet it is what underlays a lot of the perfectionist behavior of lawyers.

Lawyers Have a Pot (Roast) Problem

The irony is that slavishly following past practices can lead to inefficiency and actual mistakes. Consider this story of a lowly pot roast:

To prepare a pot roast, a young woman cut off both ends of the roast, prepared it and put it in the pan.  “Why do you cut off the ends?” her husband asked.  “I don’t know,” she answered. “My mother always did it that way.”

The next time she was at her mother’s, the woman asked, “Mom, why do you cut off the ends of a pot roast?” the daughter asked.  Her mother answered, “That’s how my mother did it.”

When the mother next visited her mother in the nursing home, she asked, “Mother, how do you cook a pot roast?”  [NB: Most lawyers would not think to question a long-standing, successful method.] The grandmother answered, “Well, you prepare it with spices, cut off both ends and put it in the pot.” The mother asked, “But why do you cut off the ends?” The grandmother answered tartly, “Well, the roasts were always bigger than the pot that we had back then, so I had to cut off the ends to fit it into the pot that I owned!”

Et voila! as Eddie Izzard, my favorite comedian, would say.

In law practice, the pot roasts are legion:

  • Insisting on double spaces after sentences, despite the fact that this practice arose from the limitations of typewriters. Which even the oldest of legal farts stopped using 20 years ago, in favor of word processing with its proportional spacing. Yet, many lawyers under 50 still regard a document that does not use double spaces as riddled with mistakes.
  • Clinging to the idea that their “real” job is to practice law, and that anything that can’t be billed is a waste of time. That would include anything that involves taking the time to listen to and understand the people they work with, anything to do with marketing, or anything to do with managing people. Never mind that happy employees, who feel well-treated, are more productive.
  • Demanding that new lawyers learn the old software and work methods that older lawyers love, such as WordPerfect and dictaphones (seriously, some lawyers still use them!). Time spent learning good PowerPoint skills, graphics programs, and web-based workflows, despite the fact that clients use these things heavily in their own work, is viewed as wasting valuable billable time.
  • Compelling, especially on the East Coast, adherence to a dress code that hasn’t existed in corporate America for at least a decade. Even in my little suburb of Nashville, it’s ridiculously easy to spot the lawyers and bankers: They’re the only ones wearing suits and starched shirts. This is particularly true for men; women give themselves a bit more creative license. But not lots.

But I Can’t Fix Law Firms All By Myself!

So what can you do? It’s not like you can single-handedly change your work environment, unless you are in a solo or small practice. (If you are, lucky you! Implement what I’m suggesting below for yourself, and watch the whole office perk up.)

Does it really matter if depression is a chemical or philosophical problem? What you need is something that helps you now.
Does it really matter if depression is a chemical or philosophical problem? What you need is something that helps you now.

You can do plenty. If you suspect you may have depression—even if you think it’s just because you work in a hellhole, and you will be FINE once you leave—go ahead and get help. Because unless you’ve got a job offer in hand, you’re going to be there for at least a couple more months. And take it from me, those “couple more months” often translate suddenly into 6 months or 9 months or a year, between workload and inertia. That’s a long time to be depressed, untreated, and miserable.

Speaking of treatment, a lot of depressed people (and their grandmothers) debate whether they should even try therapy, or medication, or both. Let me point out that the idea of not getting treated is, actually, the depression talking. It’s depression that says things will not get better, even with treatment. And sometimes, it’s depression that says medications will give you a false sense of happiness.

Chemicals, Philosophy, and Reality

Andrew Solomon, author of Noonday Demon, speaks eloquently about this dilemma in his TED talk from October 2013. I highly recommend watching it. In particular, I found this piece of his talk compelling (at 5:25):

I thought, “But is it a chemical problem or a psychological problem? And does it need a chemical cure or a philosophical cure?” And I couldn’t figure out which it was. And then I understood that actually, we aren’t advanced enough in either area for it to explain things fully. The chemical cure and the psychological cure both have a role to play, and I also figured out that depression was something that was braided so deep into us that there was no separating it from our character and personality.

As Solomon pointed out in his appearance on Charlie Rose’s The Brain Series: Depression episode (well worth your time), you need treatment regardless of the cause of depression. For example, lawyers’ depression can be triggered by being sued for malpractice, or losing a big case or big client. Or even by a series of nasty comments on assignments, which aren’t helpful but sure are hurtful.

Finding ways to avoid the trigger in the future, i.e., focusing on the cause, doesn’t help you heal now. It’s not unlike being a Type 1 diabetic, something I know a lot about. Focusing on the trigger of a viral infection and the flawed autoimmune response of killing off part of the pancreas may be interesting, but I still have diabetes, and I still need insulin. And maybe stem cells will ultimately pave the way to regrowing my pancreas, but I can’t exactly wait around for that day and not take insulin in the meantime.

Sleep-deprived Pessimists

There is one exception I’ll make to seeking a cause for depression: Take a look at your sleep habits. If you aren’t waking up without an alarm clock most days (yes, including the workweek), you aren’t getting enough sleep. I know, it’s a whole lawyer-macho thing about being able to get by on no sleep and yet turn out brilliant work. Sadly, it’s a myth.

And many of these people work in law firms. Makes you go HMMMM.
Many of these people work in law firms. Makes you go HMMMM.

You may THINK you’re doing great work, but likely you’re not. I’ve written whole posts about this, so I won’t go into lots of detail here. One thing you should know, though, is that one of the primary consequences of chronic sleep deprivation, even a half hour less daily than you need, is a significantly lower ability to regulate emotions. Hmmm, wonder if that helps explain the toxic, dysfunctional world of law firms a bit? And the hordes of mildly depressed lawyers?

One other resource to check out is Dr. Martin Seligman’s classic work, Learned Optimism. As I’ve written about before, lawyers tend to be pessimists, and pessimism, especially when paired with anxiety, can pretty easily lead to depression. You can take an online quiz to determine your optimism/pessimism levels and attitudes, at Seligman’s website. (Under the Questionnaires menu, choose Optimism Test.) Pessimism and depression are kissing cousins, so if you have a high level of pessimism, you are already on the slippery slope of depression.

The good news is that you can change your default tune of pessimism. No, it won’t be overnight, and yes, it will be a hard slog for the first little while. But as your new thought patterns begin to deepen, it gets easier. And that means that life feels easier.

Maybe you’re not as famous and beloved as Robin Williams was, but your life matters just as much. I firmly believe we are all here for a reason, and I don’t believe that reason is to suffer needlessly.  If you’re depressed, or suspect you are, defy the statistics and get help. You, and everyone around you, will be glad you did.

And just in case you need it, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer, recovering pessimist, and recovering perfectionist. She has no intention of seeking treatment for her coffee and chocolate addictions, however. While she isn’t a therapist who can treat depression, she can help you pinpoint the parts of your life that just aren’t working, and point you to the resources you need to make things better. Contact her at if you’d like to set up a discounted sample session to talk about that.


  1. What you say is simply true. Anxiety and so forth ‘doth murdereth sleep’ which Shakespeare’s Lady McBeth knew. Getting sleep hygiene sorted out is and will be one the most significant harbingers of health. In my case getting away from toxic narcissistic partners and the ensuing psychological battery. However, and I have written about this on, what is somewhat more profound than the first tranche of depression and anxiety issues which are surmountable, is that ones colleagues don’t necessarily allow one to recover: you are deemed and condemned forever as being without capacity. Lawyer have an inbuilt propensity through our training to stereotype mental health and thus discriminate: the second tranche. A group UK psychs have written that the ensuing stigma and stereotyping behavior can be worse than the original malaise. Foremost of the stereotypes (myths) arising from polarized dichotomies (hot v cold, sane v insane) is that (1) people with depression have a serious mental disorder and are without mental capacity; (2) people with mental health issues do not know their own best interests- it is an unusual form of paternalism because it is used to put the boot in; (3) people with depression are not worthy of being part of the in group the “one of us” and are “othered” or a “one of them” and thus do not deserve fair treatment, natural justice and the law against discrimination does not apply: particularly with bar membership and practising certificate issues; and (4) the right to work is violated. Professor Perlin at NYU has written extensively on what is called sanism and his articles are worth reading. In my country, New Zealand, the statistics on mental health discrimination indicate that 60% of the discriminators will come from family, friends and colleagues. Candour and disclosure believing we work in an enlightened profession can be the death knell. Surprisingly it is the clients who have the greatest understanding, human decency, empathy and compassion: not your collegues.

  2. ‘Mistakes, no matter how minor, are viewed as permanent blots, character flaws that cannot be fixed.’ The truest line in this piece. So you know you’re in a better place when mistakes are seen as learning opportunities and a chance to develop good habits.

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