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

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

50 Days of Joy—Yes, Even for Lawyers

A lot of you may remember that I sing in a church choir. It’s one of the most joyful things I do. But every year, during Lent, I’m gritting my teeth. To put it very, very mildly, I do not like Lent. It tends to turn into a lot of hairshirt-wearing, about seeing who can give up the hardest thing. And often, posting about it on Facebook. A spiritual competition, oxymoron that THAT is.

Yes, you can find joy even when you're holding a frog.

Yes, you can find joy even when you’re holding a frog.

From a coaching point of view, hairshirt-wearing is toxic because people spend a lot of time focusing on their shortcomings and beating themselves up about them. And I know from years of experience, both personally and with clients, that where your focus and energy goes, so goes your life.

People who feel awful about themselves rarely accomplish anything close to what they’re capable of, and (bonus!) they’re really unpleasant to be around. They drag everyone down with them, whether they mean to or not.

So when, during Easter Vigil, Mother Tracy said we should spend the 50 days of Eastertide before Pentecost being joyful, I was all ears.

The Kind of Joy That Counts

Lawyers, for lots of reasons, tend to overlook, dismiss, or minimize the little joys in life. For something to count as truly joyful, it has to be BIG. Overlooking the Grand Canyon, rather than Continue reading

Saddest Lawyers: “I Don’t Even Know What I Like Doing”

Doing what the teachers say may not put you in touch with what you should do with your life. But hey, at least there's iPads for distraction, right?

Doing what the teachers say may not put you in touch with what you should do with your life. But hey, at least there’s iPads for distraction, right?

A lot of you know you hate law. But a lot of you also do not know what you would do if you had free time, except maybe sleep. I’m not talking about taking any steps toward making a career change, mind you; I’m talking about the basic concept of doing something purely for fun.

People who have no idea of how to have fun have been marching along to society’s, parents’, and teachers’ idea of what they should do for a very, heartbreakingly long time. They have become numb to their own desires and their own voice.

Far too many lawyers fall into this category. One-third to one-half of my clients usually fall into this category when they initially contact me. It’s often the result of being a smart kid who does well in school. Those around you think all those A’s should be encouraged; after all, those grades will be terrific on your college application.

And that may be just fine with you, because great grades sure look like the start of the path to a good life, and you like school anyway. In fact, you internalize all this and don’t explore non-academic things that won’t help that college application, like art, dancing, writing poetry, ultimate frisbee, or making goofy videos. Because unless you have some unbelievable gift in a non-academic area, these things aren’t likely to win you awards and praise. They are, sadly, usually viewed as time-wasters.

Except, they’re not. Exploring stuff simply because you’re interested in it is how you get to know yourself and honor Continue reading

What Flavor Is Your Fear, Miserable Lawyer?

All those happiness experts often talk about confronting fears as a way to happiness and resiliency. I don’t disagree with that thesis, exactly. But lawyers are so completely fueled by fears, small and large, that it’s helpful to learn how to discern what flavors your fears come in. That way, you’ll know which ones are worth tackling.

Some fears are actually useful. The ones you have when a car is heading straight toward you at 40 mph, or when a gun is brandished. Those are real, direct fears that require immediate action for your safety and survival.

business guy scared by large shadow

Is this the main flavoring component to your fears?

Then, there are the ones that we rationally know aren’t deserving of the level of fear we give them, like my fear of spiders, or someone else’s fear of heights. We know we’re being a little (or a lot) crazy, but still, we’re scared.

Or, maybe we’re scared of having to do something that we are actually really bad at and don’t have any interest in doing. Like, my deep-rooted desire to never, ever again get into a roller coaster simulator at the science center. While some 10 year-olds think it’s awesome, I did not find it awesome to have to hold my nose, squeeze my eyes shut and pray like hell I didn’t throw up before the end of the simulation.

But mostly, these kinds of fears don’t keep us from finding a fulfilling life and career. The fears that keep us from a satisfying life seem completely rational and logical. You could probably explain them to your best friend or maybe even a therapist, and you wouldn’t sound like a nut-job. Heck, you might even get some enthusiastic nods of agreement.

Continue reading

Compassion for the Asshole Lawyers in Your Life

I imagine your first reaction to the concept of compassion for the asshole lawyers surrounding you is “Are you fucking kidding me? They are making my life a living hell, and I’m supposed to feel sorry for them?” Well, not exactly. Feeling sorry for someone and feeling compassion are two different things. Compassion is rooted in empathy, while pity objectifies and distances us.

boy with angry sneer on face

A mean little kid, or a kid who just got told by his step-dad that he wasn’t included in the lavish vacation plans to Disney?

But drawing that distinction is avoiding the bigger question: Why should I care about people who are mean, nasty, and making everyone around them miserable?

The Buddhist response, roughly, would be that we are all one, and being angry with others is like being angry at your finger for having gangrene. For most of us, that stance is simply too unfamiliar and uncomfortable to adopt, at least right this second.

In more Western terms, this quote might get at the heart of compassion toward those who are assholes:

“Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.” –John Watson

For example, I just had to go turn up the heat from 66 to 68 degrees, because my husband turned it down. The fact that he turned down the heat pisses me off, a lot. This is one of our longstanding, ongoing battles. Despite my thick wool sweater over a long-sleeved T-shirt, two scarves, and wool socks, my hands and nose were freezing. (Yes, there is a reason I live in the South.) My instant reaction is to judge my husband as not caring about me and my needs.

But when I can step back and exercise some compassion, I can see that he is worried about money, and wants to make sure we as a family have enough savings to tide us through any uncertain future. And, his money fears are not entirely rational, but stem from a not-quite-impoverished childhood in Peru. He is, in many ways, like the survivors of the Great Depression.

I don’t necessarily agree with his judgment that the way to accomplish the worthy goal of increased savings is through keeping the house frigid, but by exercising compassion toward him, I can at least step back and go from Defcon 4 to Defcon 2. This actually helps me, by lowering my heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol and anxiety levels. That’s a pretty nifty and immediate benefit.

Feeling compassion for those who oppress and hurt us, right in that moment, is the work of many, many years. It’s a sort of Continue reading

What (Unhappy) Lawyer Isn’t Anxiety-Ridden?

I remember the exact moment that I found out that my regular intense jumble of feelings when I got stressed at work had a name. (And, I was usually stressed.) The repetitive thoughts that I couldn’t banish, even when I caught myself and said out loud, “Stop. They aren’t renting space in your brain.” The jumpiness, the lava spew of irritability that could erupt from the slightly prickly exterior. My inability to get shit done because I couldn’t focus. “Oh, so you have anxiety,” the psychiatrist said.

anxious guy burying face in hands

Anxiety is the most commonly diagnosed mental illness, ahead of depression and other mood disorders. And it often looks just like this in attorneys.

Me? Anxiety? “Huh,” I said thoughtfully. “I never thought of it like that. Pretty much every lawyer I’ve ever known is like this.”

Indeed, I suspect a lot of you who are unhappy lawyers are also anxiety-ridden lawyers. Sure, there are reasons for your anxiety, but if the anxiety doesn’t disappear when the reason is over, you may well have a problem with general anxiety disorder or some of its siblings. And if you feel like the reasons never disappear, that, too, can point to a problem with anxiety.

If you have 3 or more of these 12 typical anxiety symptoms (there are many; these are some common ones), at least consider getting formally evaluated for anxiety:

  • Obsessive Thoughts (such as Excessive worrying/problem-solving, What if . . . ?, and Arguing with yourself);
  • Feeling powerless;
  • Irritability or explosive anger;
  • Difficulty concentrating; Continue reading

Thawing the Frozen Souls of Unhappy Lawyers

At this point in winter, even people who aren’t miserable lawyers are growing desperate. The eternal cold (except on the odd day when it’s 50 degrees), the oppression of snow, and the stingy daylight are, obviously, going to go on forever. Your life feels frigid, meaningless, and depressing. And that’s if you’re a fairly happy, life-ain’t-bad person.

Winter crushing your soul with chains and other instruments of torture? Try hibernating, plunging, or letting yourself off the hook to play.

Winter crushing your soul with chains and other instruments of torture? Try hibernating, radically warming up, or letting yourself off the hook to play.

For unhappy attorneys, the situation feels yet more dire. Your soul was already stuck in permanent winter before the actual cold and dark encroached. Now, getting out of bed and getting to work are sheer acts of will and heroism. More than a few of you may have sneaked a look at your insurance policy’s coverage for being a mental health in-patient, and wondered if you could convince someone you are a danger to yourself or others. Three days away from billable hours and all your other worries sounds like a sweet deal.

If you are at this point, don’t despair just yet. I have some tricks you can use to summon back a few flickers of light. Soon enough, actual sunshine will start to appear, the Heat Miser will again triumph over the Cold Miser, and life will feel a bit better.

1. Consider Hibernation.

Winter is a time of quiet and stillness, and of dreams. If we insist on keeping the same frenetic pace year-round, we miss out on the renewal time that is crucial to long-term, sustainable functioning. If you feel like you need to sleep more, then turn off the TV early, and GO TO BED.

2. Consider a Polar Plunge.

OK, I’m not really suggesting you do one of those crazy jump-into-a-34-degree-lake things. Unless that’s your thing. I am suggesting a plunge into something that makes you stretch and sweat and generally reach a bit, physically.

This can be as simple as Continue reading

Change Your Miserable Lawyer Life—With Facebook. Really.

I firmly believe that Facebook can change an unhappy lawyer’s life. Just not in the way that other people think it does. I mean, yes, connection is wonderful. Entertainment certainly eases the crush of boredom and tedium that is often law practice. And yes, you might even get some clients, start a romance or make some enemies or whatever.

Change your life---find the funny in your annoyances, and post it!

Change your life—find the funny in your annoyances, and post it!

My favorite use for Facebook, though, is to make life’s little annoyances and tragedies a little bit funny. In doing that, I’ve found that I obsess much less over the annoyances, hurts and heartaches of life, get over them faster, and—maybe the biggest bonus—get to take my creativity out for a spin.

Here’s a recent example, just so you can see how my demented (but charming) mind works. I noticed one morning that the clean silverware in the dishwasher had been put into the drawer. I knew I hadn’t done it. So I said to my husband, who was slaving over his laptop doing all manner of indecipherable IT things, “Thank you so much for unloading the dishwasher! I really appreciate it!” To which he responded, “You’re welcome.”

After I’ve finished the school run and get back to my empty house, I thought I should put the morning dishes into the dishwasher before getting to work. I opened up the dishwasher and there sat a bunch of dishes. CLEAN dishes. For a few more moments than I care to admit, I was pretty ticked off about this. It hit a lot of those marital sore spots about communication, paying attention, and a laundry list of other things that I won’t bore you with.

I desperately wanted to post something really bitchy, snarky and my-husband-sucks on Facebook about it. Along the lines of “I’m so sick of this shit!”

But that would violate my personal rules about not whining, complaining, or generally airing my dirty laundry on Facebook. So I had to figure out a funny way to relate my little tale of ire and woe. After working it over in my head for several minutes, I came up with:

I’m not sure what label to put on it, but I clearly don’t live in the world where “I emptied the dishwasher” means “I had our son put away the silverware and left everything else in the dishwasher.” That is, however, the world my husband lives in!

I admit I may not have completely succeeded on avoiding snark and a whiff of complaining, but compared to how I initially felt about it, this was a vast improvement.

And that’s pretty much the point: By focusing on how to view the whole thing as funny, rather than the source of anger and frustration, I was able to do an important thing, psychologically speaking: I reframed the situation. I (mostly) got over being angry. I made the best of something that wasn’t ideal. And that, according to noted psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, is a key to happiness in life.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys put some happy into their lives. If you’d like to do that, schedule a discounted, sample coaching session with Jennifer. Contact her at jalvey@jenniferalvey.com and get going into a happier life!