Perfection, Depression and Lawyers

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

Bonuses = Toxic Law Firms, Pt. 2: The Billable Road To Hell

“What the hell do you mean, carrots and sticks don’t get people to work?” The motivational power of carrots and sticks are a deeply enshrined belief not just in law firms and the rest of corporate America, but in our culture. Yet, as Dan Pink writes about in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, carrots and sticks only work in the long term in some fairly limited circumstances. (I talked about a few of the implications for lawyers here.)

Businessman holding money against background of flames

Sure, the money can be great in Hell.

In Drive, Pink focuses on the irony that carrots and sticks, which he calls Motivation 2.0, haven’t worked for a long time in business, roughly since the end of the manufacturing economy’s dominance. A manufacturing economy, with its rote work, is one of those perfect environments for Motivation 2.0. There’s not much decision to be made about how to turn a knob, lift a lever, or push a button.

Yet despite the fact that we haven’t had a predominantly manufacturing economy in 30 years, carrots and sticks remain the primary motivational tools used in all types of business, even those that, like law, Continue reading

Are You Really Hungry, Unhappy Lawyer?

Attorneys, whether or not they want to leave law, get really caught up in what Martha Beck calls “lack attacks.” This is when your lizard brain, the ancient structure of our brains that broadcasts fear messages, really cranks up the volume about how you don’t have enough money. And that if you leave law, you’ll starve. For unhappy lawyers who start to get serious about leaving law, the lack attacks can become acute.

rice in red bowl

If you have more than rice in your pantry, you're doing pretty well by world standards.

The best way, maybe even the only sustainable way, to derail a lack attack is to focus on what you do have, and be very genuinely, consciously, grateful for it. I heard a powerful story the other day that helped me realize, yet again, that I have so incredibly much to be grateful for. I’ve heard versions of this before, but the recent telling of it really hit me. Maybe it will do the same for you.

The Banquet

There once was a church that was raising money to fight world hunger. They sold $50 tickets to 100 people for a dinner.

When the guests arrived, the tables were not the usual rounds of 10, but a variety of sizes. There was one table for 2, another couple tables for 4, a table for 25, and two gigantic tables for 33. Guests were told to pick whatever table they liked.

Once everyone was seated, the table for 2 was served a lobster Continue reading

Recovering Lawyer, Singed by Lack of Sleep

So yeah, I preach a lot here about the basics of taking care of yourself, such as getting enough sleep. I mostly take my own advice on this one, and make getting sleep a higher priority than answering emails, doing dishes and such. But even though I’m now a recovering lawyer and not an unhappy, practicing lawyer, I still screw up on the basics occasionally.

Close view of bonfire

Ignore the basics, like sleep, and watch yourself make some hair-on-fire decisions, unhappy lawyers.

And screwing up the basics can land you in a really dangerous place, as I got reminded rather sharply in the end. Like yesterday.

I had 2 kids’ art classes to teach on Thursday morning, and so naturally I spent time Wednesday afternoon designing a flyer for the coaching business rather than preparing for the classes. (Yeah, ‘doh!) I knew better, but I chose the flyer anyway, because it was the first time I’d had enthusiasm for it in a while. This was sign #1 that I was setting myself up: Continue reading

What Lawyers Can Learn from Dragonflies

Lawyers searching for an alternative legal career are a lot like dragonflies, it struck me this morning.

Maybe you don’t know the story of the dragonfly. I only heard it about 2 years ago, likely because I took all those social science classes instead of hard sciences in college. Those of you who know it, feel free to skip down a couple paragraphs.

red dragonfly on leaf

The dragonfly becomes more colorful and enters a new world when it leaves the water that no longer serves it.

The dragonfly hatches from eggs laid under water. They grow into nymphs, swimming merrily through their pond, waiting for prey to come near, and living the teenage dragonfly life.

But then, after a few years, it’s time. Dragonflies are compelled to follow a deep, instinctive urge to go somewhere they’ve never gone before: above water. Because their bodies are morphing, and they aren’t going to be able to survive much longer under water. And so, they find a branch or a stem that they can climb up, to get into the air, to meet the future in which they can survive and thrive. So they can dry out their wings, then spread them and fly.

Lawyers, Divorced from Their Natural Instincts

With lawyers, the problem is their instinct for who they truly are and what they need to do to follow their unique path gets Continue reading

Workaholic Lawyers, Avoiding Life

So did you actually take any time off during Memorial Day weekend? Maybe even the whole (gasp) 3 days? I hope so. Too many lawyers have no boundaries about holidays any more. Well, actually they don’t have any boundaries when it comes to work, period. Never mind that constant work makes the work that you do suck big hairy donkey, um, parts.

man sick in bed with laptop

If you've ever worked in your sickbed, you might be a workaholic.

But did you know that overwork, aka workaholism, is a way of numbing out? I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so rampant among lawyers: Lawyers are so often depressed (3 times more so than the general population, remember?) or perfectionists, or both. One way to avoid feeling or dealing with pain is to work. Because then you have something to focus on besides those horrible, painful feelings.

Trust me, I’ve used that tactic. It works—for a little while. Eventually, though, the work novocaine wears off Continue reading

Recovering Lawyer, Having Fun Acting Out

Lawyers have a lot of issues with boundaries. I see it in the deep misery that pervades the profession, in which very smart, capable people let others abuse them, manipulate them, and just plain act like bullies to them. Attorneys often tolerate the dysfunction because they think they need a paycheck more than respect and integrity. Or, they don’t know any better—they don’t know what self-respect and integrity feel like. Or a combination of the two, usually.

Businessman holding realistic happy and sad face masks

Take off your good girl or good boy mask, and claim your authentic, powerful self and career.

My armchair-psychologist theory is that by the time law school graduation rolls around, attorneys who end up hating law practice have had lots of experience denying who they are. They long ago started living from the outside in. Rather than claim what they actually were interested in and relentlessly pursuing it, they made parents and teachers happy with being good girls and boys, getting the grades and doing all the right things.

I can say all this because I’ve walked that walk and gotten the blisters and calluses from those Ill-fitting law loafers. I thought they had healed fairly well. I thought that I had done a pretty damn masterful job at reclaiming my integrity, living in alignment with my core values—in other words, living from the inside out.

But turns out I still have a bit of work to do to reclaim and own myself. I found this out during an acting lesson. Continue reading