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

Change Your Station from Lawyer Pessimism

Pessimism is what makes attorneys so brittle and unable to bounce back from mistakes quickly. In other words, they are not resilient. Dr. Larry Richard has pegged lawyer resiliency in the bottom half of the general populace. Folks, that ain’t good.

radio tower mast

Is your personal pessimism broadcast drowning out your dreams? Time to change the station.

Here’s how that lawyer pessimism looks in action. A lawyer sees any mistake she makes as a personal failing. Since it’s only about her, she is highly reluctant to talk to other attorneys about her mistake—the tendency among nearly all attorneys is to hide, frankly.

The culture of law firms often reinforces that belief, because it’s far easier to blame the easy target than to examine the failings of the ecosystem lawyers have created for themselves. You know, the one that doesn’t teach, just expects you to somehow get it from distant observation, with little hands-on training, no feedback or constructive criticism? The one in which attorneys are stretched far too thin, get far too little rest and rejuvenation, and don’t get any feedback, period, let alone positive reinforcement? Cause yeah, nothing about that environment would produce mistakes by an individual.

Hiding, not Learning, From Mistakes

So, in a group of pessimists, lawyers try to bury their mistakes, shift blame, and basically hide from recriminations if at all possible.

This hiding allows the permanence of the failing to become Continue reading

The Good, Bad and Ugly of Pessimism for Lawyers

Pessimism isn’t totally bad. As I mentioned before, the ability to see the downside risk in every situation has value, particularly for lawyers. You can prepare for bad outcomes before they happen, and mitigate the ones you can’t prevent. Companies pay a lot of money for that. Lives can depend on it.

ghostly woman

Pessimism can turn your dreams to ghosts. That's no way to live.

Pessimists also have a much more objective view of reality than optimists, according to Dr. Martin Seligman in his 1990 book Learned Optimism.

Seligman posits that most depressed people are also, not coincidentally, pessimists. Just because you’re a pessimist does not necessarily mean you are depressed, but the evidence is clear that pessimists are far more likely

Continue reading

How Pessimistic Attorneys Are Like Whining Dogs

Pessimists are better at lawyering than optimists, Dr. Martin Seligman tells us in his 2004 book Authentic Happiness. That doesn’t surprise me, because the essence of lawyering is looking for the downside and trying to protect against it. The better you are at imagining those downsides, the better you are at your job.

Muzzled dog

Don't let pessimism muzzle your life and career dreams.

But there is a high cost of pessimism on life happiness and functionality, as Seligman discusses at length in his earlier work, Learned Optimism. Pessimists are more prone to depression (hello, lawyers have a 3 times higher rate of depression than the general population) and ill health, among many other things.

Also, pessimists don’t persevere at the same rate as optimists, which means pessimists often don’t achieve goals that are achievable. Like, say, finding Continue reading

Are You Pessimist Lawyer?

The Bard said it best: “This is the winter of our discontent.” Yes, it’s that point in the winter where it’s gone on so long, I’m now convinced it’s never going to end, and my hands are never going to be warm until May at the earliest. Says the person who lives in the South.

smiley face in bird nest looking scared

Is the bluebird of unhappiness flying at you all the time? Maybe it's your pessimism talking. Image courtesy

In other words, pessimism is trying to have its way with me, yet again. Pessimism is one of those habits that recovering lawyers tend to drag around with them, even when they’re out of law.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking lately about pessimism, so of course that means you’re going to hear a lot about it shortly. The uber executive summary is that pessimism kills and wounds a lot of searches for dream jobs, dream careers, and dream lives. Particularly for those who are unhappy lawyers, addressing your level of pessimism is key to moving forward and ditching that unhappiness for something much better.

Are you a pessimist? Chances are if you’re a lawyer, you are. (That’s not just me pontificating; there’s data, which I’ll talk about next time.) You can take this survey—from Dr. Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness Project—and find out. Then come back for the next installment and find out the consequences of pessimism for your alternative legal career search and for your life.

Or, start reading Learned Optimism, Seligman’s 1990 classic that presents tons of interesting research on the effects of pessimism and optimism on people’s lives. Yes, that would include lawyers. (Seligman is, in fact, married to a lawyer, so he is not blind to the pessimism that infects the legal profession.)

Get ready for some eye-opening stats on the effects of pessimism on just about everything in life. This is gonna rock your socks!

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering pessimist. She likes to remind her clients that it’s not how far you go, but how far you’ve come, that makes the real difference for their lives. Try coaching and see the difference in your own life—a free, no-obligation sample session is yours for the asking. Contact her at to schedule yours today.

Lawyer Pessimism Triggers

What’s your pessimism trigger? Actually I would bet you have several. As I’ve talked about before, lawyers tend to be highly pessimistic. Dr. Martin Seligman, who has made a career out of studying optimism, pessimism, and how they affect depression, found that law is the only career in which you perform better if you’re pessimistic.

professional woman behind half full glass

The glass test is actually pretty useful.

But if you want to get the heck out of law, or even just be a happier, healthier person while practicing law, dialing down the pessimism is crucial.

I’m working my way through Learned Optimism, which Seligman originally published in 1990. It should be required reading for any lawyer.

One of the, oh, 53 gazillion really interesting things Seligman discusses is the role of internal explanatory style in creating a pessimistic or optimistic outlook. Explanatory style is how you explain events to yourself. Here’s a personal example.

Yesterday I attended a lunch at a group where I didn’t know a soul.
I was a bit late, and so I missed most of the pre-lunch chit-chat. I did chat a bit with the folks at my table, but I had definitely missed the best opportunity to gather some business cards. After the program was over, some folks lingered, but most sped out to get back to the office. No one approached me or tried to draw me in to a conversation.

Here’s where explanatory style comes in. Continue reading