Trapped Behind and Inside the Lawyer Mask

Lawyers increasingly suffer from depression and anxiety, impairments in themselves but also contributing factors to substance abuse.  According to ABA and other studies, lawyers come into law school with the same rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicidal ideation as the general population. About ten percent suffer depression/anxiety and the same percentage of students have alcohol-related problems. After three years of law school, the rates have risen to between 18% and 33%. The ABA study concluded that law students felt a loss of connection to intrinsic values, an increase in identification with extrinsic values, and a loss of perceived autonomy.

The path through law school seems to change us. We start out as intelligent and driven. The highly competitive law school environment can work to erode our ideas and ideals, to be replaced by the driving principle of success.  The end result: we disconnect from ourselves and our intrinsic values, and try to keep up – or better yet, exceed – what other students are achieving.

According to a study conducted by Duke University’s Psychology Department, law students and lawyers show a marked decrease in happiness and satisfaction as they progress through law school, an even greater decrease as they reach associate positions, a slight increase as they move toward partnerships, and do not get back to pre- law school levels until they become leaders in their profession. And of course the obvious question is, what happens to those who never reach that lofty goal?

The study also showed that most lawyers felt they were merely getting by in the profession. Only a handful felt they were flourishing.

What are the reasons for the increase in depression rates among lawyers?

Two hypotheses are offered. One is that we lose touch with our true selves – we identify so strongly with our role as attorneys that we lose touch with what is going on inside ourselves. The requirements of the profession, particularly the demands on our time, the sacrifices of time spent with family and friends, the fact that we are powerless to respond to mistreatment by colleagues and clients, cause such tension that we shut down a part of ourselves. In order to deal with the stressors, we modulate our reactions to correlate to the persona we have created of the objective, dispassionate counselor and advocate.

Unfortunately, the legal profession encourages our disconnection from ourselves and encourages maintenance of the lawyer mask or façade of power and perfection. Zealous advocacy is prized. That means we may have to reconcile our own values with the reality of who our clients are, what they have done, who they have harmed. The tension between our own values and our obligation to zealous advocacy can cause us emotional pain that we have neither time, energy nor skills to deal with – so we ignore it.

We are expected to be the helper. We solve other people’s problems. That becomes a problem for us when we get so identified with the helper role that we can’t ask for help ourselves.

We don’t establish boundaries. We don’t say no, because we are afraid to disappoint, on the one hand, and afraid that someone else in our office or firm will leap over us to say yes, on the other. We go full steam ahead until we crash.

The code of confidentiality can exacerbate our feelings of disconnection because we are prohibited from sharing about their root causes. The support network that could offer objectivity and balance can’t be tapped.

Escalating workloads can mean that we don’t have time for the social interaction with colleagues and others in the profession that could lighten our load. And there is the insidious desire for one-upsmanship that causes us to glory in our impossible workloads. The ego says, “I’m so important, nobody else can handle this, if I don’t do it, it won’t be done right.” We feed our own disease when we buy into this game of vying for the title of the martyr.

We put off enjoying our lives because we want to close one more deal, try one more case, write one more appellate brief – we put our own lives on hold to give our full attention to the requirements of the profession. There’s always another goal, so slowing down and breathing aren’t options.

And ironically, success may be our enemy. The more we succeed, the more we reinforce these harmful patterns in our lives and the harder they are to break. We delude ourselves that our false persona is working for us. Until we fail. Then we are without resources to deal with the crack in the façade of power and perfection.

What happens from the perpetual stress caused by all these factors?  We suffer physically, the part of our brain where emotional resilience resides is damaged by the intense stress. We see the effects on our emotional and mental health, and on our immune system.

But the battering of our limbic brains can be halted. We MUST find extracurricular activities that nurture the limbic brain. We must find and pursue activities that bring us no professional reward or benefit. Their payoff is that they bring joy to our hearts and repair the limbic brain in the process. 

And we must learn to set boundaries. We have to believe that we have choices about how we work. We can reverse that sense of loss of autonomy by establishing reasonable boundaries and sticking to them. We are not always available to clients. We do not respond to every request of coworkers. And we have to transition from work to our real lives each day, turn off the phones, actually spend time with and talk to people we love. We have to take vacations. We need to do so some kind of physical exercise three or four times a week. We need to think about whether we could get by with less, earn less, and have more time to really live our lives.

We must add into our lives activities that help us see beyond ourselves and our jobs. Examples are some kind of meditation or mindfulness practice, spiritual readings, a daily gratitude list, finding ways to laugh and actually have fun!               

The drop into depression isn’t a race necessarily. It’s more likely a slow-walk. If you find yourself with the symptoms, please get help. LAP is safe, confidential and free. We are always here for you. Just ask.

This article is an extract from the LAP program presentation “Getting Lost in Our Own Lives,” approved by the Bar’s Board of Continuing Legal Education.

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