On Monday, CNN published a piece about lawyer suicides. It illustrates several tragic stories about lawyers and cites harrowing statistics that show that lawyers suffer from high levels of depression, and far too often take their own lives. Among professionals, lawyers rank 4th in suicides, behind dentists, pharmacists and doctors. I saw that story yesterday, and was thinking about it all day. Every lawyer knows many colleagues who are dissatisfied with their careers. Most of us know one, if not several, who have taken their lives. The CNN article got me thinking about the title question “Why are so many lawyers killing themselves?.”
Some of the dissatisfaction that I see lawyers have in the practice of law, is, I believe, a product of the old ways of thinking, taught by law schools and reinforced by lawyers who have been there, done that. Some of these voices tell you that you have to choose between your own happiness and that of your clients. The implication is that you have to martyr yourself in order to be an honorable lawyer
As lawyers, the clients that we accept must come first. We must protect their legal and financial interests. But we must find a way to do so without compromising ourselves and our values, and without devaluing ourselves and becoming martyrs. When we don’t, our lives in and out of the law are unbalanced.
It’s not easy, achieving balance.
Law is often about advocating for imbalances. When you win, somebody else usually loses. And winning is often a zero-sum game in a world with shades of grey, and with human dynamics that go far deeper than the admissible evidence. I believe that ignoring this causes wear and tear on some lawyers. Maybe all lawyers. Is this imbalance an occupational hazard?
A true victory which, by the books, looks pure and righteous, is rarely what it appears to be. Money changes hands. People go free. People are executed. All this occurs at the end of a game played with people’s lives by rules created by people who, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, “are no smarter than you or me.” Their reasoning may have been flawed, thinking unclear, or motives and influences impure. And yet that reasoning can, and does, decide the fates of real human beings.
As law students we were told that if we play by those rules we are “doing justice.” The truth is that what we were told was wrong. Judgment is not justice. Deference to the rules of the justice system is often at odds with justice, and discernment and honor sometimes play no part in the outcome. Deference to the “system” is often at odds with basic human happiness.
The contradictions of being a lawyer are enough to alter the life-course, and mental, emotional and spiritual makeup of those who enter the profession. I’d love to hear from lawyers reading this post who believe that the law has not changed them in some profound and fundamental way.
Some academics have argued that the business of law, and the practice of law, are fundamentally inconsistent, and that one must suffer in proportion to the other’s success. While this may be true for lawyers who lack the right business tools, it’s not a foregone conclusion. It’s just one obvious case to talk about, and one of which most lawyers are aware. It’s fodder for older and established lawyers with something to protect. And it’s a big lie. Part of feeling accomplished and appreciated in the law, at least in private practice, is making a good living. It’s cake that you can have and also eat.
Despite law schools’ failures in preparing lawyers for the business aspects of private practice, there are great ways to effectively and efficiently build a law firm that is financially rewarding and puts the clients’ best interests first. The business conundrum is easily solved for lawyers who have the desire to solve it. It is possible to have a financially rewarding practice and always put the client’s best interests first. I know many good attorneys who are serving their clients very well and making great livings doing it. But even when this part of the puzzle is solved, it may still not be enough. Being a great lawyer does not make you a great business person. And being good at business without being a good lawyer is a danger to the legal profession and society as a whole. You have to want to work at both to be good at both. But they are not mutually exclusive.
Some lawyers have an ability to separate themselves from the inherent insanity of the justice system. To essentially not bring their work home with them. For those who can’t help but bring work home, other symptoms may appear. Anxiety. Depression. Family problems. Addiction. Self-loathing. A sense of constant fight or flight. We all react to stress differently. Some lawyers may lose their moral or business compass. Some become bullies. Or any number of other things they wouldn’t have listed on in their top 100 “what I want to be when I grow up” list.
Often times, the judgment that we lawyers foist upon each other is simply a product of endurance. Each lawyer has a limited amount of endurance to spend. Some have more than others. Those with less efficient practices, and coping mechanisms, naturally burn through their endurance faster.
Whether we, as lawyers take overt action that results in our own untimely deaths, or live a life of stress that is inconsistent with who we are at our cores, I suspect that the numbers of (slow) lawyer suicides are far higher than the statistics bear out. This is not to minimize the tragedy that is any, and every, loss of physical human life, but rather to point out that many lawyers, although still breathing, are not really living. It can really mess with your mind to apply a “but-for” analysis to the things that can kill lawyers slowly (through stress, chemical addiction, or that cause lawyers to remain alive biologically while no longer truly living or enjoying their lives.
“But for the constant conflict during my days as a lawyer, might I have done ________?”
“But for the years of nasty phone conversations over meaningless insurance settlements, might I have avoided that _______ problem.”
As the “Before The Law” parable, written by Kafka and depicted in the video below says:
“This door was intended only for you. And now, I am going to close it.”
The worst thing we, as lawyers, can do is give our power and our voices away. Who has taken your voice? Was it that old law prof? Was it a senior partner when you were a 2nd year associate? A judge? A mentor?
What’s keeping you, as a lawyer, from either living the life you truly want and deserve within the law, or from moving on to something else that you’ll love? What’s keeping you from being happy?