In the July 2006 edition of the LIJ, there was an article at page 82 entitled “Be happy”, which deals with why so many lawyers are unhappy. The author, Simone Jacobson, cites a book called Lawyer Know Thyself by Susan Daicoff which identifies three problems facing lawyers:
- Rambo-style litigation and unethical behaviour;
- Low public opinion of lawyers; and
- Low level of job satisfaction and mental wellbeing among lawyers.
It’s great to see someone actually talking about these issues. Apparently, lawyers have a far greater rate of depression than any other profession, precisely because they are lawyers. I found an article in the Notre Dame magazine and I’m going to quote an extract because the conclusions are so striking:
“In large numbers, lawyers say that they are unhappy with their careers, that they would not become lawyers again if they had the choice, that they would not advise their children or others to become lawyers, and that they hope to leave the practice of law before the end of their careers. Even as the market for legal services has improved in the last few years, the morale of lawyers has declined to new lows, especially for lawyers in private practice. …
[Lawyers] complain about the commercialization of the legal profession and about the fact that practicing law has become less of a profession and more of a business. They complain about the increased pressure to attract and retain clients in a ferociously competitive marketplace. They complain about having to work in an adversarial environment. They complain about not having control over their lives and about being at the mercy of judges and clients. They complain about a lack of civility among lawyers. They complain about a lack of collegiality and loyalty among their partners. And they complain about their poor public image. Mostly, though, they complain about the hours. …
In the words of the American Bar Association, lawyers are complaining with increasing vehemence about living to work, rather than working to live, about being asked not to dedicate, but to sacrifice their lives to the firm.”
Thus, the way in which the legal profession operates must be partially responsible for producing such misery. I would like to highlight a few issues which I have dealt with in earlier posts:
- Billable units and the way in which they encourage people to work long hours;
- Difficulty in juggling family and career;
- A culture in some areas of the legal profession which may encourage bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination;
- Unpleasant office politics;
- Unhelpful support staff…
The list could go on. It doesn’t help that many of us are perfectionists and high-need achievers, and competitive to boot. I know that I am.
Why is the prevalence of depression in the legal industry such a hidden topic, then? A few years ago, a lawyer confided in me that she had suffered from depression and had been taking anti-depressants for many years. “But you can’t tell anyone about this!” she cautioned. “If people know that you suffer from depression, they start to doubt your ability and your opponents will use it against you. You can’t show any vulnerability in this profession. Particularly not as a woman.” I thought that she was being a bit over the top, but promised not to tell anyone. She was a superb lawyer. Why would anyone hold anything like that against her? Now that I have practised for a while, I know exactly what she means.
There’s a culture of bravado in the law. Heaven forfend that a lawyer might actually admit that he or she is not coping! In the case of male lawyers, the macho culture tends to increase the male reluctance to talk about these things which is already present. And in the case of female lawyers, well, to succeed in a man’s world, we have to be more macho than any man. We have to do more than a man and do it better (and often look after the kids at the same time). All without batting an eyelid. So we all go about pretending that everything’s fine, and putting up with a competitive, unpleasant legal culture which drags us down.
I have to say that since I quit being a solicitor, I have been much happier. No job is ever perfect. But now that I think about it, there were so many situations in which various people took out their anger and anguish on me: clients, my bosses, solicitors on the other side, barristers on the other side, confused angry or just insane unrepresented litigants, dissatisfied cranky or bored judges, underpaid resentful registry staff… I think of it as a chain of people passing their unhappiness on to others, and as a junior solicitor, I was all too often the final link. Now I get to see my family, I don’t have to fill in any time sheets, I’ve escaped unpleasant office politics… My husband doesn’t want me to go back to being a litigator ever again. I guess unhappiness is inherent in litigation: people wouldn’t be there unless there was a dispute. But there must be better ways for dealing with anger and unhappiness.
As Jacobson says in her article, the solution is partially to promote a work life balance and to allow flexible work practices. But I think there also needs to be recognition of the potentially destructive nature of legal work practices and culture, and an increasing openness about depression in the law. I reckon any lawyer with an ounce of sensitivity will have suffered from depression at some point in his or her career. I know that I have. Given the prevalence of depression among lawyers, it should not be hidden and stigmatised, and its causes should be recognised, and where possible, alleviated.