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Passing the Bar or Passing Out There? Lawyer Mental Health

The Culture of the Legal Profession and its Effect on Mental Health:

Passing the bar or dying there is a question that has become pertinent in the legal profession.

A 2016 study revealed that the number of lawyers addicted to alcohol and suffering from mental illness is deeply concerning. Does the question then beg what is it about being a lawyer causing many to fall?

A quote from The Paper Chase depicts the toxic reality that unsuspecting first-year law school students have just embarked on: “Look to your left, look to your right – one of you won’t be here next year.”

The legal world is bent on extreme competition, anxiety-provoking simulations, and outright fear in the name of Socratic tradition. The rationale is that it was done to us, and thus, it will be done to you. Mental health is relegated to the philosophy of survival of the fittest.

Many years ago, while driving to make my 8:00 am contracts course, I can still recall my stomach feeling queasy as I neared my destination.

This happened every day for nearly three years. I witnessed firsthand fellow peers publicly humiliated when called to their feet to dissect a case, impossibly large assignments, and mind-bending exams. I didn’t escape the stress of having a professor drill me on precedent in front of 120 strangers, just praying they wouldn’t be next.

While this profoundly uncomfortable experience didn’t permanently disarm my spirit, I cannot say that it strengthened it or made me more suitable for the profession.

Upon finishing the hazing of law school, one must then face the daunting multiple-day bar exam. This test is a continuation of mind games and less about assessing legal proclivity.

The legal profession’s culture, from law school to practice, grooms its participants into compliant soldiers that are supposed to carry on dutifully with little regard paid to self-awareness or self-care.

However, this culture has severe ramifications as both newly admitted and seasoned attorneys are succumbing to the perils of a career dedicated to normalizing extreme stress, relentless hours, and unwavering professional demands, which have resulted in some of the highest rates of substance abuse and mental illness as compared with other occupations.

Findings Regarding Alcohol Abuse Among Lawyers

A 2016 far-reaching study conducted by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association revealed that as many as one in three lawyers is a problem drinker.

The study, “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” was published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine and presented a series of questions about alcohol use to the 12,825 lawyers who participated in a national survey.

This landmark study was the first to simultaneously measure national data on substance use for lawyers and mental health concerns. The results are compelling and have dire implications for the legal community.

Specifically, 36.4 percent of lawyers surveyed showed signs of alcohol abuse or dependency, while 21 percent self-reported problems with drinking.

Moreover, the perils of the legal profession appeared to affect both young and older attorneys alike. Namely, the study highlighted the high rates of alcohol abuse among new attorneys with only a few years of practice.

Strikingly, almost 32 percent of attorneys 30 and younger were classified as problem drinkers. Additionally, those with less than ten years of experience in law incurred the highest rate of problems with alcohol, about one out of four or 28.1 percent.

Findings Pertaining To Attorney Mental Health Issues

Per the Hazelden Study, at least one in four attorneys disclosed suffering from depression, anxiety, or high-stress levels:

1. 20.6 percent of respondents revealed a level consistent with problem drinking;

2. 28 percent of participants reported experiencing mild or higher levels of depression;

3. 19 percent of the lawyers reported feelings of mild or higher levels of anxiety; and

4. 11.5 percent of those surveyed acknowledged suicidal thoughts during some point in their career.

These results paint a bleak reality for the mental health of today’s lawyers. Indeed, statistics on the suicide rate of attorneys are on the rise.

According to the Dave Nee Foundation in New York, a think tank for the study of lawyer depression, American attorneys are ranked 5th occupationally in the incidence of suicide.

Nee claims that lawyers are the most frequently depressed occupational group in the United States and are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.

Further, approximately 26 percent of attorneys seeking therapy admit ailing from anxiety and depression.

What Can Be Done?

Alcohol abuse, depression, and suicide are hitting for the legal profession hard. Some argue that much of the blame belongs to American law schools, with the Nee Foundation stating that law students experience stress at the rate of 96 percent.

Moreover, they noted that law students’ mental health increases from a rate of 8.9 percent of depression before matriculating and, by graduation and bar time, rises among newly minted lawyers to around 40 percent.

Deans must eradicate the Socratic method, a sadistic device to torture and humiliate students. Law firms should emphasize quality of life instead of billable hours and profit margins while incorporating wellness into their paradigm.

As more state bars recognize the high rates of depression and suicide within the profession, they are establishing hotlines and help resources where attorneys can feel more at ease seeking counseling without risking their careers.

The 2016 study concluded that state bars must:

1. Invest in lawyer assistance programs and increase the availability of attorney-specific treatment.

2. Engage in public awareness campaigns to overcome the stigma of alcoholism and mental illness.

3. Publicize the confidential nature of lawyer-assistance programs.

4. Provide more training and education aimed at prevention, especially for those in the early stages of their profession.

Finally, awareness of the signs of substance abuse, depression, and suicide are crucial teaching skills that should be part of any law school curriculum compounded with mandatory continuing education training courses for all attorneys. More has to be done so that studying for the bar is not equated with later dying there.

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