If there’s ever a time for lawyers to go the extra mile, maybe now is the time. Stressed, isolated and overwhelmed throughout the pandemic, lawyers now face the uncertainties of returning to the office. And looming in our collective consciousness is the prospect of a world at war.
Certainly, there is no shortage of reports that the mental health of lawyers is at risk. Recently, Bloomberg Law’s Lawyer Workload and Hours Survey reported that lawyers experienced burnout more than half the time during the fourth quarter of 2021. But even before the pandemic , attorney welfare was in crisis mode. In 2017, the The American Bar Association’s National Lawyer Welfare Task Force Released a Major Study which found that lawyers suffered from much higher rates of depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse than the general population.
For Big Law lawyers, in particular, this all rings true. Indeed, it is so ingrained in our consciousness that lawyers are some of the saddest, loneliest and most troubled people on planet Earth that it is hard to believe it could be otherwise.
Well, here’s the reality: According to one study by Yale law professor Yair Listokin and his former student Raymond Noonan, lawyers have no particular claim to be discouraged. To be frank: avocados are not the fragile snowflakes that some imagine.
Listokin and Noonan write:
“Contrary to popular belief, lawyers are not particularly unhappy. Indeed, they suffer from much lower rates of mental illness than the general population. The mental health of lawyers is not significantly different from the mental health of professionals with similar training, such as doctors and dentists.
Despite the proliferation of reports and anecdotes about lawyers’ deteriorating state of well-being, the Yale study finds them largely unreliable. According to the Yale study, most survey data is based on voluntary respondents rather than random samples from the general population, so the results are skewed towards those who are more likely to admit problems. mental health or addiction.
In contrast, Yale looked at data from the US Centers for Disease Control’s National Health Survey, which involves a much larger group of random samples of Americans. (The Yale study analyzed NHIS data from 2010 to 2017 that included about 1,000 lawyers. The total NHIS sample size was about 180,000 employed adults.)
Methodology aside, here’s what I find intriguing: If lawyers aren’t worse off than engineers and dentists, why is the myth of lawyers’ misery so pervasive in our society? Do lawyers express their dissatisfaction more strongly than other professionals? Are they more self-pity and narcissistic?
“I hate to call someone a narcissist because doctors think they’re so miserable,” says Listokin, the study’s lead author. “We know how miserable we are, but not how others in the world are.” Although low-income people have much bigger problems, he adds, “they don’t register in our consciousness.”
No quibbling, but doesn’t that suggest narcissism? What I mean is, we’re talking about a prime set that has a lot more options than most badass.
So why is so much attention paid to lawyers’ anxiety?
“Lawyer misfortune is a big area,” says Dan Bowling, who teaches a course on attorney welfare at Duke Law School and is an expert in the field. “It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and make the problem worse if you tell lawyers from day one that they are more likely to suffer from depression, be alcoholics and end up in rehab.”
While lawyers may believe their suffering is off the charts, it is not. “When it comes to suicide rates, lawyers are only number 11. Dentists have much higher rates,” says Bowling, citing a finding from the American Psychological Association.
Lawyers may not win the top prize of misery, but is there still something unique about lawyers’ discontent?
What isn’t taken into account in the Yale study is the lawyer’s personality type, says psychologist Ellen Ostrow, who advises law firms and lawyers on career issues. “It is the combination of risk aversion and cynicism that is associated with pessimism, a precursor to depression. Research shows that people who become lawyers have fragile egos and this is one of the reasons they are drawn to a prestigious profession.
The irony, of course, is that stepping into the most prestigious arenas of law can be anything but ego-boosting. “Big Law attorneys are highly educated, smart, and well paid,” says Bowling. “But being so competitive and so successful is what also makes us unhappy.”
Lawyers drink a lot
One area in which the Yale study joins other studies on the welfare of lawyers is the issue of alcohol. The Yale study found that “rates of problematic alcohol use among lawyers . . . are high, even compared to the general population. This essentially confirms the findings of a 2016 study conducted by the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.
If lawyers are heavier drinkers than the general population, isn’t that a sign of deeper problems? Doesn’t that support the argument that lawyers are more depressed?
“Yeah, it might be masking something else,” Listokin admits. “Excessive alcohol consumption is comorbid with mental illness.” At the same time, however, he warns that the data is inconclusive and that the definition of “excessive alcohol consumption” is up for debate. “The CDC’s National Health Survey defines binge drinking as drinking five or more drinks per session,” Listokin says, adding that binge drinking six times a year is very different from 60. times a year.
What is unique about the role of alcohol in the legal profession is that the consumption of wine and cocktails is so central to how lawyers bond and entertain themselves. “It’s part of the legal culture,” Listokin says, citing the firm’s social events and outings with clients.
It can also lead to peer pressure to drink, especially among male lawyers. Ostrow recalls his experience advising a lawyer who was an alcoholic: “He was surrounded by heavy drinkers who laughed at him for not drinking. Regarding women lawyers, Ostrow makes this observation: “Their drinking is done in private rather than in society because it is more acceptable for men to go out and get drunk. She adds: “So many women tell me, ‘I drink a lot of wine at the end of the day’.”
The Yale study might support the argument that many studies of lawyer depression are deeply flawed, but what about alcohol consumption?
Listokin says, “I want to make it clear that welfare is a serious issue in the profession. He reminds us, however, that “we tend to think that misery among lawyers is pervasive, even if not more so than among others. He adds, “The rate of mental distress in the general population is just very high.”
In other words, misery is universal. Something we should all keep in mind.