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It's a stressful profession

21 November 2014

Lawyers have a higher rate of physical illness such as heart disease and psychological illnesses like depression, anxiety and substance abuse according to international research.

One study suggests that this begins in law school, psychologist and managing director of Umbrella Health and Resilience Gaynor Parkin says. In their 2009 paper Stemming the Tide of Law Student Depression: What Law Schools Need to Learn from the Science of Positive Psychology, Todd and Elizabeth Peterson point out that before they entered law school, students in the United States showed no signs of elevated psychological distress compared to the general population. However after just one year of legal study more than 50% of students met the criteria for depression.

“Other studies have found higher rates of anxiety and depression in the legal profession versus other professional services,” Ms Parkin says. “It raises the question: is there something about legal training or going into the legal profession that seems to make people more vulnerable to mental health issues?”

Ms Parkin says there is some international research to show that lawyers are over represented in mental health issues, but that “there hasn’t been any specific research in the New Zealand context”.

She says that anecdotally and through her work as a psychologist there are reports of higher rates of mental health issues in the legal profession, which could be attributed to a number of factors.

“Is it that people who are, perhaps, more vulnerable to mental health difficulties are drawn to legal work? Or is it something about the training and legal work that creates more vulnerability?”

The 2009 US research suggests, she says, that it is the training that shapes people’s world view.

“Certainly in my experience, what I’ve heard lawyers describing to me is that part of being a good lawyer is that you look for the worst case scenario and you look for risk. That means you’re going to look at the world with a somewhat pessimistic lens. While that’s an incredibly useful skill in your legal work it’s not so useful when it comes to life.”

The trick is finding a way to turn that world view off when you leave the office and have a different view about life in general, according to Ms Parkin.

“And of course that is easier said than done,” she says, as billable hours and the nature of the lawyer/client relationship means lawyers tend to work long hours.

“The sorts of recovery strategies that we would encourage people to use in terms of exercising, sleeping well and having a balanced life; often people aren’t doing those things because they’re working long hours,” she says.

There isn’t any meaningful research on certain lawyer personality types being predisposed to mental illness, according to Ms Parkin.

“Anecdotally, lawyers tend to be high achievers. They also tend to set high standards for themselves and are, perhaps, perfectionists in how they approach their work and their life. Those perfectionist patterns – again while being useful in a work context – they’re not always useful in a life context.”

Ms Parkin says the lack of research on New Zealand lawyer’s mental health “is a bit of problem”, and that it could be due to a number of reasons.

“It’s probably because in order to do that research you would need to get lawyers to agree to be part of research, and with time pressures that’s going to be tricky. I think with this kind of research sometimes there’s a bit of fear that if we do this research and find that it’s a particular problem then it’s ‘what are we going to about it?’ And it’s also ‘who is going to pay for that research?’”

The profession’s general view on mental illness could also be a factor, she says.

“Certainly with some of the groups I’ve worked with – and it’s not unique to lawyers – but I think there’s still a stigma in that it’s not okay to say that you’re feeling stressed or anxious or overwhelmed by things.

“There’s still that idea that if you’re a competent person you will just suck it up and keep on going … Hopefully that’s an attitude that’s changing, but I think again that pressure to perform can override people’s willingness to say that ‘I’m struggling’.”

Ms Parkin says the Mental Health Foundation is trying to debunk some of those myths by making it more acceptable for people to talk about mental health issues, but that a “lawyer specific” initiative is needed for the profession.

“Ideally a body like the Law Society would pick that up and drive a co-ordinated approach,” she says.

The Law Society’s Practising Well initiatives have served to draw attention to these issues.

162 people responded to a Law Society survey question via LawPoints issue 200. The question asked: As a lawyer, what is your biggest concern (what keeps you awake at night)? Of those who responded, 24% said workload was the greatest stressor followed by the 16% who said the possibility of making mistakes weighed on their minds. 9% were feeling the effects of the changes to the Family Court and 10% of respondents were worried about practice performance and their careers respectively.  

Before entering law school in the United States 4% of students suffered from depression, a figure expected from any normal population. During the first year of law school, about 20% of the students developed depression. By the third year of law school, 40% of the law students had developed statistically significant levels of depressive symptoms.
(Benjamin, Kazniak, Sales and Shanfield, “The role of legal education in producing psychological distress among law students and lawyers.”)

United States lawyers lead the nation with the highest incidence of depression, which they suffer at a rate 3.6 times higher than occupations generally.
(John Hopkins University study of more than 100 occupations ‒ Eaton, Anthony, Mandel and Garrison, “Occupations and the prevalence of major depressive disorder.”)

In 1996, lawyers overtook dentists as the profession with the highest suicide rate in the United States.
(Greiner “What about me?” Texas Bar Journal).

Studies conducted in numerous jurisdictions have pegged the rate of alcoholism in the legal profession at between 15% and 24%. Roughly 1 in 5 lawyers is addicted to alcohol. In general, the alcoholism rate in a company is 10%.
(Canadian Bar Association, “Drug, Alcohol Abuse and Addiction in the Legal Profession.”)


Last updated on the 17th March 2016