May 2015 Bar Bulletin
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May 2015 Bar Bulletin

Looking at Lawyers and Depression (Again)

By Joseph Shaub


There is certainly no dearth of discussions about the broad experience of depression within the nation's legal community. Since the early 1980s when U.W.'s own Andy Benjamin and colleagues found a significantly higher incidence of depression and substance abuse among attorneys, compared to the broader population, the subject has really never gone away.

The Centers for Disease Control has found that 9.1 percent of Americans have experienced depression within the two-week prior to a recent survey. Attorneys have been found to suffer from depression at rates 3.6 times that of the broader population. One website cites a figure for depression among North Carolina lawyers at 37 percent.

Any web search will find articles in law journals (e.g., "State Bars Battle Lawyer Depression: Legal Profession Ranks 4th in Suicide Rate" from the ABA Journal); popular media (e.g., "The Depressed Lawyer" from Psychology Today); and an entire website devoted to the topic (, which has received numerous awards and boasts a stable of excellent contributors.

The causes of the higher incidence of depression among lawyers have been speculated upon for many years now. There is no reason to believe that people more prone to depression go to law school. Studies of lawyers' personalities belie this notion, as pre-law students have long suggested quite the opposite. These young people are overwhelmingly sociable high-achievers who score no higher in depression than their peers. Clearly, there must be something in the nature and structure of law school and legal practice that contributes to these disheartening findings.

Martin Seligman, Ph.D., former president of the American Psychological Association and a highly regarded researcher/writer on the subject of depression, has suggested that one cause is an excess of prudence among attorneys. By this, he was referring to the natural professional tendency to look to the negative consequences of each decision a client (or they) could make.

The job of attorneys is, in part, to protect people from the negative consequences of unconsidered risks taken on. That, by the way, is why business people for years have branded their lawyers as "deal-killers," as the attorney's professional lens contains that prudential filter. Thus, to an unnatural degree, lawyers are attentive to as wide an array of potential negatives as conceivable in their work.

Also embedded in the nature of legal practice is the continual exposure to conflict, dissatisfaction and stress. Leaving all that at the office can be a special challenge for attorneys, many of whom turn to alcohol to quiet the incessant business buzzing in their heads.

However, there is another, more structural cause for this broad experience of depression. The world of legal practice, from first immersion in contracts class to retirement (or abandonment of the practice), has become organized around values and rewards that foster depression. This is the conclusion of a massive research study engaged in by Florida State University law professor Lawrence Krieger and his colleague Kenneth Sheldon.

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