Thursday, May 14, 2009

Depression Runs Rampant Among Lawyers

A growing number of lawyers are grappling with depression and other emotional problems, according to a report in the National Law Journal (NLJ).

The growing pressure on attorneys was underscored by the apparent suicide on April 30 of Mark I. Levy, a prominent attorney in the Washington office of Atlanta-based Kilpatrick Stockton.

Some experts point to the stress caused by a slumping economy. But others say the problem goes deeper than that:

Administrators from a sampling of lawyer assistance programs report that laid-off attorneys, struggling solo practitioners, third-year law students without jobs lined up and others have been reaching out for help more than ever before. Lawyers who already had emotional problems or addictions are being pushed over the edge by the added stress of the slow economy and its ramifications, they said.

Susan Riegler, a psychologist and clinical director of a lawyer-assistance program in Illinois, said she is starting a second weekly therapy session for depression:

"This really picked up in December," Riegler said. "I was getting more people than ever calling me in tears. By and large, what I see is depression and a feeling that things won't turn around, or I hear from people who had a lifestyle they can no longer afford."

An increasing number of frustrated law students have been calling, she said. So have solo practitioners who don't have enough work to keep the lights on, or are afraid to turn down cases and end up working around the clock. Some attorneys who have lost their jobs face something of an identity crisis as well. "People have always asked them, 'What do you do?' and they've said, 'I'm a lawyer,'" she said. "When they lose that role in life, it's pretty confusing."

Based on my experience, I think something deeper might be going on in the legal profession. Numerous lawyers in the Birmingham area have told me that they are well aware of rampant corruption in the profession, driven largely by bad judges, but they feel powerless to do anything about it. Try to stand up to a corrupt judge, and your career can be ruined. Report a bad judge to an oversight agency, and you are likely to be ignored.

Honest lawyers clearly are aware of incompetent colleagues who make very nice livings, and enjoy professional success, because they "are in bed with" certain judges. That has to be demoralizing. And to see deserving clients get cheated in court, and only be able to shrug your shoulders about it, has to be wearing.

A lawyer friend recently provided some interesting insight into the profession. "Lawyers have almost no control over their lives. Their schedules are set by judges, opposing counsel, availability of clients and opposing parties. For many lawyers, their lives are not their own."

For an alarming number of lawyers, that apparently takes quite an emotional toll.

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