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Why are lawyers so depressed? | Warren Urquhart

Thursday, September 10, 2020 @ 11:30 AM | By Warren Urquhart

Warren Urquhart %>
Warren Urquhart
Why do you want to be a lawyer? For those aspiring to join the legal profession, this question is omnipresent. It’s asked by friends, family members, law schools, possible employers and hopefully, by yourself to yourself.

Admittedly, I get a bit sick of this question, but one day a friend asked a follow-up question that stuck with me: “Why do you want to join a profession where everyone’s depressed?”

Not all lawyers are depressed, but far too many are. Our conversations on mental health still need to progress, but at least we are more aware of how pervasive our mental health crisis is.

The Canadian Bar Association has acknowledged that up to “40% of law students may have significant levels of depressive symptoms” and that once out of law school, “lawyers deal with depression at a rate four times higher than that of the general population.” A 2018 study of the legal profession found that “higher-status lawyers in large firms report more depression than their lower status colleagues”, which is the exact opposite of what happens in other careers.

The problems don’t stop at depression: about one-fifth of lawyers suffer from anxiety or screen positive for hazardous/dependent alcohol consumption, as found through a study of 13,000 American lawyers.

What is it about the legal profession that makes it a breeding ground for mental illness? There are numerous factors, but evidence points to two significant elements: the personality traits that the law profession filters for and the structure of the law profession itself.

A study done by Australian National University, which was described in a research paper titled “No time to lose: Negative impact on law student wellbeing may begin in year one,” gives results that suggests teaching students to “think like a lawyer” primes one for depressive states. “In business and property subjects, law students learn to put hope, optimism and trust aside. The lawyer’s task is to anticipate all of the things that might go wrong. …This brand of thinking like a lawyer requires not only dispassionate analysis, but also pessimism and risk aversion.”

A 2005 Deakin Law Review article dives further into pessimism and the legal world. “Why Lawyers are Unhappy” suggests that one of the main factors causing unhappiness in lawyers is that the profession selects for “pessimism (or ‘prudence’) and this generalizes to the rest of their lives.” As “No time to lose” describes, our law schools encourage the pessimistic “thinking like a lawyer” mindset, which continues into the professional world.

The unfortunate truth is that our current legal system may require, or at the very least, heavily incentivize, that pessimistic mindset as a necessity to break into the upper echelons of the profession. Citing a survey of law students at the University of Virginia, a Wall Street Journal article notes that pessimistic law students were found to get “better grades, were more likely to make law review and, upon graduation, received better job offers.”

“Why Lawyers are Unhappy” notes that this pessimism is hard to contain just to your office and states that the challenge is to “remain prudent professionally and yet contain pessimistic tendencies in domains of life outside the office.” As a remedy, the article discusses psychological, individual-centred solutions such as “flexible optimism,” “learned optimism” and “disputing techniques” to control negative emotions, channelling the field of positive psychology.

These are good solutions — ones that empower the individual, but don’t do much to remedy the structural issues that cause the issues in the first place. If we take the necessity for pessimism as a necessity for being a lawyer — and I’m not convinced that it is — there are numerous structural issues that no doubt play a role in the mental health issues that lawyers suffer through.

You know what’s better than free counselling (counselling that I am proud to say has helped me) from the Law Society of Ontario’s Member Assistance Program? Eliminating the issues that drive people to those services in the first place.

Yes — the issue of changing how legal work responds to pessimism or optimism is a daunting task. But there are plenty of other structural issues that, if tackled, would help remedy our mental health crisis. The McGill Journal of Law and Health noted that in a CBA survey, “58% of lawyers, judges, and law students … had experienced significant stress/burnout.” The journal partially linked this to excessive working hours, which also leads to work-life conflict.

A simple solution? Hire more people so employees can work less hours. COVID-19 has shown that some firms can move the budget around to minimize layoffs. We need to realize that similar measures with firm balance sheets must be done for the mental health of our colleagues. A small cut from the top of the firms can help heal the health of an entire profession.

Warren Urquhart is in his second year at Osgoode Hall Law School. He’s a freelance writer and ex-cloud consultant. You can reach him via LinkedIn and Medium.

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