Finding Our Way
raduating from law school is both exciting and frightening at the same time. On one hand there’s a real itch to put our knowledge into action, to be a bona fide "attorney at law" and to start making some dough instead of spending it on tuition and books. On the other hand, we really don’t know a lot about the application of legal theory to legal combat, may have a heap of debt and pray that our first stab at competency doesn’t land us face first on the courthouse steps.
Beyond these pragmatic concerns is the meatier matter of living a life in the law that really matters; a life in accord with our inner core of what we truly value in life. As author Studs Terkel once wrote:
Work is about a daily search for meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.
Lawyers, young and old alike, find it difficult to live out their values in the workplace, to search for "meaning as well as daily bread." There are challenges and compromises, some more difficult than others. For example, we may really value spending time with our family. But as the demands of our career mount, we become untethered from this sustenance as we spend more and more time toiling at the office.
Andrew Benjamin, Ph.D., J.D., a lead researcher in studies about mental health of law students and lawyers, concludes that much of the dissatisfaction in the profession comes from a widening gap between the values we truly care about and the things we end up pursuing in our jobs as lawyers. This takes place over time and its effects are cumulative. Many end up leaving the profession. Or, if they stay, they become mired in unhappiness, discontent and can’t see a way out.
Dr. Benjamin found that approximately 20% of lawyers — about twice the national average — aren’t just unhappy; they’re suffering from clinical anxiety or depression. This is not merely everyday stress, sadness, blues or categorical grumpiness. This is rubber to the road clinical anxiety and depression; devastating diseases that cause breakdowns in every area of one’s life.
Put in perspective, Benjamin’s studies suggest that a whopping 200,000 of this nation’s 1 million lawyers are struggling — some very badly. That’s staggering. Certainly a gap between our values and the way we live as lawyers doesn’t cause depression. But it’s one of many factors that include a history of depression in one’s family and emotional abuse and/or neglect during one’s formative years that make a person prone to depression.
But jettisoned values, genes and abuse are risk factors for everyone, not just lawyers. So why do lawyers have twice the rate of depression?
Lawyers seem to have additional risks perhaps unique to the profession. One that’s been identified by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. is the unique thinking style of most lawyers. Lawyers, he opines, have a pessimistic thinking style:
Pessimism is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence. A prudent perspective enables a good lawyer to see every conceivable snare and catastrophe that might occur in any transaction. The ability to anticipate the whole range of problems and betrayals that non-lawyers are blind to is highly adaptive for the practicing lawyer who can, by so doing, help his clients defend against these far-fetched eventualities. If you don’t have this prudence to begin with, law school will seek to teach it to you. Unfortunately, though, a trait that makes you good at your profession does not always make you a happy human being.
Lawyers also seem to have a particularly fearsome type of stress overload; a jacked central nervous system fueled by the adversarial nature of the profession. Modern science now knows that there is a powerful connection between chronic and remitting stress and the development of clinical depression. As I wrote in a 2008 Trial Magazine article "How Stress and Anxiety Become Depression," chronic stress and anxiety cause the release of too many fight-or-flight hormones such as cortisol which damages areas of the brain that have been implicated in depression: the hippocampus (involved in learning and memory) and the amygdala (involved in how we perceive fear).
The point of all this sobering news isn’t to rain on anyone’s parade. Law can and should be a noble calling and a satisfying way to make a living. Rather, these warnings are meant to impart some thorny wisdom; to tell you that living out your values and dreams are just as important as my brother, Wally’s favorite expression, "carving out a living". Or, as Studs Terkel surmised, ". . . to have a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying."
So remember your values and where they are trying to lead you. That’s realistic. Our values are not set in granite; they can and will change over time. Yet the only tuning fork you will ultimately have is trying to build a solid bridge between who you really are and what you are in the real world. We can and will hit choppy waters as we sail our ships in our careers. There will be many temptations — money, power. This story has been played out for millennia. As you go through your career, watch the currents and stir your ship bravely, with integrity and passion.
As Apple founder Steve Jobs wrote:
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice; and most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.