CNN had an interesting headline late last week: "Why are lawyers killing themselves?"
This isn't news. Our industry is rife with depression, substance abuse, and predictably, yet tragically, a high rate of suicide. A legal career often means loneliness, financial pressure, job stress, and adversarial system that pits us against each other in court-sanctioned cock fights. Tack on clients and opposing counsel that are frequently out for blood and it's not a wonder that our profession ranks fourth in suicides, per the Centers for Disease Control, behind dentists, pharmacists, and physicians.
Is there a solution, especially one that young attorneys can look to now?
Much of CNN's coverage focused on the steps taken to recover from depression, steps which often, were too little, too late. Depression is the most likely trigger for suicide, and we are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.
Why? From the moment we take the LSAT, our lives become push-push-push.
Apply. Get into the best school possible. Fight over financial aid. Start school, and compete with classmates. Fight over the best summer gigs, law review spots, and class ranking. Pay an incomprehensible amount for the privilege of doing so.
Graduate and fight for a 100-hour work week. Try to pay off the debt, and to justify all of the hard with with a (hopefully) six-figure salary and opulent lifestyle. If not, you're a failure and you'll never pay off your debt.
Then comes the practice of law, with the constant scrutiny of clients, partners, opposing counsel, and if you make a mistake, the state bar.
Pre-law to post-law retirement, our lives are stress. And quite frankly, we're not sure what the cure is.
Instead of looking at curing depression however, can we take a different approach to the problem, and set ourselves up for happier lives from the outset?
It's easy to say, "work-life balance." That was my first reaction. But is that an option, with six-figure student loan debt, mortgages, and family obligations?
It has to be. You can push-push-push, push your way to a bigger paycheck, to longer hours, and away from loved ones and hobbies, but to what end? A balanced debt ledger? A nice car? A bigger house. You may feel like you have to over-achieve to justify the high cost in terms of dollars and time that you invested in becoming an attorney, but the sunk cost fallacy is exactly that: a fallacy.
If we prioritize balance now, before we take on a 100-hour workweek, maybe in twenty years, we won't find ourselves isolated, unfulfilled, and feeling like there is no way out.
Maybe for you, that means picking a public interest position over a more lucrative litigation position. Or setting a personal limit on the hours you'll spend on shingle-hanging. Or not even practicing law at all, especially if the recessionary economy has taken its toll on your job prospects. Whatever it is, figure out what is truly important now, and don't prioritize career and a salary over life and happiness.
No matter what problems you are dealing with, there are reasons to keep living. If you or a loved one are contemplating suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), has trained counselors available 24/7. The American Bar Association also has a directory of local Lawyer Assistance Programs that can help.