Keeping Perspective

Surviving Law School and the Legal Profession in the midst of Stress, Substance Abuse and Suicide

By Brody Burns   Sept. 8,2014

It should come as little shock that law school and the subsequent pursuit of work as a lawyer are both incredibly stressful undertakings. According to the American Bar Association, “lawyers are particularly susceptible to stress-related illnesses because of the unique interplay of the legal profession and lawyer personality.”[1] For lawyers, stress is a byproduct of both nature and nurture. The adversarial setting, competitive atmosphere, impending deadlines, long hours, and sheer pressure are but some of the factors that add to a personality pre-disposed to high levels of stress. While a certain level of stress is expected in the legal profession, the overall amount of stress witnessed in law school is frightful. The legal profession is rife with mental health issues including depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicide, and substance abuse. All of this is due, in part, to the pernicious amount of stress. The statistics are staggering.

Researchers have found that lawyers are one of the most depressed occupations in the country and are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than the rest of the employed population.[2] [3] Researchers have also found that lawyers are fourth on the list of professions most prone to suicide, with a “death rate by suicide among lawyers…six times the suicide rate of the general population.” [4] [5] Further, researchers have documented staggering rates of alcoholism and substance abuse in the legal profession, where abuse and addiction are nearly twice as prevalent in lawyers as in the general population.[6] Finally, according to a job survey performed by CareerBliss.com, an associate attorney was found to be the nation’s unhappiest profession.[7]

The mental health epidemic of the “depressed lawyer” is becoming a highly researched and well-documented phenomenon. One of the principal causes of this depressed state is the overall law school experience. Not only do “the negative effects of law school process continue to afflict many of us who have survived law school” but “a law student’s development of various psychological and/or alcohol/drug abuse symptoms appears to be the establishment of long-term dysfunctional patterns of behavior.”[8] These patterns of behavior continue to torture lawyers well into their legal professions, as law school can serve as a breeding ground for the highly-stressed and depressed lawyer. The patterns and reactions to the stress of law school can become ingrained, habitual reactions for lawyers.

Recent research has found that the stress of law school can also have devastating effects on the brain. Debra S. Austin, PhD, JD, has researched extensively on the stressful law school environment and how it impacts neuroscience and brain cell development. In her article titled “Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die from Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance” which appeared in Loyola Law Review, she made some shocking discoveries.

According to Austin “the stresses facing law students and lawyers result in a significant decline in their well-being, including anxiety, panic attacks, depression, substance abuse and suicide. Neuroscience now shows that this level of stress also diminishes cognitive capacity. The intricate workings of the brain, the ways in which memories become part of a lawyer’s body of knowledge, and the impact of emotion on this process indicate that stress can weaken or kill brain cells needed for cognition.” [9]  Put more succinctly, the law school education process and the overall stress from this environment can actually kill brain cells. In a shocking bit of irony, law school may actually be killing brain cells.

Austin also made the following conclusions; “Neuroscience shows that the aggregate educative effects of training to become a lawyer under chronically stressful conditions may undermine the efforts of legal educators by weakening the learning capacities of law students.”[10] Austin also documented a direct correlation between the reaction of stress in the law school environment to that of anxiety and depression in the legal community as a whole.

One of the more prevalent myths about law school is that it all eases up after the first year. Studies suggest otherwise, “according to studies conducted by Dr. Andrew Benjamin, in the 1980s and 1990s, depression among law students approximated that of the general population before law school (about 9-10%). However, it rose to 32% by the end of the first year of law school, and rocketed to an amazing 40% by the third year, never to return to pre-law school levels.”[11]

The old adage about law school is that in the first year they scare you to death, in the second year they work you to death, and in the third year they bore you to death. The commonality is death, and for some lawyers, the stress, negative habits, and terrible addictions picked up during law school, do result in death.

So what does an incoming law student, or a continuing law student, or even a lawyer do with this information? Immediately you will argue its validity or deny its relevance in your personal life. Lawyers, and future lawyers alike, don’t like to be told what to do. As a whole, lawyers are not the most eager to admit they have chinks in their armor. And there is a good chance that the statistics may be flawed and that this writer is reading too much into a non-issue. But what is the harm in raising awareness about our educational process and future profession? What harm could come from being aware that those who enter the profession are predisposed to depression? What harm comes from knowledge? Law school stress can have debilitating effects on your brain and set in motion a professional career marked by depression, substance abuse, panic attacks, and suicide. The intent of this column is to make students and lawyers aware of the waters you are navigating, the personal obstacles you may encounter and the dangers related to your educational choice and ultimate career field. The stress is real, for some it is crippling, and the law school experience only exacerbates these issues.

My advice for those entering this year or continuing their law school pursuits is to keep perspective. Keep perspective on your own personal health. There are endless studies that logically suggest that exercise, sleep, and good nutrition are tantamount to a happy life. I will not belabor this well-established point any further; make sure you sleep, eat, and run. The lesson of perspective can be applied to other facets of law school. Keep perspective on where you are; you’re in the top 1% in terms of educational opportunity in the world. There is nothing you cannot do. At risk of injecting the career center cliché, the opportunities and options available for a person with a law degree are truly endless. Keep in mind the incredible opportunities you can make for yourself in this life. Keep perspective on grades; a B or a C in a law school course is not the end of the world. In fact, I would argue that the people who take some bumps in the road, tend to do pretty well in the long run. And, spoiler alert, even those kids with straight As will lose at some point in their lives; whether it’s a case, or a boyfriend, or their hair. Everyone loses sometime. Great lessons can be gleamed from loses. Never underestimate the importance of a lesson in humility in the face of defeat. Keep perspective on people. We all enter the legal profession to aid others to some degree. Whether or not your brand of coffee is liberal, the words of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor should resonate with all aspiring lawyers; “the greatest value of what you do (as lawyers) is help people with their problems.” [12] Helping people is at the core of the legal profession. Whether you are helping a corporation, an interest group, a geographic region, or an individual person, serving others is central to being a lawyer. Keep perspective on competition. Don’t be a jerk. The competitive nature of law school is never worth it, your classmates will be your friends, your support group, your source of referrals, and, in some cases, your spouses. In all likelihood you will meet some of your closest friends during law school. This built-in support group may be your only support group (newsflash the general public doesn’t like lawyers). So keep in mind when your competitive juices are getting the better of you. Keep perspective on how important these people will be in your life long-term, and how un-important certain law school exams will be in your life. (See the Rule Against Perpetuities). Treat everyone with respect, make friends, and don’t burn bridges. Finally keep perspective on who you are; law school will plant a seed of self-doubt and the subsequent legal profession will pour truckloads of fertilizer on that seed. At times it will grow like a weed and ravage your self-confidence. At other times, it will disappear completely as your self-confidence reaches Mick Jagger levels. Try to remain stable, remember the person you were when you entered law school (for better or worse), and act as if your grandmother was watching your every move. No showboating and no wallowing.

Good luck this year to new and continuing students. If you need help, feel free to reach out to me, my email is brodyburns@sandiego.edu.


VN:F [1.9.20_1166]
Rating: 4.8/5 (4 votes cast)
Keeping Perspective , 4.8 out of 5 based on 4 ratings
Share