“In fact, I’ll take it off the wall and send it to you right now. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
When I investigated lawyers for the Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, I was surprised how many of them said something like this to me, even when I called to talk to them about relatively non-serious allegations of misconduct. I vividly recall one sad conversation with a lawyer who told me how unhappy he was practicing law and how much he disliked getting up and going to work every day. He didn’t see an alternative for paying his bills, especially his law school loans. Like many of these conversations, it more closely resembled a therapy session than a disciplinary investigation. The allegations against him were fairly minor and were ultimately dismissed, but I find myself thinking about him several years later and hoping he found a way to reconnect with the reason he wanted to practice law in the first place — or that he found a path to positive change.
We don’t need statistics or studies to tell us that we practice in one of the most stressful professions. A 1990 Johns Hopkins University study found that lawyers suffer rates of depression that are 3.6 times higher than those of other professions. Why is that? There are as many reasons as there are lawyers, but the most commonly mentioned factors are days spent dealing with adversity, unrealistic expectations of perfection and — like Sisyphus — we’re constantly pushing that stone up the hill, only to get up the next day and do the same thing again. Many of us love the challenges of the profession enough that our fulfillment outweighs our discouraging moments; others find themselves lost and overwhelmed. I often discovered that lawyers who had been practicing between five and 10 years seemed to be the ones most prone to feel and voice their frustrations. It seemed like many of them were discouraged by the trajectories of their careers, or they had been practicing law long enough that they no longer had stars in their eyes and found themselves disillusioned by the system.
When lawyers start to burn out, they, like everyone else, experience the things we’ve all heard about: alcoholism, drug abuse and other forms of addiction. These things can be tragic, and thankfully the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program (COLAP) is a valuable resource. Executive Director Barbara Ezyk and her skilled staff go above and beyond to find solutions to the problems that lawyers experience. Less obvious, but no less insidious, are the things that happen from a career perspective — often when we don’t even realize it. So many times I encountered lawyers who went five, six or seven years without a single complaint filed against them, only to now find themselves in a cycle of client dissatisfaction, threats of malpractice, hostility with opposing counsel and judicial disapproval. Every time I spoke with them their reaction was the same: I don’t know why this is happening.
The American Bar Association (ABA) published a terrific article in the ABA Journal, posted July 1, 2015, titled “How Lawyers Can Avoid Burnout and Debilitating Anxiety” by Leslie A. Gordon. I came across it while researching a presentation on this topic and was struck by its many insights, including a discussion of the fact that lawyers are prone to negativity. Does this surprise us? Because we are pessimistic by nature and perfectionist by design, we are susceptible to anxiety. The article quotes Gayle Victor, who practiced as a consumer debt attorney for 25 years before stopping legal practice to become a social worker. He said: “[P]erfectionism helps lawyers succeed in practice because the profession is excessively detail-oriented. In the Johns Hopkins study, optimism outperformed pessimism — except in the legal profession, because lawyers are hired to always look out for what can go wrong.” This experience of spending our days focused on the negative, planning attacks and counterattacks, can color the way we view the world and cause us to lose perspective in realizing that not everyone is trying to get the better of us. We all know that lawyer who can’t “turn it off,” who is guarded in conversations and with whom it is necessary to choose your words carefully in even the most casual conversation. This heightened level of anxiety can cause us to perceive things that don’t exist — and react more strongly than we otherwise might — toward clients, opposing counsel and the court. Once that cycle begins, lawyers might find themselves in the position of the lawyers I spoke with — always at odds with others and not really sure why.
This can be true in our non-spoken interactions as well. It is so easy to let our emotions become our guideposts and the measure by which we frame our reactions. How many times have any of us reacted in haste and anger to an email, text or letter and responded in kind, perhaps imprudently? The same ABA article I noted earlier had a line that fascinated me, and I’ve re-read it several times. Jeena Cho, a San Francisco bankruptcy lawyer who blogs about anxiety and mindfulness and works with lawyers through meditation, stress and anxiety management, said “[s]tudies have shown that people literally hold their breath when they look at emails. It triggers the fight-or-flight response.” She recommended taking one long inhale and exhale before opening your inbox. That continues to be startling to me because when I stop to think about the number of emails each of us receives in a day, between personal and work, I am shocked at the havoc it must be causing for our emotional health!
So, what can we do about this? I’m not a psychologist, but I am a practicing lawyer and have worked with other lawyers as a regulator and a mentor, a monitor and a practice coach. I’ve observed a few things along the way. Those of us who are fulfilled are fortunate to be doing what we love as a way of earning a living. However, those of us who aren’t need to stop and reconsider what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Finding a way to reconnect with why we started practicing in the first place could go a long way to restoring our enjoyment in the law. I once asked a lawyer, after listening to him tell me his complaints and discouragements for the better part of an hour, why he was doing what he was doing. After a long pause, he said, “it doesn’t feel like work. I love it and can’t imagine doing anything else.” I told him I never would have guessed that listening to him talk. I think and hope that caused him to reflect on his perceptions of his job and how he was expressing himself to others. For those of us who aren’t fulfilled, there is no shame in transitioning away to a new life or career path. It seems like every time I pick up a magazine I read about someone — coffee roaster, craft brewer, makeup entrepreneur — who used to be a lawyer. The world is full of interesting people who used to be something else.
No matter what the job is, going to work is both an economic reality as well as a means of professional fulfillment for most of us. But life is too short to hate what we do every day. In the end, whether one continues to be a practicing lawyer or an “I used to be a lawyer,” finding enjoyment in our days is what we all need to seek. There is more to life than being afraid of one’s inbox. D
Amy DeVan works as Conflicts and Resource Staff Counsel with the law firm Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell LLP. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.