Lawyers stewing in 'excellent recipe' for depression

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The often 'intense', 'competitive' and 'analytical' character of legal practitioners is combining with 'cerebral', 'survival-of-the-fittest' workplaces to increase their risk of depression, an expert claims.

Emily Morrow, a former US law firm partner who now provides tailored consulting services for legal professionals in New Zealand, says the heightened level of depression in lawyers often comes down to a combination of both “nature and nurture”.

“People who choose to study and work in the law typically are relatively intense, quite individualistic, reasonably competitive and often analytical in their approach, Morrow told Australasian Lawyer.

"They are more likely to focus on professional advancement, even if this comes at a personal, emotional cost. This is the nature piece. The nurture piece is associated with legal training and the practice of law. It tends to encourage a highly cerebral approach to problem-solving, a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, a focus on outcomes rather than process and minimises emotional considerations. These factors, added to a chronically high stress environment, are an excellent recipe for depression,” Morrow explained.

Morrow believes many law firms are not doing enough when it comes to addressing the issue and that a stigma surrounding the condition still exists.

“In many cases, firms are doing relatively little to address issues associated with depression,” she said. “Typically, the response is to try to treat the symptoms, rather than looking at the underlying causes. Some firms are addressing concerns about depression quite directly with their staff through training and open discussion and I think this is an excellent trend. It is kind of like taking the gorilla out of the closet and it can be very helpful.”

When it comes to identifying risk factors in their own lives, Morrow uses a metaphor to describe the importance of identifying the things that bring joy into everyday life.

 “A good metaphor is the use of oxygen on an airplane. As we all know, you are instructed as a passenger to put the oxygen mask on yourself first so that you can assist children or others seated near you,” she said. “This is not selfish, nor is it inappropriate; it's associated with keeping yourself functioning at your highest and best level. Similarly, if you are not taking care of yourself sufficiently, your overall functioning will deteriorate and you will be more risk for depression and other psychological and/or physical disabilities.”

Finally, Morrow notes that we often associate depression with sadness. Typically, however, she said the disease manifests itself through chronic levels of inertia, or lethargy.

“Things that we used to do energetically and easily become difficult for us,” she said. “Many times we describe this as ‘burnout’. Fundamentally, however, it is depression and we are all at risk of it. Taking care of yourself and attending to your personal, professional, physical, emotional, spiritual and other needs is the best antidote. Seek professional help if you need it and do it sooner rather than later.”

A recent CNN feature published in the US brought attention to the subject of elevated depression and suicide rates amongst legal professionals.

The article quotes US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing lawyers rank fourth when the proportion of suicides in that profession is compared to suicides in all other occupations in the study population (adjusted for age) – directly behind dentists, pharmacists and physicians.

Lawyers, at least in the US, are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.