Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Depression and law

It has been reported that lawyers in Australia suffer from a high incidence of depressive illness. This extends to law students where in the study 35% of students suffered from illness that warranted medical intervention.[1]

I can say that I am not surprised by this finding. I am a law student and I have suffered from a major depression during my studies for the law degree. It came to a crux with a marriage separation and suicide attempts.

I was unfortunately just starting a job in a law firm when everything came to head. I managed to struggle through the work at the firm for a number of months but had to leave eventually when my illness intensified and I was unable to continue with the employment.

I have experienced the darkness of depressive illness and through medication and CBT Cognitive Behavioural Therapy there is hope for a recovery.

So what does depression do to the student? This has not been very well investigated but I will use anecdotal evidence to demonstrate the practical effects of the illness on the student.

One major problem is an interference with the ability to concentrate. Procrastination can become a major activity and with deadlines for assignments and assessment items being a major factor of the law school experience there will be difficulties in meeting these assessment requirements.

This extends into looking for jobs, holding down jobs and relationships. Depression when it affects a sufferer will affect all aspects of the sufferer’s life.

The current system has no pity on the sufferer of depression. I am in the situation where I have begun to recover and have to catch up on my work. I have missed the deadline for job applications for next year with a number of large firms. I am now looking down the barrel of leaving university without a job to go into.

The problem then is that having missed the deadline there is an increase in depression. The whole legal endeavour appears to have the effect of once depression is suffered it is going to get worse not better. A legal job is not the place to have a lot of doubts regarding your own ability.

I ask myself why there is such a high incidence of depression among lawyers. Association is not causation so we cannot assume that the study and practice of law is the cause of depression. However the study does suggest that more research is required in order for this to be understood more fully.

The law report article referenced above shows how our profession is a set up for problems.

Where funding for this should come from will be a debate topic but I think it should be on the law societies to look into this as it is their members and future members who are suffering.

Possible contributors to legal depression

Poor public image

Poor public perception of law is common. Studies have shown that lawyers do not rate highly in the public’s perception of ethical behaviour.[2] At position 13 the lawyer does not feature highly in the publics mind as being ethical. At least we are higher than talkback radio announcers at position 20.

There is a lot of debate as to why we as a profession are held in such low regard. The existence of the multitude of legal humour suggests there is a problem.

This lack of a positive public perception of the lawyer makes the depressed lawyer sad. Each of us as lawyers has to grapple with the ethical side of practice as individuals and reason why we are lawyers in the first place. Having our ethical choices attacked is painful and adds to the burden that being a legal practitioner places on us personally.

Dealing with people in distress

Depending on your field of practice you will come into contact with people who are in distress. It is hard to imagine a field that will not have distressed clients involved. We readily accept that matters of family law will be emotionally charged. Yet a will can be emotionally charged especially if one is being challenged. Just the planning for death is a distressing thing in the writing of the will as people imagine their mortality.

Our legal training often revolves around professional detachment as a guard against this problem. I have been advised by practitioners to remember that it is the client’s problem and not yours.

It is possible that the detachment required to protect ourselves is seen as coldness by the public.

Difficult ethical questions

We are asked to do a lot as lawyers and not for our own benefit. If you are not a partner you don’t have choice in representation. So you have to ask yourself ethical questions and justify your actions against your own morality framework.

It is the lawyer’s role to advise the client but they are the ones who make the choices. Sometimes these choices will go against your own system of morality.

Long working hours

It seems to be a fact that lawyers work long hours. This places pressure on other relationships and endeavours. A recent graduate I had a discussion with said that they were pleased the law firm gave gym memberships to their employees. I was disturbed by this as I saw it as not being the work life balance as promoted by the firm but a way for the firm to benefit.

Let me explain further by suggesting that being fit is productive to your working life. Gyms are open late hours and as such provide a way to maintain fitness at convenient times. So the firm gets fit employees who can go when it is convenient for the firm and not really the employee.

This does not address the hours worked or the lack of sunlight the new graduate fails to see. A work life balance is more than a gym membership.

Competitive nature of law

To do law is to fight. This seems to be the basic premise of all law. You compete for the best grades at law school; you compete for the best jobs or any job for that matter. Success is based not on the quality of things or the input to society but on the remuneration package and the prestige of the position.

Public interest law is seen as good when it is coupled with a profitable and prestigious practice. The so called “Bluejeans” lawyers who follow a career in public interest law are not paid well and lack prestige. Prestige is linked to earning and position.

So the lawyer must constantly fight, on behalf of their clients and against their peers. In a culture of competition I feel the possibility to become depressed is high.

No room for mistakes

Due to the once off aspect of the legal system there is no room to make mistakes. This is a very high standard to have to meet. I don’t argue that it can be any other way since these are peoples lives we are dealing with be it their compensation claim or their liberty. I just recognise there is a lot of pressure to be right always.


The practice is a business and needs to make money. You have to record every moment of your day to ensure that there is proper billing in place. Yet there is guilt associated for having a bad day if you are a little slower than usual and you bill more than you think is fair.

Having to account for every 10 minutes of your day may make you feel closed in.


We advise we don’t decide. We can’t advise on if something will win or lose. We can only give a probability based on conjecture. Nothing is certain in a legal matter. If it were the courts would have less involvement by far.

Yet we lose when we feel we should have won. The client won’t blame the legal system or the other side in the matter. They are going to blame the lawyer. The client never thought at any stage they were wrong or did not have a strong enough case. Clients don’t think like this. So we lose and we are the brunt of the matter.

I do not suggest these are the causes of depression or that a legal career is the cause of depression in practitioners and students. It is worth considering why there is an association with legal practice and law. I hope that the legal societies fund some research into the association so that firms and schools will be able to address any causation factors related to law.


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