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Jan 22 2014

Why Are Lawyers Committing Suicide?

CNN reported Monday that there has been a rash of suicides among lawyers in the past few years. According to their report, there was one lawyer-suicide a month in Oklahoma around 2004. South Carolina lost six lawyers within 18 months before July 2008. Kentucky has seen 15 known lawyer suicides since 2010. The article goes on to state:

CNN’s review of 50 state bar associations found eight associations so concerned about suicides that they took measures to stop the deadly pattern. California, Montana, Iowa, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina added a “mental health” component to mandatory legal continuing education. Kentucky starts its annual conference on continuing education with a presentation on behaviors that increase the risk of suicide.

The New York State Bar and The Nassau County Bar also have committees within their organizations to help lawyers combat stress and depression. As a trial lawyer (and most suicides are by trial lawyers) it really isn’t that hard to understand why this profession ranks fourth among likely suicide candidates. Here are my five reasons why the profession ranks so high among suicide victims:

(1) Confronting Serious Issues Like doctors, lawyers deal with people’s problems and their most serious issues all day. But unlike lawyers, doctors don’t have another doctor trying to obtain the exact opposite result for his patient. Medicine is a much more collaborative practice than law. Trial law is adversarial; even lawyers who deal with transactions have to negotiate with the other side’s lawyer who is also obligated to try and get the best result possible for his side of the deal. This results in a high level of confrontation and combat not seen in most professions. If I go out to eat after a long day in trial, I will not even send the plate back if its wrong because I’ve just had it with confrontation for the day. You have your limits s to how much you can argue and battle and need to reserve it for the courtroom.

Also, if you lose a client’s case -and you will lose a big case every now and then if you are an active trial lawyer – you take it personally. After all, unless you have a second lawyer assisting you, its all on you from the client’s perspective. You are in the arena and if you win, you get the glory and if you lose you get the blame.The pressure to win is immense and the feelings of doubt and “shoulda-woulda-coulda” when you lose run deep. Lose one important case and you could lose that client forever. So that kind of pressure and responsibility takes it s toll.

Add to that you are supposed to be a warrior. Therefore, your attitude is always “Don’t let them see you sweat” – “Never show weakness” – “Focus -Put aside what’s going on in your life” This does not make for a person who is willing to share his feelings and talk about the issues that are depressing him. This lack of ability or desire to express one’s concerns and feelings can quickly turn depression into major depression.

lawyers-arguing2. Economic reality is different than public perception Gone are the days when you could just hang up a shingle, start your practice and be in your first Mercedes Benz by Year Five. The sagging economy, the increase in law school admissions, the growing ranks of lawyers have created a glut in the market. Developing and maintaining a practice in today’s market can be a daunting task. Many lawyers who have had successful real estate and criminal law practices call me looking for extra work or asking if I have spare office they can park themselves in until some work comes their way.Remember there really is no “legal insurance” so there is no source of income that can be easily tapped into. Even large law firms are taking huge hits from the economy. When I started practicing, it took 5-6 years to make partner at a big Wall Street firm. Now it is 9-10 years and the odds of making it are far greater as partners are less willing to split up the smaller pie at the table. Yet people still think most lawyers are fantastically wealthy with little effort – that’s just not the case for the majority of lawyers today.

3. Long hours I have tried very hard to find a way to make a good living as a lawyer without working too hard but the solution seems to be escaping me. Yes, now that I have been practicing for 25 years and work at a firm with associates and support staff, the quality of life has gone up and the weekly work hours have gone down. but if I am on trial – all that goes out the window. Trial lawyers have to put in long hours because they are in court most of the day and then have to get ready for the next day in the evening. If you are a solo or small firm practitioner, you also have to worry about the running of the business while you are on trial and use the weekend and evenings normally to catch up and call clients, follow up on new business, etc. If you have signed on for a job at Big Law, that $160,000 per year starting salary may have you at the office until 11PM every night and sometimes even sleeping over at the firm. Practicing law well requires a lot of time -there’s just no way around it. Being in that grind for a long time (if you don’t love it -see next point) can wear down your defenses and make you gloomy.

4. Practicing law for the wrong reasons After 25 years, I still love what I do. It took a lot of refining and developing but my law practice is now a place where I enjoy going to in the morning. I still believe that the practice of law is a great profession for those who want it – look I encouraged my oldest son, who is now in his second year of law school to go into it because I saw he had a passion for it and would do well in it. But for many, law is merely a “default” profession. They are in college; don’t have the scientific aptitude or drive to become a doctor, veterinarian or dentist; lack the math skills to be an accountant; but want be a professional – so they choose “law.” And since every university now has a law school attached to it, there are plenty of places to go almost regardless of your GPA. I can tell from my law students who has the best chance to be successful in the practice of law within a few weeks of the semester. And by successful I don’t just mean money – I mean do well and enjoy the practice of law. They are the students that look deeply into the cases they read and search for connections and patterns that are applicable to their lives. They like to challenge the statements I make and engage in the class discussions because they have a passion for it. But many are in it to make money quickly and easily as they see it. When they hit the economic reality of today (see point 2) it can lead to depression. I have had many conversations with former students who are now “disillusioned” with the practice of law because they were in big firms and never even had the chance to represent a client in court or to resolve a legal problem for someone. They see no benefit from the long hours and many years of study because they thought they would be on easy street. After all, from the outside, practicing law does not look that hard – not every college student thinks they can practice medicine but it seems every college student thinks they can successfully practice law. I mean, its just arguing right? Who can’t argue? But then when they see what is really involved in the practice of law -preparation, reading, client contact, writing well, being persuasive – they see that maybe they were not cut out for it after all. It can be hard to face that reality.

“I get no respect!” Lawyers have been the butt of jokes for ages. People just don’t appreciate and respect the profession, perhaps for some of the reasons I have listed above. (or read my earlier article “Why People Hate lawyers” on this site) Remember, for every lawyer who has helped you there has been some bastard lawyer on the other side trying to stop you. Clients are also aware that there are multiple places to file grievances and complaints against lawyers. In NY, when a lawyer is sanctioned based upon a client grievance, its published in the NY Law Journal for all to see. The other thing is that many lawyers will not be honest with their brothers or sisters at the Bar – they will not share their fears concerns or troubles. Because we are adversarial, we don’t often respect each other enough to be honest about our practices and the issues we are facing.

It can be hard working long hours, for not as much pay as every one thinks, and you not making the money you thought you’d be making while everyone thinks you are rolling in the dough and then not at least have the same level of respect that people give to doctors and veterinarians. Toiling in a profession that has such a negative connotation in the public requires a thick skin and strong backbone. It can cause you to think twice about what you are doing and have low self-esteem, which is one of the main factors in suicides.

Conclusion The practice of law, particularly trial law, is a profession fraught with many pressures and stress factors. Sometimes the pressures can build and seem insurmountable. That’s why its vital that Bar Associations keep up and expand their mental health services for members of the profession. Lawyers also need to realize that they are not alone – that many others face the situations they are going through. They should get active in their local Bar groups and committees. Talking about it and trying to find solutions that worked for other lawyers is the best way to avoid going down a dark path that has no point of return.

2 comments

  1. Jessica Horani

    Great insight Oscar! This is a reality which should perhaps be addressed in law schools as well.

  2. Gilda Delacruz

    Since Biglaw is not the ideal training ground for trial work, I realize that I need to very flexible and patient if I realistically hope to have a trial practice down the road. In the meantime, I will continue looking for opportunities to work on trials, and I am willing to do some unorthodox things to accelerate my current pace of one trial every five years.

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