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Lawyer Health: Perilous Realities

BY TOM NELSON

Let's get to this topic sooner instead of later, because these threats are coming at us now, not down the road. The facts are haunting; the challenges are daunting. And the stakes are high—especially, and uniquely, for us lawyers—and also for those who trust and rely upon us, and for those who love and live with us.

First, a few facts—worth noting over and over again, until they sink in: 

  • Mental health: Amongst all of the professions, we experience the highest rate of emotional difficulties, including depression, anxiety, and stress. Not to mention the often-debilitating specter of "perfectionism." All in the context of the adversarial system and marketplace competitiveness.
  • Substance use: By far, we are more likely to experience problematic drinking and other substance misuse—especially, and disturbingly, among our newest and youngest lawyers and law students.
  • Suicide and suicidal ideation: Take this in. One in ten lawyers and law students has thought to themselves that life might be better if they just didn't wake up in the morning. 
  • Loneliness and isolation: Whether we work in tall buildings or solo at the kitchen table, we are the loneliest of professions—made even worse by the unfortunate stigma often attached to these experiences, lessening self-reporting and prompting interpersonal shunning. 

Importantly, it doesn't have to be this way. First, though: "Know Thyself." 

These perils arise out of a toxic brew of who we are and what we do. For example (and yes, I know, you might be skeptical about this next point—he writes with a wink), we rank way over the top when it comes to "skepticism" as a personality trait. It is, in so many ways, part and parcel of who we are; it’s part of our wiring. It lurks in our self-selection into law school; and it's how we're trained, reinforced, and even rewarded. We raise our skeptical eyebrows at pretty much everything—alleged facts, opinions, relationships, even ourselves. Helpful in some ways, I suppose, given our professional obligations. But it can also lead to our being overly cynical or critical, judgmental, argumentative, self-protective, and self-isolating. It can also be contagious. 

What else does "lawyer personality research" tell us? Well, we relish abstract reasoning; we live with a constant sense of urgency and obligation; and we rank low, indeed, in "sociability" and "resilience." We are even told to be “zealous,” which sometimes morphs from appropriate zeal to bullying zealotry, adding yet another dose of toxicity to our day. Some of this may be helpful in our work, but it also creates emotional and physical risks. It is no wonder that work so consuming can also consume who we are.

In addition to "who we are," what we do creates risk in many ways, two in particular. First, our jobs often require us to jump into harm's way. Nothing like the mission or heroism of our military or First Responders, of course, but nevertheless fraught with peril, including the risk of secondary trauma. We meet—and try to help—people at their lowest, highest, most frightened and vulnerable, most excited, or saddest moments. That affects us, and it jeopardizes us. Second, sometimes we not only endure these perils, we amplify or inflame them—surely not knowingly or intentionally. This is where our best chance for self-assessment and self-awareness lies. The first step, after all, is acknowledging the problem. 

So what can we do about all this? Well, I’m reminded of Desmond Tutu’s challenge: "There comes a point where we need to stop only pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in." Luckily, we lawyers all have a bit of salmon in us—inclined to swim upstream against difficult currents. 

  • Downstream, when we see someone drowning, we simply have to jump in. Intervention; treatment; rescue. We’ve already lost too many along the rocky shores.
  • Midstream, when we see someone struggling in choppy waters, we have to wade in with helpful and strengthening measures—resilience training, stress management support, mindfulness, maybe even leaves and sabbaticals.  
  • Upstream, where the surface of the water seems calmer, we have to strengthen our antennae to detect emerging perils—perils that others (or ourselves) may be experiencing, or perils that we may be amplifying or inflaming. And then we have to face them honestly and collaboratively. 

Developing a new "inventory" of where we not only experience but amplify these perils is crucial. Maybe we can develop a new form of radar, or a new version of the Geiger Counter. This requires resources, of course, like money, staff, and time. It also requires empathetic leadership, committed to imagining and intuiting, without being defensive, what we do to make matters worse. And then we have to do something to make things better. This is a 24-hour duty, just like our duties of excellence, ethics, citizenship, and diversity and inclusion. 

The good news? We can handle this—together. So reach out. Be strong enough to seek and offer help. 


TOM NELSON is a partner at Stinson LLP (formerly Leonard, Street and Deinard). He is a past president of the Hennepin County Bar Association.