Mental Health & The Law: Why Are so Many Lawyers Unhappy?

It’s hard to tell what’s really going on with another human being, even one that you’re very close to. People are good at putting on faces, hiding their true feelings and the state of their mental health or otherwise building walls to protect themselves. Men, in particular, have been conditioned to put on a brave face, toughen up or otherwise suck it up.  

Lawyers are no different, but research suggests that they’re the most unhappy group of professionals in the western world. To cite one piece of support for this, there is research from the American Bar association that states that, ‘lawyers are really unhappy. Twenty-eight percent of lawyers experience mild or higher levels of depression, 19% experience anxiety, 23% experience chronic levels of stress, and 20.6% of participants struggle with problematic drinking.’

This research fits perfectly in line with what our recent guest, mental health social worker and industry authority, Robyn Bradey had to say on the issue. Robyn talked about how suicide rates within the legal profession are higher than any other (white middle ages males being most at risk), and how the ingrained cultural/business reality can create such a toxic environment for people.

As Robyn puts it, ‘If you arrive in the legal space with any pre-existing mental health issues, you are turned into a trained ruminator, are told you can't make mistakes and subject to extreme competition - in a lot of ways, it's the perfect storm.

It’s almost as if the legal profession (at least in the legacy sense) is custom-designed to grind at people and put incredible torque on their mental sanctity. There’s the time commitment, the pressure to deliver, the financial pressure to meet expectations, the risk aversion and the perfectionism that get exacerbated.

There’s also the implied pessimism that legal practice requires, and the fact that lawyers are constantly dealing with problems. There are the hierarchical structures without much room at the top, billing paradigms that weigh people down and, lastly, there’s the ‘suck it up’ culture.

If all this weren’t enough, in the court of public opinion, lawyers tend to be about as popular as dentists. Add it all up and it's not hard to see how this equation has led to high attrition rates among lawyers, enormous stress, burnout, unhappiness, severe mental health issues and, unfortunately, more than a few deaths.

This problem is well understood and documented, and there are plans in place to address it. However, as we straddle the divide between old and new industry landscapes/practices, there remains a lot more that can be done.

So, here are ten practical tips for lawyers in distress and those who are close to them or care for them:

  1. Set realistic internal goals and don’t be swayed. This should be based on your realistic capabilities and time commitments, and they should allow you to maintain your own barometer of success and not get weighed down by unreasonable asks.

  2. Get better at accepting mistakes and forgiving yourself. Everyone is human, and mistakes are just part of that - anyone who doesn’t get that or leaves zero room for error is living in a fantasy world.

  3. Become better at prioritising your life. Lawyers tend to let work trump all else, and sometimes it's got to be that way. But with a little better prioritisation, you can better hold on to the things that provide balance and peace of mind in your life.

  4. Take your mental health (and that of others) seriously. Be as serious about keeping your mental state in good condition as any other professional obligation that may be placed on you. The truth is, it’s more important because it’s what underpins all the rest.

  5. Develop more awareness of yourself. If you find yourself being particularly affected by a case or some other stressor, find a way to offset it - this can be as drastic as removing yourself from the situation. Be ruthless in defence of yourself.

  6. Learn effective stress management habits. Finding a good outlet for tension really matters. Exercise, meditate, socialise, play hockey, dance - whatever it is, do it consistently and weave it into your schedule.

  7. Accept that the practice of law is inherently stressful. While it’s important to accept this reality, it’s not okay to succumb to it.

  8. Know how to play to your personal strengths. People who don’t know their own limitations are miserable to be around and tend to overextend themselves. Don’t be this person - play your game and stick with your strengths.

  9. Maintain your balance. No job, career or client is worth sacrificing your personal health or life for. So, don’t lose sight of all the other parts of life that can get neglected as you’re sucked into the sometimes all-consuming practice of law.

  10. Remember that true professionals know when to ask for help and delegate responsibility. This may run counter to the jocular ‘bring it on’ attitude in the legal industry, but figure out when you need help and don’t be shy in asking. Doing so is not a sign of weakness but one of wisdom.

mental health - beyond billables

mental health - beyond billables

If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000.

To get immediate support contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. For further information on where you can find the right support for you, see the Beyond Blue website.