Escaping the trap - Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers

Issue August 2003

Lawyers also need backup support, but how do you find it?

Q:When I recently met with one of the clinicians at LCL - at a point when I was barely functioning on the job - I was asked who could cover my practice if I took a week off, or at least help me cope with some overwhelming cases. I was surprised to hear myself say that I had no idea. Does this say something about me or about the profession?

A:Perhaps both. We have often found it remarkable how many of the lawyers who see us for assessment tell us they have no back-up support. Some also say they have no one other than us with whom they can even verbalize their concerns. No wonder so many lawyers develop symptoms of stress.

A variety of survey studies have found a significantly greater incidence of depression, alcohol abuse and career dissatisfaction among members of the legal profession as compared with the general population. According to one study, these differences arise soon after starting law school. Lack of social support is very likely one of the contributing factors.

The world of most lawyers is, after all, competitive and adversarial rather than collaborative. Consequently, when we at LCL seek to start a support group we find many potential candidates ask us who else will be in the group. They worry, understandably, the person to whom they confide today will be on the other side of a case tomorrow, and that any exposure of their vulnerability might tarnish their professional image. Further, productivity pressures characteristic of the profession often generate the sense that any time spent connecting with others (for some, even family) is time lost to revenue-producing activity. Relationships of all kinds, which require nurturing, become casualties of career.

We also are aware of the relative lack of mentoring in the legal field. Many of our clients who are recently admitted to the bar express anxiety over "faking" some aspects of the work, having no one to turn to for guidance and information. Interestingly, this is true not only of the new attorney practicing independently but also of the law firm associate working under a partner who is too busy to advise, and simply tells him/her to get it done. Contrast this with, for example, the health care field, where the licensing process requires a number of years of closely supervised experience, a kind of apprenticeship that is not built into careers in law.

All that said, the fact that you feel you have no one to turn to also probably reflects your own personality, defense mechanisms and a series of choices that you have made. Although you cannot change the culture of the legal profession (at least, not alone), it is never too late to change yourself. None of the trappings of success - income, prestige, vanquishing an opponent, etc. - means as much as your emotional and physical well-being. Let us know if we can help get you started.