Anticipating the negative may help make lawyers effective, but it can also contribute to depression

Issue October 2007

Q. Law is a second career for me. I am fortunate to work in a mid-sized firm comprised almost entirely of pleasant colleagues, doing work that is most often in synch with my own values – yet I seem to be quite unhappy much of the time, especially at work (and much less so when on vacation). How can I understand this, and what can I do about it?

A. Your question is so global (as is, perhaps, your unhappiness) that we can only choose one or two avenues of response out of many (which would, of course, include the various approaches to treating depression that we have discussed in previous columns).

It does appear, from what systematic study exists, that lawyers have a much higher rate of depression than the general population, and that this decline in mood begins with (rather than precedes) law school. We have to admit that, at LCL, we see a skewed population of lawyers who are probably less content than average, and we would love to hear from readers who feel happy with their careers and can offer some thoughts on what factors contribute to that contentment. (Please e-mail us – if you’d prefer to do that anonymously, click on “Q&A” and then “Submit a Question Anonymously” on our Web site,

One interesting perspective on the level of unhappiness in the legal profession comes from psychologist Martin Seligman, whose name is most closely associated with the movement known as “positive psychology.” He focuses in part on the role of pessimism, which he defines as a “tendency to interpret the causes of negative events in stable, global and internal ways.” The pessimist might see global warming, for example, as an inevitable, gradual march toward the end of life as we know it, while the optimist would view the climate crisis as a serious setback that can and will be overcome. Whether or not the optimistic stance is more accurate or realistic, it is “better for you” in that it is associated with positive mood and constructive behavior.

Ironically, however, pessimism may be a plus when striving to succeed in the field of law! That finding, based on a study of University of Virginia law students, may be a function of how useful it is for lawyers to be able to anticipate negative twists and turns that others would not consider. Hence the dilemma, that characteristics which may be useful in the practice of law can be quite counterproductive when it comes to enjoying the practice of law or developing an affirmative view of one’s life as a lawyer.

Seligman and his colleagues note that unhappiness is also fostered by a combination of high demands and low “decision latitude” (voice/impact in the process in which one is engaged) that often typifies life for associates at a large law firm, not to mention the “zero-sum game” of our legal system’s adversarial process. Those obstacles can only be addressed at a systemic level, and let’s not hold our breaths waiting for change. But there may be ways that you as an individual can develop more positive ways of defining your work and career. Feel free to come in and brainstorm with us.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/e-mails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers.

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