Does the way that lawyers are encouraged to think and work make them vulnerable to depression?

Avatar photo

By WaitroseLaw on

A high stress job combined with a temperamental inclination to analyse and pick apart can leave lawyers unusually exposed to poor mental health, argues WaitroseLaw

Nobody reading about the tragic suicide of Hogan Lovells IP partner David Latham could fail to feel enormous sympathy for him and his family. Many will also have experienced a shudder of recognition at reports that the trigger may have been his worry over a big case; according to evidence given to the inquest, he blamed himself when a witness introduced new evidence on the stand. There must be very few lawyers who haven’t had a sleepless night desperately worrying whether they’ve made a career-ending mistake. Unfortunately, it’s all too common for that temporary anxiety to fester into something much more damaging.

A survey conducted by LawCare (a charity which provides support for lawyers) in 2012-13 found that 56% of the lawyers surveyed reported that they were currently suffering from stress, while 19% reported that they were currently depressed. Even allowing for the self-selected sample, that’s worryingly high — and the results seem to chime with a 2012 Law Society survey in which 17% of solicitors reported experiencing “severe or extreme” stress in their work.

So why does the legal profession seem to have such a problem with mental health? There are the obvious answers common to many industries: long hours, high workloads, eroded job security. But I think there’s something more insidious at work.

People who have no experience of depression tend to think of it as a state of lethargic blankness; a fog that stops you getting out of bed in the morning. And they’re half-right — it can make you feel completely disconnected from the world around you and utterly uninterested in it. But the flipside for many people is the agitated, hopeless monologue in your head that finds fault with everything you do and tells you that things can only get worse. Lawyers, trained (and often temperamentally inclined) to analyse and pick apart, seem to be prone to turning that instinct to criticise inwards — in some cases, with all the ferocity they show towards their opponents. While a bit of self-analysis can be healthy, brooding on your mistakes can be profoundly self-destructive.

The prevailing culture of 24/7 availability only makes matters worse. 20 years ago, you had to make a real effort to take your work home with you — now, even the lowliest trainee can relive the day’s triumphs and disasters scrolling through their emails on their phone. What is normally convenient, even reassuring, can be a recipe for obsessive anxiety when work seems to be going badly.

There’s also the unwritten expectation that, while you’re climbing the career ladder, that you put your work and your firm first. While this is a great way for firms to create a focused, dedicated workforce, it can store up problems for the future. If your job becomes central to your identity, it’s hard not to fall apart when it goes wrong.

Of course, none of this is to say that poor mental health is inevitable among lawyers. But if you’re predisposed to depression anyway (it’s thought there’s a genetic link) or suddenly faced with extra personal or professional pressures, the way we’re encouraged to think and work can be a real problem.

Some firms are making noises about addressing workplace mental health — the Law Society Gazette recently reported on “well-being” iniatives at Herbert Smith Freehills and Freshfields, among others. Even if it’s geared mostly towards maximising profits, taking an interest in staff welfare can’t be a bad thing. But while on-site gyms and advice about how much fibre to eat (seriously) are no doubt well-intentioned, it’s hard not to see it as tinkering round the edges rather than addressing the root causes. Rather than providing bowls of fruit, perhaps firms should encourage their employees to ditch the Blackberries once in a while.

To contact LawCare, which offers support to deal with issues such as stress, depression and addiction, click here.

WaitroseLaw is a lawyer with luscious organic selection, impeccable ethics and dinner party skills. She is not affiliated with or authorised by Waitrose.