In 2011, Beacon Research and Consulting Group in conjunction with “BeyondBlue” conducted research amongst law students, lawyers and barristers and found that 73.3% of lawyers were more likely to agree that having a stressful job increases the likelihood of depression.
In 2009, the Brain & Mind Research Institute of the University of Sydney also conducted research on law students, lawyers and barristers and found the levels of distress as follows:
- 21.9% of law students reported high levels of distress (compared to 10.2% in the general population) and 13.3% reported levels of very high distress (compared to 3.1% in the general population)
- 22.3% of solicitors reported high levels of distress (compared to 9.2% in the general population) and 8.7% reported levels of very high distress (compared to 3.8% in the general population)
- 12.5% of barristers reported high levels of distress (compared to 9.2% in the general population) and 4.2% reported levels of very high distress (compared to 3.8% in the general population)
The study also studied the experiences of depression and found:
- 46.9% of law students, 55.7% of solicitors and 52.5% of barristers reported that they had experienced depression
- 67.9% of law students, 70.6% of solicitors and 56.0% of barristers reported that someone close to them had experienced depression
- 14.9% of law students, 26.3% of solicitors and 8.5% of barristers reported that both them and someone close to them had experienced depression
These figures are at a higher rate than found amongst engineers, architects, accountants and IT professionals! Is Law a more stressful environment than other professions? If so, what makes law such a stressful environment? What contributes to such high rates of stress and depression amongst lawyers? How can stress and depression in the profession be minimised? It’s common knowledge that many turn to drugs & alcohol abuse to self medicate and even suicide as the last resort – are these the solutions?
I crossed paths in court, with a very experienced Barrister, who has been at the Bar for 30+ years. He told me that he had just returned from a one month holiday and how it was such a relief for him, not to have to make any major decisions for one whole month, not to wonder if he made the right submissions in court (I interpreted that to mean “were his submissions perfect?), whether he had made the correct forensic decisions in a case, which left him with his only major decisions being that of what he would eat and what activities he would do that day? He said to me with words to the effect “its the only time I don’t worry and Im not stressed and I believe everyone else in law is the same. Im looking forward to not having this stress.”
Law and Stress
Do we need to have a legal career for 30+ years and every day, every month and every year for 30+ years filled with high levels of stress and its undesirable outcomes? Or can we do something ourselves to alleviate the stresses associated with the practice of law? I believe we can do something about stress, as we have the power to challenge our automatic thoughts, which will allow the practice of law to be not as stressful an experience, year after year for 30+ years!
Yes law is a stressful environment, for many reasons which I can’t articulate in any great detail. However, briefly in my opinion, law is stressful due to its culture, highly competitive environment, work place & work load demands, bullying, pressure to ‘perform“, lawyers perfectionism and lawyers failing to keep “law” in perspective. Can we control these elements? Some yes and others no. I believe stress is exacerbated by distorted thinking which can cause additional stress!
A silent assumption that leads to anxiety and depression is “my worth as a human being is proportionate to what I have achieved in my life” It sounds innocent, yet it is self defeating, grossly inaccurate and malignant, as the disadvantages of “worth equals achievement” (achievement can mean different things to different people but can include position, money, recognition, results, cases won, how much able to achieve at work etc etc) will make one excessively driven to produce because if one fails to keep up the pace, one experiences a severe withdrawal. In the absence of achievement a person with this philosophy will feel worthless and as a result stress and depression will usually follow. Deciding that this distorted thinking, will not really help to measure personal worth by “production” or “achievement” is the crucial first step in changing thinking, which will result in reduced anxiety and depression.
Depression in Australian Law School says: ”In general, lawyers share two personality traits that may predispose them to depression and other stress-related illnesses: perfectionism and pessimism,” It adds: ‘the legal profession rewards lawyers’ drive to explore and investigate every tiny detail, leaving no loose threads that could be used against them or their clients. However, perfectionism can also set people up to think that whatever they do is not good enough. They tend not to enjoy their achievements.”
Perfectionism is an illusion, it simply doesn’t exist in the universe, there is no such thing as perfection. The harder you strive for perfectionism, the worse your disappointment will become because its an abstraction, a concept that doesn’t fit reality.  Everything can be improved if you look at it closely and critically enough and spend hours upon hours on the task – that is: every person, every idea, every submission, every document, every interaction, every court event and every decision etc. Perfectionism can keep you awake at night, while your your mind sits on the “automatic replay” channel. This may occur, when an “imperfection” arose i.e. the document wasn’t perfect, I could have been more articulate in the submissions, they weren’t perfect, that negotiation was terrible as I didn’t do X or I didn’t know the court procedure when I said X etc and the scenario plays over and over again with critical self dialogue. We don’t only have our own internal self critical dialogue, in addition we have the perceived “public humiliation” in the moment our mistake or imperfection is made “public” and afterwards we are consumed by thoughts of what others think of us as we imagine their post mortem of our mistake and imperfection! Do these thoughts assist us to improve for next time? No! They create anxiety and depression! Its imperative that we remember there are all levels of mistakes, as humans, we all make them and its best to learn from them. However, dissecting imperfections to within an inch of their life, will not assist to control stress and/or depression.
The bottom line is and this will be hard to swallow for the compulsive perfectionist lawyer “if you are a perfectionist, you are guaranteed to be a loser in whatever you do!” Because NOTHING will ever be good enough and self defeating dialogue will create anxiety and/or depression. .
Is being a perfectionist an advantage? Well it MAY assist to produce high quality work, even though not perfect, that will lead to exceptional results, but not always. I strongly advocate for and have my standard set at “high quality work which involves doing my absolute best, at all times, in all circumstances“. However, its good to consider being a perfectionist has many disadvantages, with some of them being- :
- Perfectionism makes a person overly self critical and a person can’t admit to their successes and enjoy them, a recipe for stress and depression!
- Perfectionism can make a person unrelaxed as there is always something to be found that is not “perfect” – more stress and/or depression!
- A perfectionist is intolerant of others faults which creates interpersonal and professional relationship difficulties – doesn’t encourage a collaborative atmosphere – more stress and/or depression!
- Perfectionism stops a person from trying new things because a perfectionist is so afraid to make mistakes, which narrows a persons view of what they will “try” – creates a very ‘small world of sameness“
Keep It In Perspective
I believe we must keep ‘law’ in perspective, which involves not taking ourselves too seriously and not losing our senses of humour! If you need help in the office to reduce stress, not easy to do, for many reasons, but you need to ask for it, from the right people! You may be the brightest person in your office academically but ask for help when necessary, no one knows it all! If you need professional assistance to deal with stress and/or depression, seek the required help as its not a sign of weakness, modesty is a sign of strength!
When I was employed in medicine for 15 years, I sometimes accompanied medical specialists when they operated. Every time a doctor has a surgical list, there are risks and sometimes very high risks….. peoples lives! Is there ONE day when we come to work as lawyers, where someones life may be lost due to our “submissions, drafting or human errors?” NO! There are mistakes and there are imperfections, we make mistakes and have imperfections as lawyers. What I am suggesting is not intended to minimise our roles or encouraged shoddy work, rather, keep our role as lawyers in perspective, its not life or death!
Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
We don’t have control of everything when we “practice law“, some may say we have control over very little! :-) Being a lawyer and a human has its own personal and professional demands, which can (if we let it) affect us negatively. Even though we can’t control much of the external forces in law, we can control our own thoughts, values, standards and reactions, which will assist to alleviate our own stresses, which will allow us to keep law in perspective, which his vital, if we want to enjoy and not only survive a legal career! Maintain a sense of humour and don’t take yourself too seriously!! That can’t be over emphasised!! Do you want to be stressed for the next X years in your career as a lawyer or do you want to re-evaluate and possess skills and tactics to reduce stress and enjoy your legal career? Skills and tactics do not include drugs and/or alcohol abuse, this is short term self medication that will exacerbate the problems. Its your personal choice!
I made a conscious choice; I will not live my personal or professional life with high levels of ongoing, daily stress, its not good for my short or long term health or my quality of life, it doesn’t assist! I do get stressed on occasion, I’m only human :-) but its how I deal with stress, which is most important, in other words, in my mind, its not the situations that we face that cause us stress, its how we think about the situation! If its our court “performance” that causes us angst, a solicitors or barristers court “performance” will rarely if ever lose a case and no one lost their life!
If people expect perfection from me, unfortunately, I can’t promise or deliver perfection, it just doesn’t exist! However, Ill always guarantee ….. my very best! I refuse to engage in ongoing negative self talk and I know that I am not a mind reader so when I make mistakes and yes I will make them, I’m human, I can’t know what others are thinking, I can only guess, as my list of skills do not include “mind reading” , its a waste of time and energy! Im imperfect and I accept that! Its unproductive and unhelpful to have a “perfectionist standard” and constantly “overthink” our mistakes and imperfections, it will exacerbate stress and /or depression! These skills can be learned and are great stress relievers!
 Dr David Burns, Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy (Harper Collins)
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