In an op-ed emblematic of the times, Eileen Zimmerman recounts the fall of her ex-husband, Peter, into addiction and, ultimately death. Having spent a good deal of time discussing, and learning, from my dear pal, Brian Cuban, about the walls that make it hard, if not impossible, for an addicted lawyer to seek help, it’s easy to appreciate why a lawyer who falls into that dark hole of drugs or alcohol feels that there is no way out.
But there is a secondary question behind the myriad problems with a lawyer overcoming the pressures and incentive to conceal his problem. While there may be no reason why lawyers would be any more immune to the causes that turn someone into an addict, are lawyers more prone to addiction?
The plural of anecdotes is not data (I know, but it’s still true). There are a lot of lawyers out there. Ten, one hundred, one thousand sad stories are sad, but don’t prove much. Nor do surveys add much to the mix:
Illicit drug use, however, is illegal. “I think the incidence of drug use and abuse is significantly underreported,” he said.
In the government’s most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health report on substance abuse by industry, professional services (which include the legal profession) ranked ninth out of 19 industries in terms of illicit drug use. The entertainment industry ranked higher on the list; finance and real estate ranked lower.
Despite the absence of any hard evidence to suggest that lawyers are particularly likely to suffer from addiction, which in no way alters the flip side of the problem, that lawyers are particularly unlikely to seek help for addiction, the assumption is driving a call for changes, and the changes are beginning in the beginning: law school.
For now, I want to focus on one small section of the piece, sub-titled “The Law School Effect,” which suggests that law school is part of the problem. Prior to law school, future law students are healthier than the general population–they drink less, use less drugs, have less depression, and are less hostile; they also begin with a stronger sense of self and values. Then it all changes in law school, which “twists people’s psyches and they come out of law school significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility.” Following the start of law school, students show “a marked increase in depression, negative mood and physical symptoms, with corresponding decreases in positive affect and life satisfaction.”
The piece points to a few factors. One is the way law school encourages students to remove emotions from their decisions. Another is the focus, and the shift in student focus, to status, comparative worth and competition, looking at things such as grades, honors, and potential career income, and away from the idealism that had motivated them to come to law school. The result is that young lawyers succumb to substance abuse when “the reality of working as a lawyer does not match what they had pictured while in law school.”
Is it true that law school drives people to drink (or worse)? Howard Wasserman challenges the assumptive reasons offered by the op-ed, and as noted in the comments by other law profs, the extent to which even the assumptive reasons apply varies greatly from school to school, professor to professor. While there may be a Paper Chase-esqe sense about what happens in law school, that’s not necessarily reality, and many prawfs employ a far warmer and fuzzier pedagogy.
But Howard raises one aspect that was omitted from the op-ed as a cause:
Another obvious factor, not mentioned in the article, is that law school is a lot of work–a lot of reading, a lot of preparation, and a lot of assignments going on at once. And it is not structured passively, with students sitting and listening to us lecture, so it is difficult to just skate by (at least in first year). Again, however, so is legal practice.
Law is hard. So is law school. Is this a bad thing? If students can’t survive the crucible of law school, will they be prepared to do their job in the trenches*? As law profs raised their pet pedagogical peeves in the comments, one was the single final exam presenting too much pressure for mere mortals. In a snarky comment, meant as a precursor to a more thoughtful comment, Orin Kerr replied:
“And wow, the final exam, which in most of my classes was the only grade. I have no idea what purpose that is supposed to serve other than to just recreate some sort of romanticized trial by fire. It’s terrible for classes aimed at imparting subject matter expertise, and it’s terrible for classes aimed at developing reasoning skills. If a professor was creating a class from scratch with a clear idea of what the learning objectives were, I couldn’t imagine him thinking a single end of semester exam would serve any sort of useful purpose.”
Fortunately, the legal system doesn’t hinge bar admissions on a single exam, or make determinations of guilt or innocence hinge on a single trial.
While this isn’t the whole of the practice of law, and not every lawyer tries cases or holds people’s lives in his hands, Orin’s jab still makes a point: our duty as lawyers has life or death consequences for real people, and regularly hinges on a single act, a single decision. Fail to make an objection and a guy is sentenced to life plus cancer.
There has been a lot of discussion here of late about how hard, how sad, how demanding it is to be a lawyer, and how it’s so unfair to lawyers and our families. And this is all true. But what about the poor shmucks who depend on us? Life isn’t a bowl of cherries for them either. It’s not that lawyers shouldn’t enjoy a little happiness,** but that the reason for lawyers to exist is to serve clients. Any discussion of how hard it is to be a lawyer that fails to deal with clients is worthless indulgence.
Whether law school drives students, and eventually lawyer, to addiction is a good question, and may well be worthy of more research and discussion. But maybe the answer won’t be found in watering down law school, particularly when half of all law student can’t pass bar the now, but in the admission of students who shouldn’t be lawyers. Law isn’t for everyone. Maybe it’s time to split up the profession by skillset and let those who can’t handle the stress take a different path where they won’t need drugs to overcome their inability to handle the pressure.
*Yes, not all lawyers try cases, but all lawyers are licensed to do so, and hold themselves out to the public as qualified to do so. If you want to use the #NotAllLawyers excuse, then you need to advocate for specialized licenses so those admitted lawyers incapable of handling the pressure of litigation are not given license to pose as if they can.
**Ironically, the same voices that rise for concerns about lawyers health and happiness die when the question of lawyers earning a living is uttered, crying sad tears for the high cost of legal services and the lack of “access to justice.” So they love lawyers, but not enough to feel tht lawyers deserve to get paid and be capable of feeding their children. Go figure.