My pal, Brian Cuban, has been a strong voice for lawyers who suffer, whether from mental illness or addiction, to seek help, pushing to remove the stigma that prevents lawyers from doing so for fear of ridicule and rejection. He’s taught me to appreciate the problem and value of dealing with it.
To be fair, it hasn’t been easy. While I can certainly appreciate Brian’s, not to mention other lawyers with whom I’m good friends and for whom I hold great respect, perspective, the flip side of the equation is clients. What about clients? Should they be represented by lawyers who, at any moment, might slip into mental illness, disappear in a fog of addiction?
Is there a way to reconcile the needs of lawyers to help themselves and the needs of clients to be helped by mentally healthy, non-drug addled lawyers whose foremost concern is them? Isn’t that why lawyers exist, to serve clients rather than have a place to go to every morning where they can feel comforted and secure?
My buddy Skink, who keeps his fingers pressed tightly to the throats of young lawyers, sent me an alarming finding by the Young Lawyers Division of the Florida Bar.
Citing crushing student debt, punishing hours, and “toxic” work environments, more than half — 58 percent — of beginning Florida lawyers believe their careers are becoming less desirable, according to the latest Young Lawyers Division study.
More than one-third of the respondents — 41 percent — said they have considered or were considering a different line of work.
I can’t think of any moderately honest lawyer who won’t reply, when asked by a rosy-cheeked undergrad about whether she should to go law school, “no.” As careers go, it’s got the two-barrel problems of no assurance of a sufficient return on investment or fulfillment, despite what it looks like on TV. It is a tough slog, and only those student who really want to be lawyers should go for it. Most don’t, which I would estimate, off the cuff, at 58%.
But career dissatisfaction is nothing unusual, whether for lawyers or anyone else. How much is that gender studies Ph.D. degree worth in the job market? Outside of academia, what are you supposed to do with it, become assistant manager at
Dairy Queen the Gender Store? Student loan debt isn’t unique to lawyers.
But this didn’t stop at basic job dissatisfaction.
Thirty-nine percent of respondents reported experiencing a work-related event that resulted in prolonged symptoms, such as flashbacks, anxiety, heart palpitations, and panic attacks.
Another 37 percent reported being treated for or diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or “another mental health concern.”
Being generally miserable is one thing, but a significant percentage say they’re suffering from mental illness, or at least the manifestations of it. Are more than a third of young lawyers mentally ill? Is this just Florida, which certainly seems possible, or nationwide?
The problem for clients is that they have a one in three chance of retaining a young lawyer who claims to be suffering from mental illness. Do you want to be standing in front of the judge when your lawyer has a flashback or panic attack? Will you be understanding as the judge says “officer, take charge” and they lead you away in cuffs while your young lawyer shrugs with a sad look on her face?
Much of this is blamed not on the profession, per se, but on the unreasonable and toxic demands placed on young lawyers by those supervising them.
Unreasonable expectations and overbearing — or even abusive — managers were a recurring theme.
“I love what I do, but I cannot be in a toxic environment any longer as it is taking a huge toll on both my mental and physical health,” wrote one young lawyer who was considering leaving the profession.
“Emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse were a part of daily life at this firm, so much so, I worried constantly for the well-being of everyone there, including myself,” wrote another who blamed the former workplace for bouts of depression, anxiety, weight loss, and panic attacks.
Are bosses so much worse now, beating their young lawyers, berating them, abusing them? Are they so much worse today than a generation ago that it’s causing this mental health crisis? Or does law remain the same “toxic’ environment it’s always been, filled with unreasonable demands when a judge demands a memo by start of business, clients who did everything possible wrong and still demand you clean up their mess and colleagues who rely on you when you just don’t feel like it?
Or is this a reflection on the young lawyers, too soft, too sensitive, too delicate, to be up to the hard work of practicing law? And if they aren’t up to the job, is the solution to pander to their weakness, de-stigmatize their sad feelings and reinvent professionalism to be all about the babies rather than the clients?
Bar associations have taken the sad tears route, rubbing their tummies, de-stigmatizing their depression and resurrecting work-life balance.
Bar President Michelle Suskauer said she was “incredibly proud” of the YLD for its hard work in raising awareness of the mental-health and work-life balance issues that young lawyers face, as well as working to erase the stigma of treating those challenges.
Is this the right approach, or do they need Cher to tell them to “snap out of it”? As much as Brian has enlightened me about the problems lawyers face, what about the clients?
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