Tuesday Talk*: Wussies or What?

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?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply.

41 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Wussies or What?

  1. wilbur

    Four weeks after I started my first lawyer job, I was so stressed I broke out in shingles on my face. It didn’t occur to me to complain to anyone, including the bar association. I kept working, knowing that either it would get better or I would have to find another job. It slowly got better.

    This was 37 years ago. The only difference is that I didn’t have crushing student loans to pay off, just a few thousand.

    Life can be tough. We are lucky to have it better than most people in the world.

  2. Dan Hull

    A great and needed topic. Lots of people are born with with the genes for (1) alcoholism, (2) drug addiction and (3) depression. Many become lawyers. These problems are each a bit different—but all fightable. I fought item (1) for 17 years. I’m starting to put it on my CV. Cuban’s work is important.

  3. Hunting Guy

    Harry S. Truman.

    “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

  4. DaveL

    I’m not sure this is so much a commentary on a the state of the legal profession so much as it is a reflection on modern psychiatry. There’s been a marked trend towards pathologizing just about everything. Normal adults no longer have worries, they suffer from anxiety. Clinical definitions of depression used to explicitly exclude normal periods of mourning following a major loss; the trend now is to include them. The calls to “eliminate the stigma” are therefore disingenuous: these feelings were not stigmatized before, they were considered a normal part of life. This new generation of psychiatry seeks to stigmatize them as abnormal so they can normalize professional intervention for those feelings.

    1. Dan

      You beat me to it. Even leaving aside the characteristic narcissism of “kids these days” and the perceived value in being a “victim” of something, pretty much everyone gets a diagnosis. For example, I represent soldiers leaving the Army for medical reasons. Fully 80% of my clients have at least one diagnosed mental disorder. It isn’t usually the reason they’re leaving, but it’s there. I’m sure this group isn’t quite representative, but it’s still a startlingly high number.

    2. PseudonymousKid

      I think your tinfoil hat is obscuring your view. Worries and anxiety are different. Not all “worries” get diagnosed as anxiety. Mourning a major loss for ten years might very well be depression. The stigma doesn’t come from psychiatrists and psychologists. It comes from people who think depression is just being sad from time to time.

      1. DaveL

        That’s the point – they used to be different. More and more the lines are being blurred. The turning of normal human experience into pathology is inherently stigmatizing.

        1. PseudonymousKid

          Is it better diagnostic methods or something else? I don’t know. What I do know is claiming that people are being diagnosed with mental illness who aren’t actually mentally ill is dangerous. Better for them to get checked out before it becomes worse.

          I’m not going to let someone calling me a wuss keep me from getting help. No one should. That’s the stigma to fight against. If it results in more diagnoses, so be it.

          1. SHG Post author

            Has your preference for a Type B error over a Type A error worked, or produced more people believing themselves damaged and using that belief to avoid the hard work of facing ordinary life?

            If you’re not mentally ill (whether because they’ve dumbed down the diagnosis or found it better for the Mercedes lease payments to treat more dopes), but just a wuss, why does pandering to your fragility better serve you than a good smack? Remember, you’re not mentally ill. You’re just a wuss who prefers to pretend to be ill rather than face your world like a big boy, and false or over-diagnoses provide you with the excuse.

            1. PseudonymousKid

              Damn kids these days, right? No wonder you took me to a prostitute instead of a therapist like I asked.

          2. B. McLeod

            We seem to be on the path to finding out how large a percentage of the population can live on “disability.”

            1. Pedantic Grammar Police

              I didn’t save enough for my retirement; is that a disability? No? I think I may have carpal tunnel.

          3. DaveL

            What I do know is claiming that people are being diagnosed with mental illness who aren’t actually mentally ill is dangerous.

            So is actually diagnosing people with mental illness who aren’t actually mentally ill. See for example Drapetomania, Hysteria, and Soviet Political Psychiatry.

    3. phv3773

      Also true that having been in therapy does not prevent one from becoming a therapist.

      Not so very long ago, the medical profession was forced to recognize that overwork and overlong hours for interns led to mistakes and bad outcomes.

    4. delurking

      There is some truth to what you are describing, but this: “new generation of psychiatry seeks to stigmatize them as abnormal ” is probably unfair.

      Psychology and psychiatry have made dramatic strides over the last few decades in switching to evidence-based treatments. As they have done so, treatments have demonstrably improved. When treatments improve and their safety is confirmed through years of use, they get applied to less and less severe cases. This is a normal evolution in all sorts of medicine, see the evolution in the use of statins or growth hormone, or screws and plates to set broken bones, for example. It isn’t fair to say that less-severe cases of anxiety are now stigmatized as abnormal, it is just that cases that one wouldn’t treat in the past are now treated, because anxiety treatments (both medications and talk therapy) are much better. This is a good thing.

      On the other hand, because treatment is paid for by someone else, there is an incentive to refer as much as possible to the medical community through the school years. Children with poor handwriting or speech get sent to occupational therapy or speech therapy outside of school, for example, and behavioral issues are much more likely to be referred to a psychologist. The medical community is probably happy with this.

      So it is plausible that new graduates have adopted a lower threshold for “needing” mental health care than previous generations, and that this shift results both from their cohorts’ financially-incentivized more common interactions with that community and from the improved efficacy of treatments.

      1. SHG Post author

        Not to throw a wrench in the car-lease payments, but as the magnitude of people claiming mental illness grows, are you sure it’s getting better? One might expect improvement in treatment to reduce illness. Then again, if a substantial portion of the population, say more than a third, “suffer” from anxiety and/or depression, would that not suggest it’s our natural state rather than a pathology? Remember, cancer can be objectively seen. Mental illness, for all the improvements, remains largely voodoo around the edges.

        Even cowgirls get the blues.

        1. delurking

          “Then again, if a substantial portion of the population, say more than a third, “suffer” from anxiety and/or depression, would that not suggest it’s our natural state rather than a pathology? ”

          This is a reasonable criticism. To be fair to the professional psychologists, their threshold for calling it pathological anxiety or depression is high, even if others’ isn’t. That doesn’t mean psychologists don’t think milder cases should be treated, as treatment helps milder cases too. I see no problem with people in the normal range getting treatment for something if it makes their lives better. It is no different from taking a decongestant when you have a cold. But, yeah, you shouldn’t go around with a “woe is me” attitude just because you are getting treatment for something. There does appear to be some victimhood culture displayed in those quotes.

          1. SHG Post author

            My sister, a geriatric nurse at the Home, once told me that all the inmates get services (medicare, of course). I asked her if they all needed services, and her response was, “everybody benefits from services, whether they need them or not.”

        2. CLS

          A judge whom I used to practice in front of regularly would deny indigent defendant status for defendants claiming to collect a draw for “depression.”

          His rationale? “This is a criminal court of law, sir. We’re all depressed here. Do you think I wear this black robe as a fashion statement?”

          (The draw, for those unfamiliar with redneck terminology, is what we call collecting a disability check)

      2. DaveL

        The perverse incentives aren’t limited to pecuniary considerations. It’s also a question of control. When normal emotional states or variations in individuals ability become pathologized, they become subject to professional management. That doesn’t just put money in the pockets of those professionals, it places them in a position of control over many aspects of life that used to be unquestionably the province of parents, teachers, bosses, or the individuals themselves. Since previously normal childhood worry, fear, or sadness are now treatable medical conditions, the medical community now gets a mandate to dictate to parents how they are to be handled.

    5. B. McLeod

      Except for some politically correct niche practices within psychiatry (e.g., [Ed. Notes] have “dysphorias” now instead of “disorders,” but the “dysphorias” are still “diagnosed” per criteria in the DSM, and still require professional intervention).

  5. B. McLeod

    The youth of today don’t have the same notion of “jobs,” period. They see the notion of a “job” as something for and all about them, which should always be fun and rewarding. If that isn’t happening for them, someone is to blame. It doesn’t seem to dawn on them that there is a reason people get paid to go to work each day.

  6. CLS

    I’ve never had a client who’s known about any mental or physical health issue I’ve experienced.

    Why? Because it’s none of their fucking business, and the job’s about what I can do for them. Period.

    If there’s something stopping the current crop of lawyers from effectively serving clients despite what they’re going through, those lawyers need to find another line of work.

    Lawyering is about the client first. If you can’t deal with that the job’s not for you.

    1. Richard Kopf


      Speaking from experience, but terrified by the thought of our mean ass editor and his penchant for “*TMI,” you have hit the nail on the head. If a lawyer has a problem–say Major Depressive Disorder–the lawyer should quit before accepting a client for whom the lawyer knows he or she can’t do their best. I have no idea whether baby lawyers are bigger crybabies than older lawyers. I only know that the problems lawyers suffer must never be allowed to excuse them from performing at their best for the poor schmuck who has hired them.

      All the best.


      1. CLS

        Thanks, Judge, but I think my perspective on this is largely due to my education in the trenches. I was always taught the moment the client hands you money and signs your retainer your problems were theirs to handle. What baggage you personally were dealing with meant nothing in that scenario, and it shouldn’t.

        No defendant I’ve ever represented gave a damn if I was having a day or if I had to sit through a hearing instead of stand because I had a broken ankle and standing orders from a doctor to stay off it. All they ever cared about was if I could get them out of a jam, and I’m grateful for the times I could.

        You, however, are on the money when you note lawyers should decline cases where they can’t do their best for the client. It really is okay to say “no,” sometimes, and the lawyer will often be better for that occasional “no.”

  7. Jim Cline

    Two things. It waas nice to see Rodney Crowell and Hoyt Axton show up in your comments.

    If only 34% of lawyers are self reporting issues I wonder how much the actual number is.

    While talking (complaining about the shortage of employees) to one of the management team at my store I was told that 80% of their hires failed either the background check or the drug test. Which makes me wonder about the rate in other professions. While I realize our jobs were essentially low skilled, barely above minimum wage jobs the idea that someone seeking employment couldn’t make it 2-3 weeks without getting high was pretty disconcerting and caused me to wonder whether those were the folks I would want to work alongside anyway. Especially if they were operating heavy equipment. I’ve also wondered (probably much like corporate) if offering a better wage would result in better applicants. Or at least brighter and more forward thinking ones. Is this solely a problem with low education/low wage jobs or a societal problem that cuts across the spectrum of employment?

  8. Jim Cline

    After re reading your post and comments I realize the 34% figure I mentioned has no basis in fact. Not sure where I got that from,probably an erroneous reading and interpretation of one of the comments. The rest of my comment (unfortunately) is true.

  9. Skink

    Sorry I’m late. Yesterday was an 800-mile day in the Swampmobile for a couple hearings and a mediation. Along the way, there were phone conferences with a couple experts, a handful of calls from those that do everything for me but wipe my ass and some dictation. The Swampmobile does excellent bluetooth. It was the third trip of that type since last Tuesday. I mostly fell out on the driveway at 1 this morning.

    Why do I do it? Because the clients needing me aren’t always around the corner. Is there stress, anxiety and fear? You betcha. Did I have asshole bosses in the early years? Yup. Hundreds of nights, I’ve whacked my wife from sleeping, calling her the dumbest fuckin’ judge since Goofy sat in judgment of Mickey Mouse or pronouncing that if she couldn’t see the dopiness of her ruling, she should hang herself on the front steps. My favorite was saying she should just suck my dick, if she could find it. That’s some pathology that would stump Sigmund. She takes it. She married a lawyer.

    I think my cases, current and long since gone. I think them while staring at a glass of booze, as though watching the ice melt. Bartenders sometimes think I’m in a bad mental place. I think them while in groups of dolts talking doltish stuff. I just tune them out. Thinking the cases is more important than dolt stuff. I’m short and blunt when dealing with stupidity. Lawyering isn’t a part-time gig.

    Clients call–daytime, nighttime, weekends, holidays. They have trouble and they want me to fix it. I take the call and fix it because I’m their lawyer. I tell them to stop doing stupid shit, but I fix it. They don’t always like the outcome, but they know I gave them my best. I have to, I’m their lawyer.

    According to the Swamp Bar, about a third of young lawyers think they need therapy because they’re lawyers. They’re not–lawyers don’t pop-out ready for battle from law schools, though many thought so. They get taught the basics of lawyering by asshole bosses, by both positive and negative example. They are hardened by the stress, anxiety and fear. After all, those are only the things that make them lawyers, as they are the manifestation of taking care of the client, and that is the only function of lawyers.

    When they see the therapist, I hope they’re told the truth: maybe they should rethink their choice of jobs. The answer is not to be “mindful” or wish the job was different. It can’t be different because lawyers hold clients’ livelihood, family, future, freedom and even very life in their hands. If they can’t recognize the purpose of lawyering, they’ll run into a mental case like me, who will shred their self-created importance, sometimes right in front of their client. That’ll keep them awake at night, even if they aren’t thinking cases.

    What do they get if they get it right? Money, of course. Sometimes, gobs of money. But if they’re really good at caring about the client, they get something else. Now-and-then, they get the absolute, abject adoration of that client. Some will send a Christmas basket, every year and long after the facts of the case disappear from memory. The note will say, “Thanks for everything you did for me.” Lawyering don’t get better than that.

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