Lawyers and Mental Health

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An article in today’s Global Legal Post (, citing research conducted by a doctorate student at the University of Queensland, reports that lawyers have the worst mental health problems among professional groups.

Private practice lawyers apparently experience the lowest levels of psychological and psychosomatic health and wellbeing and have the highest levels of alcohol and nicotine (ab)use. The research also finds that this same group are more likely than other professional groups to experience poor interpersonal and psychosocial behaviour, including verbal abuse, work obstruction, emotional neglect, bullying, overwork, isolation and sexual harassment.

Sadly this comes as no surprise. My own experience of twenty years in private practice, before being hospitalised with depression and anxiety problems, as well as the work I do now with law firms and other professional bodies raising awareness around mental health and wellbeing, provides much anecdotal evidence of the poor mental wellbeing of private practice lawyers. I regularly came and come across lawyers at all levels of seniority who appear to be “on the edge”, struggling to cope with the ever increasing demands made on them professionally, and the impact this has on their ever diminishing personal lives.

In a recent session with a group of senior in house lawyers the only question I was asked at the end was “why didn’t we learn about this stuff 20 years ago?”.

Mental health is an issue in all workplaces but there does seem to be something specific happening in law firms. There is no doubt that the pressures are great and are only getting greater. But that’s true in many other areas of work. One must also be wary of generalising here – we all have our own individual state of mental health, we all react in our own way to external events and the reasons why different people suffer from mental ill health will always be unique to them. But we should not ignore the stats.My own belief is that there is something about the practice of law that makes lawyers more prone to problems. Lawyers do not deal in emotions – when a client comes to a lawyer for advice the lawyer will sift through the information provided by the client and put all the emotional stuff to one side to focus on the facts, the arguments, the issues. It is a case, a deal, they are handling, not a person.

As they develop in their career, the blind eye they turn to their client’s emotional issues can easily extend to the emotions of those around them, and their own. They lose, or do not develop, the language and capacity to engage with each other or themselves on an emotional level. Of itself this can cause problems to develop. It also means that they do not recognise problematic emotions when they do occur, and probably accounts for much of the problematic interpersonal behaviour cited by the Queensland research. As the pressures increase with their growing seniority, one risks a growing crisis ready to spill out.

And the problems go further. We all dabble in problematic thinking traits from time to time – negative automatic thinking a CBT therapist would call it. Two of the most common, and most dangerous, categories are catastrophising and personalisation. Catastrophisation is all about worrying about the worst possible case. Ummm – this is what lawyers are trained and paid to do – that 500 page sale and purchase agreement is that long largely because of the clever catastrophising of a team of highly skilled lawyers asking infinite numbers of “what if” questions.

Personalisation is the tendency to assume personal responsibility for everything. Again, this comes with the territory of lawyers with their personal professional responsibility and integrity running alongside their obligations to firm and client.This is not a criticism of lawyers, nor a vain call for anyone to sympathise with us/them. And there is no immediate mileage to be gained from seeking to redefine what lawyers do or change the dynamics of the market to reduce the pressures.It is, however, a call to all lawyers, and those that are responsible for their professional and personal welfare and development, to heed the warnings and think about the support and awareness they need to understand their wellbeing and develop mechanisms and approaches that will help them stay well despite the pressures. We don’t get taught this stuff in law school – we are expected just to cope. That is misguided and wrong – and I am very far from being the only lawyer with the scars to prove it.

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