WHY ARE SO MANY LAWYERS KILLING THEMSELVES
In March, DAYL hosted an important discussion downtown inspired by a January 2014 CNN.com article entitled “Why Are So Many Lawyers Killing Themselves?” Young lawyers in DFW and around the country are especially prone to depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts. Dr. Carlos Davis, Ph.D., a former president of the Dallas Psychological Association and a therapist in private practice in Dallas, offered some insight into why young lawyers are especially susceptible to these problems:
1. Pessimistic explanatory style: lawyers are trained to prepare for the worst on behalf of their clients. We tend to think and speak in permanent and pervasive terms about risk and trouble ahead. Our vigilance for our clients can spill over into our personal lives and mindsets.
2. High stress: Young lawyers deal with demands from many sources in their careers: the list starts with partners, clients, and student loan lenders. We can also meet these demands with unhealthy perceptions about our available resources (financial and otherwise). Think of the times when you or a colleague has said that “I HAVE to win this hearing/argument/case, or else…(insert gloom-and-doom phrase here about student loans, career prospects, or life itself).” The point at which we perceive our demands to exceed our available resources is the point at which hopelessness, fatalistic thinking, or the search for coping mechanisms (e.g. alcohol and drugs) begins.
3. Adversarial profession: we are in the stressful business of winning and losing, whether it’s a motion, negotiation, or case. Results matter, and they are often judged on an all-or-nothing basis.
4. Hedonic adaptation (ever-rising expectations): Lawyers and non-lawyers share a tendency to get used to good things. Hefty paychecks, fancy new offices, cars, suits, and living arrangements can accompany a law degree and career. These things, however, can lose their luster as our expectations continue to rise. We can become insatiable in our pursuit of success, creating an unhealthy feeling that we never reach a point of success.
Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Davis also offered invaluable advice to young lawyers about how to deal with or avoid these problems altogether:
1. Exploratory conversations: We all have instrumental conversations, which involve solving problems, as a part of our jobs. Supplement these conversations with exploratory conversations—conversations where you risk vulnerability, explore your experiences, and have someone (family or a close friend) listen to you empathically.
2. Define success and go easy on yourself: instead of pursuing ever-rising status and greatness, think in more realistic terms. For instance, pursue a feeling that you have given “a good effort at a worthwhile cause.” Find satisfaction in your effort, not the results you achieve for clients. Don’t necessarily lower your expectations, but perhaps frame them more realistically.
3. Pursue the two pillars of healthy self-esteem: Seek two feelings—1) feeling competent to meet life’s challenges and 2) feeling loved and accepted for who you are. One shortcut to these feelings is to stop basing your self-esteem only on the latest winning case or raise. These values lead to chronic dissatisfaction.