What can be done about lawyer depression
Being a lawyer in 2014 can be depressing. By now, we’re all familiar with the incredible reduction in the number of legal sector jobs since 2008, with 45,000 jobs lost by the time 2010 rolled around. And our profession has never quite recovered.
Even so, despite the plummeting number of legal jobs available, law schools from 2008 onward continued to accept new students in record numbers. Law schools only recently began to reduce those numbers starting just last year, when it was reported that law school enrollment for 2013 declined by 11 percent.
Unfortunately, the large numbers of student enrollments resulted in an influx of debt-saddled new law graduates into an unwelcoming job market. And those who were able to get jobs faced much lower starting salaries then expected. For example, as recently reported in the Boston Globe, assistant district attorneys in Massachusetts have starting salaries that are less than courthouse custodians’ starting salaries.
So these young lawyers — facing newfound stressors that prior generations did not — joined the ranks of a profession already known for its high depression and substance abuse rates. In fact, the legal profession ranks fourth for its high rate of suicides. According to age-adjusted information provided to CNN by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the top five professions are: 1) Dentists, 2) Pharmacists, 3) Physicians, 4) Lawyers and 5) Engineers.
According to that same article, published on Jan. 20, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than the general population. Lawyers fare no better when it comes to chemical dependency. According to the Illinois Lawyer Assistance Program (online: www.illinoislap.org/alcohol-and-drug-abuse), the legal profession’s rate of chemical dependency is estimated to be at 20 percent, which is double the rate for nonlawyers.
There are many reasons suggested for these sobering statistics, but what you tend to hear most often from attorneys is that between the long work days, billable hours pressures, non-stop and unpredictable deadlines, and the antagonistic nature of the job, many are incredibly stressed out, unhappy, and overworked.
So what can lawyers do to improve their mental health and reduce the triggers that cause them to become depressed? Obviously, some of the stressors, such as unpredictable deadlines, can’t be removed from the practice of law, but there are other steps that can be taken to reduce stress. One of the best ways is to change the way that lawyers in your firm work.
For example, consider alternative billing arrangements instead of the billable hour. Look into value or flat fee billing. Focus on the work that needs to be completed rather than on the time spent doing the work.
Doing so will also reduce another stressor — the reliance on face time in the office as an indicator that lawyers are working hard. The unspoken emphasis on the importance of face time affects lawyers’ ability to maintain even a semblance of a normal life. The inflexibility imposed by face time requirements gives lawyers little if any control over their schedules and prevents them from spending quality time with their friends and families. And for lawyers who are parents, it’s often difficult to arrive home during hours when their children are actually awake.
So, by focusing on work product rather than face time and hours billed, lawyers will become more efficient and will have more control over their lives, thus greatly reducing their stress levels.
Finally, you can also take steps to reorganize and streamline a law office’s processes so that you and your employees can get more done in less time, both inside and outside of the office. Utilizing new technologies to automate law office redundancies and increase efficiency is key. By selectively choosing appropriate technology tools and software for your firm’s needs — such as cloud computing products that allow your employees to access firm files and work from any device with an Internet connection — you can increase flexibility and productivity and reduce stress.
The bottom line: our profession is in a crisis. 20th century law practice isn’t compatible with this century’s legal landscape. It’s time to revamp the way that we work and take advantage of 21st century tools before it’s too late. Refusing to adapt at the risk of losing another lawyer to suicide is simply unacceptable.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and Director of Business Development and Community Relations at MyCase, an intuitive cloud-based law practice management platform for the modern law firm. She is also a GigaOM Pro Analyst and is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes four legal blogs and can firstname.lastname@example.org.