In Search of New Heroes

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” ― Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey

We don’t need studies to tell us what we already know–Lawyers, are the most psychologically distressed group in America.

  • One out of every four lawyers suffer from some psychological malady–the most prominent being anxiety and depression.

  • Lawyers lead all other professions in suffering from depression.

  • Lawyers lead all other professions in alcohol and substance abuse.

  • Suicide rates for lawyers are second only to those of health care professionals (whose high stress jobs afford easy access to drugs).

  • A recent survey published in an ABA newsletter noted that the most miserable job in America is an associate attorney in a law firm.

This is hardly news.  These statistics show up regularly in bar publications, newsletters and mental health articles.  What is interesting, however, is that for a profession known for its fierce powers of inquiry, lawyers have done a poor job examining why these issues continue to plague our profession.  We are reluctant to enter the cave.

In some ways, the reluctance is understandable.  The work of an attorney is to reason our way to solutions through detached and impersonal analysis.

If the sine qua non of the practice of law is detached, impersonal analysis, then feelings are the enemy.  And if feelings are your enemy, a journey of real contemplation can be a frightening odyssey.  So as a group we do very little in the way of genuine self reflection.  And, as a group, we unwittingly become adept at self deception.

When attorneys are asked about the possible causes for mental distress in our profession, those who actually venture an opinion are likely to attribute these problems to issues outside the practice of law.  The proffered explanations sound like this:

  • Most lawyers who suffer from depression are genetically predisposed to those problems, and they would be depressed regardless of what profession they chose.

  • The intense, highly competitive, achievement oriented types that are attracted to the legal profession are more likely to suffer from emotional issues than those in other professions.

  • Depression and mental distress in the legal profession are the result of the increased economic and competitive pressures that have accompanied the shift from law as a profession to law as a business.

These explanations are, at best, disingenuous.  And our efforts to locate the origin of lawyer distress in sources outside ourselves may be symptomatic of the very thing that causes the distress in the first place.

The bottom line is that lawyers have a tough time exploring the subterranean landscape of the human psyche with its attendant chaos and unpredictability.  Primarily, because such exploration requires relinquishing some of our most fervently held beliefs–such as the idea that the only questions worth asking are those for which we already have the answers.

What would happen if we chose to begin to contemplate questions which had no answers? What would happen if we turned off our strategic minds long enough to pay attention to what our souls want?  What if we carved out parts of every day to reflect and be quiet? To contemplate what matters in our life and to be present to our world?

I understand that the practice of law is not a contemplative pursuit.  And there are things about reflection and contemplation that are diametrically opposed to what we do day in and day out.

But I also know that it’s long past time for us to discern the source of this distress and to stop pretending that the whole of reality consists of nothing more than reason and material success.  We desperately need to begin to talk about how we can engage in this work that we love and keep our souls alive in the process…how we, as lawyers, can  reclaim a life we can call our own and from which we can offer our gifts to the world.  It’s time to enter the cave

This is the real heroic work–to know what matters and to hold the clarity of that vision while also holding an ability to take our place in a materialistic world…and not being torn to pieces in the process.

We are already provisioned for the journey.  All that’s left is to begin….

2 thoughts on “In Search of New Heroes

  1. I’ve been browsing here and appreciate what you’re trying to do. I will be back.

    In this post, you come close to (but don’t actually state) one explanation for these problems that I’ve always believed to be a primary one: The legal system itself is imperfect. (I’d use stronger language but don’t want to run afoul of the Code of Professional Responsibility.) We all want to be a part of something that works well, that we can take pride in, and that ultimately matters. If, instead, the enterprise to which we dedicate most of our waking hours is flawed in some significant ways, well, that makes it tough. How many lawyers do you know who have been practicing more than 20 years who would say, privately and candidly, that they are proud of how all this works? I’m not talking about workload type issues; I’m talking about the actual turning of the wheels of justice (and all that includes: outcome, efficiency, cost, etc..)

    And isn’t is likely that has something to do with the mental health issues you discuss?

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments on this issue.

      I agree. There is certainly a relationship between lawyer distress and how our justice system fails those it’s intended to serve. That’s why these issues are so important. The need to look seriously at the level of lawyer distress goes far beyond our profession, it matters to society as a whole. Law is thought to be one of the pillars of civilization. It determines how we settle our differences, and it protects our right to be different. If one in four of those who carry out its work are impaired, that’s a real problem.

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