Last week several readers forwarded me a copy of a CNN piece on lawyer suicide. The article focuses new attention on the levels of anxiety, depression and suicide in our profession (mentioning South Carolina, where 6 lawyers committed suicide over a span of only 18 months). And the piece is worth a read–as is Patrick Krill’s editorial on the same subject.
There were also several hundred comments posted in response to the CNN article. A number of which, disturbingly, remarked that the country would be a lot better off if more lawyers killed themselves.
While such candy-assed commentary deserves no response, there is a theme here that is worthy of a little more contemplation—that lawyers have become the symbol for everything that is crass and dishonorable in American public life. It doesn’t take a lot to see how we got here.
The more the practice of law has become a “business,” the more lawyers have become cogs in an economic machine, and the less lawyers have been seen as individuals with unique gifts. The more the practice of law has become a “business,” the more crass and one-dimensional lawyers have become, and the more lawyers seem to present as lacking in any moral or spiritual depth. This phenomenon has been at work for generations now.
And our current economic times don’t offer much in the way of opportunity for change. In this day and age of too many lawyers and not enough work, we tell our young lawyers “it’s all about how much money you can bring to the table.” In response, lawyers (young and old) fashion careers whose singular orbit is making money. Lawyers find different ways to deal with the stress brought about by orienting one’s life in this fashion. But almost all try to avoid their existential angst by working harder–redoubling their efforts to earn even more.
I don’t want to diminish the issue of lawyer distress by suggesting that there is a singular cause. I know this issue is a complex one, with many factors at play. And I don’t pretend to have any answers. But I do know that the issue of lawyer distress is worthy of thoughtful contemplation and more nuanced reflection among those of us who love this profession.
The path toward healing will begin with our courageous conversation about how it is we find ourselves in this place. And, just as importantly, how we can re-imagine a profession that is selflessly mature, that values the gifts of those who have committed their lives to this work…a profession that is revelatory and life-giving…work that is, at once, challenging, enlarging and good for the world around us.
Healing will begin when we can turn our inward and outward visions to even greater horizons, knowing finally that there is much more to our work than simply earning and providing.