“Cope or Quit” is Not a Strategy

dreamstime_m_30200714I have been talking a lot to lawyers and judges for the last couple of years about wellness.  And I begin almost every presentation with statistics that attempt to articulate the level of distress in our profession.  I frequently tell my audience members that 19% of all attorneys suffer from chronic depression.  18% of all attorneys are alcohol dependent.  Lawyers lead all other professions in depression, anxiety related disorders and substance abuse.

These are grim numbers.  But I begin my presentations with these statistics because I think (or at least I hope) that if we finally understand how much suffering there is in this profession, then we’ll begin to do something about it.  The problem with my statistics, however, is that they come from studies that are (in some instances) over 25 years old.  That’s what the profession looked like a quarter of a century ago.  What does it look like now?

We no longer have to ask that question.

Just a few weeks ago, a medical journal published the results of a recent study conducted by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, The study, which is the most comprehensive examination to date of the state of mental health in the legal profession, surveyed approximately 13,000 attorneys.

With the release of the ABA/HBF study, we no longer have to work off of out-dated statistics.  We now have a good picture of the current state of mental health in our profession.

And the bad news is that things have gotten worse.

Here are a few of the findings from the recently published ABA/HBF Study:

  • 28% of attorneys suffer from depression
  • 21% of attorneys are alcohol dependent
  • 32% of attorneys 30 years of age or younger are alcohol dependent
  • Younger attorneys in the first 10 years of practice are most at risk for depression and substance abuse
  • Most lawyers surveyed are aware of state bar Lawyer Assistance Programs, but very, very few utilize those resources because of the stigma associated with asking for help

As important as this new study is, what is particularly alarming is that we have known about this problem for 25 years now. 25 years ago we knew that lawyers suffered from depression at a rate that is two to five times that found in the general population. 25 years ago we knew lawyers led all other professions in alcohol and substance abuse.  But in spite of our knowing, things have grown worse.

How could that happen?  How could we have known how bad things are for so long and done so little about it?

If you’re looking for an answer to that question, you have to look no further than the kinds of things frequently said to young lawyers in the early stages of their career:

  • “Anyone who talks about “lifestyle” and “balance” is never going to be successful practicing law”
  • This business is hard.  It’s not cut out for everyone.  
  • If you can’t handle the pressure, find another job

It is time to call these “cope or quit” excuses what they are—the antiquated rhetoric of those too afraid to do the difficult work of trying to understand why the suffering exists in the first place, and the equally difficult work of making the necessary changes to ourselves, the way we practice and the way we run our law firms that will address this suffering.

It’s a lot easier to say ”you’re not cut out for this kind of work” than it is to confront those things about our practices and the way we run our firms that play a role in creating these statistics.  The time has come for lawyers and law firms to stop making excuses.  The problems of this profession are ours to solve. Not anyone else’s.

The stakes are high.  Our current professional culture is unsustainable.  We have to change not only the way we think, but also the way we talk.

“Cope or quit” is not an answer.


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