As a Court Watcher, I have heard many attorneys point the finger at litigants and say he or she has a mental health disability and needs supervised visitation, or should be denied access to the children.
Turns out this is a bit of the kettle calling the pot black because attorneys have some of the highest rates of mental illness in the country!
From the articles I have read on the subject, this means that I am supposed to have more compassion for attorneys because of the sad fate they have in store for them because of the profession they have chosen. One commentator said, you know that joke that goes, "How do you describe hundreds of lawyers at the bottom of the Ocean? Answer: A good start!" Apparently, that joke isn't so funny in the light of the reality that there is an epidemic of depression and suicide among attorneys throughout the nation.
Of course, I can't help responding that this epidemic is pretty much self-inflicted, and is nothing in comparison to the pain and suffering of the victims these attorneys leave behind. But perhaps that is an argument for another day.
Let's get the data. What I did was review several articles on the issue of attorneys, depression, and suicide and the following is the sum total of what was said:
1. Lawyers, as a group, are 3.6 times more likely to experience depression than the general population;
2. Of 104 occupations, lawyers were the most likely to suffer depression;
3. A 1989 National Institute for Safety and Health found that male lawyers between the ages of 20 and 64 are more than twice as likely to die from suicide than men of the same age in other occupations;
4. In 1990, a quality of life survey by the North Carolina Bar Association revealed that almost 26% of respondents exhibit symptoms of clinical depression, and almost 12% said they contemplated suicide at least once a month. Studies in other states have found similar results. In recent years, several states have been averaging one lawyer suicide per month.
5. A 1991 North Carolina Bar Association study found that 25% of lawyers suffered symptoms of anxiety three or more times a month in the last year;
6. In a 1997 study, suicide accounted for 10.8% of deaths among lawyers in the U.S. and Canada, and was the third leading cause of death among this group;
7. Furthermore, the study concluded that the suicide rate of attorneys was 6 times as much as the rate of the general population;
8. According to a study by Prof. Andy Benjamin (U. of Washington) by the spring of their 1L year, 32% of law students are clinically depressed, despite being no more depressed than the general public (about 8%) when they entered law school. By graduation, this number has risen to 40%. While this percentage dropped to 17% two years after graduation, this rate of depression was still double that of the general public;
9. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among attorneys, but only the 10th leading cause of death in the general population;
10. Attorneys are 3 times as likely to be depressed as the general population;
11. Attorneys are 2 times as likely to be addicted to drugs and alcohol as the general population; (Then people who struggle with substance abuse are about six times more likely to kill themselves)
12. A John Hopkins study found lawyers have the highest rate of depression of any profession;
These are pretty sobering statistics.
The majority of individuals who are at risk are lawyers and judges aged 48-65, trial lawyers, or as one journalist put it, "It's men in their 50s."
So what is going on? Why is this happening?
One person, Yvette Hourigan of the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program speculated that the reason is that legal work involves a high level of stress.
As she put it, "There are a lot of high stress professions. However, when the surgeon goes into the surgical suite to perform his surgery, they don't send another physician in to try to kill the patient. You know, they're all on the same team trying to do one job. In the legal profession, adversity is the nature of our game."
I think that what brought this issue to the forefront of so many people's minds was the 2009 suicide of Attorney Mark Levy, one of the most skilled appellate lawyers in the country, and friend to many powerful individuals in Washington. He was around 59 years old and had just been let go from the firm Kilpatrick Stockton when he came to work in the morning, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.
While many expressed puzzlement for his decision to kill himself, after a while the picture emerged of a profession for whom money is the bottom line.
An attorney who cannot generate major income by generating hefty bills to clients will not be successful.
Unfortunately, the focus on cold cash was an approach to the legal profession that Attorney Levy did not feel comfortable with and this was a substantial reason for his death.
As journalist Richard B. Schmitt put it, "Levy loved the practice of law, but he struggled with the business of law. Without a firm stable of paying clients, he grew vulnerable in a world where rainmaking is often valued over skill and judgment."
Further, "He was not interested in compromising to make law a business."
And "Levy never relished the role of salesman." "He was a superb lawyer but he wasn't a business-getter."
Finally, "his disdain for marketing and client recruitment again seemed to undermine his standing with firm management."
In a field such as the law, where attorneys and their supervisors expect to make six digit salaries or more, ideals, ethics, and sometimes basic human compassion end up on the wayside, as we litigants in family court have observed and experienced.
But the attorneys who make those kinds of decisions to let go of basic human decency inevitably pay the price for that, if not professionally, then indeed personally. If you are a good person and you don't go along with the "money is everything" mentality, you are doomed to suffer in terms of your career. So, in a way, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't.
(More on this topic in Part II.)