Google the words “lawyer” and “stress” or “anxiety” and you’ll see hundreds of comics about lawyers dealing with stress. Most of the comics are pretty funny and yet somewhat sad because they are also all pretty true to real life. Just last month the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being released a report entitled “The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.” The report is intended to bring more pointed awareness to the mental health issues many lawyers face and to also provide recommendations to instill greater well-being in the profession as a whole.
The report is 73 pages in total, which appears to create a daunting read for lawyers and law students, already over-burdened and stressed out. But it is worth the time to read through it. As the report points out, in a study released in 2016 by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, out of nearly 13,000 practicing lawyers who participated in the survey, 28% struggled with some level of depression, 19 percent struggled with some level of anxiety, and 23 percent struggled with some level of stress. In Wisconsin, there were approximately 15,550 active lawyers in 2017.
Assuming those percentages transfer, that would mean approximately 4,300, 2,900 and 3,500 lawyers would be struggling with some level of depression, anxiety and stress respectively. Those are not insignificant numbers. That same 2016 study also surveyed more than 3,300 students at 15 law schools and found that 17 percent experienced some level of depression, 14 percent experienced severe anxiety, 23 percent suffered mild or moderate anxiety and 6 percent reported serious suicidal thoughts in the past year. If those statistics were applied to, for example, the 2017 entering Marquette Law class, that would mean 11 students will have had serious suicidal thoughts.
These statistics are intended to serve as a wake-up call for those of us in or entering the legal profession. The full report goes on to give some great suggestions and recommendations, not just for individual lawyers but for the entire profession. I will not get into those details, as you can review them for yourselves, but what I can share is my personal experience. In my 10 years since graduating from law school, I have absolutely experienced and struggled with depression, anxiety, and stress.
Now, as a lawyer, there will always be some level of stress and anxiety with the job, but I am not talking about those normal levels. I’m talking about the not-wanting-to-get-out-of-bed-in-the-morning level of anxiety or wake-up-at-2a.m.-in-a-cold-sweat-after-going-to-bed-at-1a.m. level of stress and the-inability-to-enjoy-much-of-anything level of depression. I was in that boat about two years ago, and it was only people close around me recognizing the negative changes in me that helped me through and out of those deeper struggles. It can be extremely easy to isolate yourself and tell yourself the feelings of stress and anxiety are normal to any lawyer. And while they often are typical, they don’t need to normal. Besides the help of close family and friends, I also began waking up earlier in the morning and going for a 2.5 mile walk during which I practiced mindfulness, i.e., no electronics and no thinking about work, but only thinking about the specific world around me during the walk. That extra 45 minutes in the morning to let my mind rest before I started my day, including no checking e-mails, was seriously life-changing.
I say all this not because I think what worked for me will necessarily work for every other lawyer struggling with depression or stress. That said, I do wish someone had really talked with me early on in my career about engaging in practices to help not just to cope with stress and anxiety, but to lessen them. Thus, I encourage any law students reading this to begin now putting practices in place to help reduce and even prevent high levels of stress and anxiety. Reach out to the law school faculty or check out the ABA’s website as starting points. Also, one crucial item to put in place is to have at least a couple of people who you will be close enough with and interact enough with that you can ask them to honestly tell you how you seem to be doing with stress and anxiety. Instilling greater well-being in the profession as a whole must come from the inside out, and it begins with each of us.