Thursday, January 23, 2014
Even before I read the book The Happy Lawyer by my former colleagues Nancy Levit and Doug Linder, I loved every legal job I ever had from judicial law clerk to BigLaw associate (twice), to deputy general counsel. I am still a happy lawyer after twenty-two years in the profession. I am clearly an anomaly among my attorney friends, most of whom looked at me with envy when I said that I was leaving practice to pursue academia. One friend, a partner in a South Florida firm quipped, “litigation has to be one of the only professions where your client hates you, your opposing counsel hates you, and the judge probably thinks you’re an idiot. When the outcome is positive, the client loves you until they see the bill.” No wonder lawyers aren’t happy.
But the situation for lawyers is more serious than a few clients grumbling about high bills. Earlier this week CNN reported that lawyers are the 4th most unhappy professionals behind dentists, pharmacists, and physicians, and are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers. According to the article, 40% of law students report that they have suffered from depression before graduation. That acknowledgement of a diagnosis of depression or indeed seeking any help for mental illness or substance abuse can adversely affect the graduate’s chances for admission to the bar.
Eight states, including my home state of Florida, have added a mental health component to the continuing legal education requirement, in part to address a rise in attorney suicides. No one can pinpoint the cause for the increase in unhappiness. Perhaps it’s the recession, which led to layoffs at every level and which will forever alter the legal landscape. Perhaps, like doctors, pharmacists and dentists, lawyers tend to be type A personalities who thrive on perfection and success and drive themselves harder than others.
I read the CNN article while was on a tour in Switzerland two days ago. I thought I wanted to live the life of the Swiss with their low taxes, 3.1% unemployment rate, high income and great medical and social insurance programs, when the tour guide stunned us by acknowledging that Switzerland has the third highest suicide rate in the world. “It’s the relentless pressure to succeed and the tremendous competition here,” he explained. It seems as though the Swiss have something in common with American lawyers.
I was actually in Switzerland for the 4th annual kickoff of the innovative LawWithoutWalls program founded by University of Miami Professor Michele DeStefano. The program requires law and business students from around the world to work on teams to develop a project of worth addressing a problem facing the legal profession or legal education. I serve as an academic mentor with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, in house counsel, practitioner mentors and lawyers from sponsor Eversheds. The students learn about the commoditization of legal services from the very firms that are disrupting the profession, Axiom and LegalZoom, who have representatives serving as mentors or thought leaders. They watch actual pitches on legal innovations to venture capitalists. They learn about doing a business plan for their projects of worth from entrepreneurs, and they use that knowledge when they present their project in a Shark Tank-like presentation in April. The next few months of their lives as part of this program will help the students learn skills and make contacts for an ever-evolving global legal market. Hopefully, they will be better equipped to handle what’s out there than the students who take their career cues from the television show Suits.
But what about the practicing lawyers? Not everyone wants to or can make the leap to academia. There are few LawWithoutWalls programs for veteran, burned-out lawyers. Many attorneys will continue to suffer from soul-crushing anxiety, depression or boredom. I don’t have the answer but look out for the follow-up to Levit and Linder’s book entitled The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law due out this summer.