Wednesday, July 16, 2008

McMillian on Lawyer Depression and Media Depictions

Posted by Alan Childress

Attorney depression and related mental health issues are a recurring topic on this blog and others (e.g., Mike's June 20 post on a Pennsylvania bar matter, and his this morning on a Missouri case involving bipolar disorder).  One website is devoted to the specific topic:  it is called, and is edited by Dan Lukasik.  Depression is the subject of a recent California Bar Journal article, as we noted here.  David Giacalone at f/k/a has also written on the subject in helpful detail and poetically, and see also Legal Underground's important 2005 post here (guest penned by Ray Ward).  Both Ray and David link plenty of books and articles, and the comments and blog trackbacks following Ray's post are extensive.

The subject intersects frequently with attorney images in popular culture. Jeff wrote on the subject via posts about Michael Clayton and law firm associates. Bill Henderson, along with David Zaring, wrote a review essay on two lawyer novels depicting associates and their supposed unhappiness, but Bill also points to empirical studies worth considering before jumping to the conclusion that lawyering equals unhappiness.

Now Lance McMillian (Atlanta's John Marshall L.S.) has published in SSRN Law & Soc'y:  The Legal Profession his new paper, "Tortured Souls: Unhappy Lawyers Viewed Through the Medium of Film."  He focuses on such 'tortured' characters as Ned Racine, Frank Galvin, Michael Clayton, and even Atticus Finch.  The abstract is below the fold.

Lance's abstract is:

Lawyers are unhappy. So bad is the situation that scholars have even asked, "Can one be a lawyer and a happy human being at the same time?" Culturally, the existence of unhappy lawyers is not an unknown phenomenon. Case in point: the portrayal of tortured attorneys through the medium of film. This Article focuses on nine such lawyers: Ned Racine, Michael Clayton, Frank Galvin, Reggie Love, Paul Biegler, Sam Bowden, Arthur Kirkland, Jan Schlichtmann, and Atticus Finch. Similarities between lawyers in reel life and real life quickly emerge.
The legal profession should pay attention to these common struggles. Attorneys in film have much to teach. Their most lasting lessons point the way for the modern lawyer to reclaim a satisfying and fulfilling legal career. Through the movies, lawyers old and new can freshly discover the secrets for lasting success: doing what one loves, devoting oneself to a noble end, and refusing to compromise ethically. That great cinema contains enduring truths and insights should not be surprising. The best films help us to learn something more about ourselves. Learning without action, however, soon melts away. When trapped in unhappiness, it is the individual who must act and make choices consistent with that person's core values. Movies can rekindle our ideals. But only we can make those ideals a reality.

Abstracts Highlights - Academic Articles on the Legal Profession, Law & Society, Lawyers & Popular Culture | Permalink

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One potential reason for lawyers struggling with depression at higher rates than other professions is an active dissausion from seeking psychological help. Applications to the bar generally ask if someone has gone to a psychologist or a psychiatrist, is on any psychiatric mediation, etc. A professor told my class that answer yes to any of those questions probably won't prevent us from getting in to the Bar, but WOULD delay our application.

Is it any wonder that there are loads of law students and lawyers with untreated depression and similar issues?

Posted by: A. Nonymous Lawyer | Jul 16, 2008 3:27:25 PM

A. N. L., Nice point to raise. I am assuming (hoping!) that the professor's comment in class was a few years ago and that he or she would not give the same assessment today. Many of the bar applications have been rewritten to narrowly tailor the psychological and mental health questions more than they used to be. They may ask whether there is an untreated condition that would impair the ability to practice law, or some other more focused and realistic question.

I would not dissuade any student from seeking any form of mental health counseling or treatment on the off chance that it would come back to delay an application for the bar. I think a far more likely scenario is that *untreated* and unexplained health issues will pop up (indirectly) in other places on the form--behavioral or school discipline reports, poor references from prior employers or others interviewed, not passing law school or incomplete coursework, late payment of bills, etc.--and that would cause trouble for bar admission more readily than would an applicant's receiving and reporting treatment.

I certainly agree it would be a tragedy if the bar admission process really does make students hesitant to seek help when they need it.

Posted by: Alan Childress | Jul 16, 2008 3:41:18 PM

A pt. of mine is going to attend law school. He is very concerned because he had a prior history of depression and substance use and hearing that he may have difficulty getting insurance that won't allow him to attend school. H e also heard he won't be able to take the bar. Is this for real?

Posted by: alison | Jul 27, 2009 8:38:29 PM

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