Day 126: On Lawyer Suicides: What Are We Going To Do?

I am not now, and have never been, a lawyer.  I graduated from law school and taught at an undergraduate university, and I even took and passed the bar and ethics exam in one jurisdiction.   I have, however, spent much of past ten years with people who would later become lawyers, or who were lawyers, most of my friends are lawyers, and I am now married to and very much in love with a lawyer.

Whether any of that qualifies me to or disqualifies me from joining a discussion on this topic is irrelevant.  Our friends and colleagues are suffering, and in some cases are dying, and honest conversations need to be had, awkward and clumsy though they may be.

Recently another one of my law school classmates took her own life.  I knew her only in passing, but those who knew her better agree that she was a kind person and a good friend, and we all mourned her death.

It also started a discussion among some of my classmates about what ought to be done about depression, addiction, and especially suicide within the legal profession.  One classmate reached out to our alma mater and was, essentially, brushed off.  The email response thanked him for his concern, but expressed that their focus is on current students, and explained that they do more to prepare students now than they did when we were there.  The administrator who wrote the email concluded by saying they are not interested in, or willing to, engage him further about how to move forward, but wished him luck.

The classmate who had this interaction posted the emails on Facebook for all to see, and other classmates began commenting immediately.  At first I thought his post was inappropriate; I can be a bit of a snob that way, and that crowd certainly brings it out in me, but I later realized how important it is to be open and transparent about what’s happening.

There was, as could be expected, a lot of anger and frustration, a few alternative solutions suggested, and a lot of blame thrown around.  It was, I think for many, a rare opportunity to vent, which was good, but there also seemed to be a lot of wasted energy focused on blame.

We all feel helpless, and no one has a perfect solution.  Should law schools be more involved, either by somehow helping to prepare law students for the realities of practice or by providing support after students graduate, or both?  Should bar associations be responsible for the health and well-being of their members?  Should firms have some kind of mandatory counseling program in place?  What is the best, most practical solution?

Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any one perfect or easy solution.  Even if all of these things are done, and done well, and to some limited extent I think all of those things are being done, there is no magic “fix” to the mental health problems facing lawyers today.

One classmate blamed the school and accused it of hypocrisy, because they are more than happy to ask alumni for donations or to support the law school in other ways, but given the opportunity to help in return, they lack interest.  Another accused the school of greed more blatantly and also accused them of inflating job numbers to attract students.

Still another classmate blamed the larger legal “culture,” specifically billable hour requirements and “100 hour work weeks,” and these weeks became labeled as “cruel or abnormal.”  There was some back-and-forth about how “big law” is to blame, because of billable hour requirements and greedy partners, and the thread stopped.

I’m not sure if I can contribute much to the conversation.  It feels, in a way, inappropriate to comment, not that appropriateness has ever stopped me before, especially on Facebook.  I have never practiced as a lawyer, as I’ve said, I have never worked in big law, and I have never put in a 100 hour work week (at least in an office).  I’m also far away, physically, from most of my classmates, and I have lost touch with most of them, either because I wasn’t a very good friend during law school, my life got too crazy to keep in touch after law school, or our lives went in different directions and it became difficult to find common ground (most of my law school classmates do not have children, although a few are, just now, having their first child, which is a pretty different thing than not working in an office and having four of them).

I’m also not really sure what to say.  I am sad and sorry to lose a classmate to suicide.  I am sad and sorry that many of our classmates struggle with depression and addiction, and I am sad and sorry so many of them are unhappy.  I don’t have a solution, and it seems there is little I can do, under present circumstances, in the way of being involved in any potential solution.

I do not think the blame game is worth playing, though, mostly because it doesn’t change anything, but partially because it’s impossible to play it fairly.  Some people blame law schools, either for applying too much pressure or for lack of preparation, others blame firms for requiring too much, others blame “legal culture.”

One problem is that law schools, I think, try to prepare us by applying pressure.  Living under pressure is part of being a lawyer, and I do think it’s important to have some preparation for that.  Just like doctors, some of us hold people’s lives in our hands, and that’s something we need to learn to take seriously, and to treat carefully.  I realize not all lawyers have jobs that literally determine whether a client will continue to have a beating heart when a matter concludes, but most lawyers, especially outside of big law, have clients who come to them on their worst day (this is a borrowed assertion from a former professor, but obviously it stuck with me).  These clients lost a loved one, their marriage is over, they are being accused of a crime they did not commit, they are being accused of a crime they did commit and it’s going to devastate many lives, they are being evicted from their home, they have to file for bankruptcy.  Lawyers have to understand that these people’s lives are important, and they need to learn to rise to the challenge, even if they are tired, or stressed, or overworked.

Now that I read all of that, I’m not sure how to prepare someone for any of that.  I guess the Socratic method helps to prepare future lawyers to be on the spot and under pressure, to some extent.  Professors typically don’t tolerate students coming in late or unprepared.  Reading and writing assignments tend to be involved and require a lot of time to complete in any meaningful way, which provides some experience with time management and balancing real life with school or work.  Exams are stressful and require a lot of preparation and prioritizing.  There are a lot of social events, often with real lawyers, that involve drinking, which I guess provides an opportunity to learn the hard way how much is too much in a setting with fewer consequences than someone spending life in prison or losing custody of a child.

Law schools routinely have guest speakers come from law firms, and they talk about what life is like.  We all know, by the time we finish our first year, what we are getting ourselves into (more or less).  And maybe that’s part of the problem – maybe those conversations should happen while we are applying to law school or preparing to take the LSAT.  Still, it’s difficult to blame law schools for that.

When I taught undergraduates who dreamed and fantasized about attending law school (even though most of them couldn’t be bothered to read ten pages or loudly complained about any assignment that took more than five minutes), I tried to provide opportunities for them to think about these things.  “What do you want your lives to look like in five or ten years? What do you need in your life to feel fulfilled?  What interests you?  What are your strengths and weaknesses? How does the idea of law school fit in with those answers?” I also asked real lawyers to come in and talk about what life in the real world was like.  I don’t think any of those things made the slightest bit of difference.  It certainly would not have made a difference to me when I was 19.

Much like blaming law schools, blaming big firms is problematic.  First, big firms are in the business of making money.  No one is forced into taking a job with these firms, and in fact people compete mercilessly for the opportunity to have one of those jobs.  Mercilessly.  A couple of years ago a friend of ours applied for a litigation position at a big firm in Chicago.  When she interviewed, her head hunter told her that seventy other people, all with credentials similar to hers (top of her class at a top 20 law school and experience at another major firm) were also applying.  I have no reason to believe things have changed much.

People know what these jobs are going to be like, but they do the mental math and decide it’s worth it.  Long work weeks* in exchange for more money, prestige, the chance to do interesting work, and the chance to make much more money one day as a partner.

Second, I’m not convinced there is a direct correlation between hours worked or required and depression, addiction, and suicide.  My husband went to a better law school than I did, and many more of his classmates than mine went to work for “big law” firms.  We graduated almost seven years ago, and, as far as he knows, none of his classmates took their life after graduation, while my classmates and I have mourned two suicides.

In fact, when I look at our many lawyer friends, I see no direct relationship between hours worked and the amount of alcohol consumed or perceived level of happiness.  I don’t have hard numbers to back that up, but between the two of us, we know a lot of lawyers, and if I had to relate level of happiness to number of hours worked, I would actually say they seem to be inversely related, and the people who work the most, also seem the most happy and the most fulfilled.

I am not convinced by attempts to blame “legal culture” either.  I understand how competitive law school, and finding a job, and even working at a firm can be.  It also seems like people in the positions that require the most competition tend to be less prone to depression and addiction, overall.  Of course it is possible that underneath the surface these people are struggling terrible struggles and I am completely wrong, but I can only know what I see and what I experience.  It is also possible that the people who are in the most sought after and competitive positions tend to be happier because they succeeded, but I would think there would come a point when that got to be exhausting, because it literally never stops.

Again, I am not a practicing lawyer, nor am I psychologist, so I say all of this within those boundaries.  I know a lot of lawyers.  I am married to a lawyer.  Most of our friends are lawyers.  This is what I see.

Being a lawyer, from what I can tell, is very difficult.  The hours are long, the demands are many, the stress is high.  It can also be rewarding, and an opportunity to meet smart, interesting people, and to do work that is intellectually stimulating.  It’s not a good fit for everyone, and, unfortunately, because most people have to take out six figures in loans to finance their education, if it is not a good fit, there are few reasonable alternative available.  Still, life is about choices, and we all have to make our own.  I can say that, because I have a mountain of debt, and by the time I finish paying it, we will be making payments to send our own children to college.

To that end, I think it’s important to say a few words about depression and mental illness more generally.  I have no doubt that exposure to stress can “trigger” depression, or even tendencies toward addiction, but that stress did not create those internal realities, and I think that’s worth separating.  These issues are more complicated than exposure to long workdays and strict deadlines, and to say anything else, in my opinion, is dismissive and belittling.

It might be worth looking at characteristics people who go to law school tend to share.  For the most part, I think, people who make it to law school are intelligent, willing and able to work hard, and care about achievement in the traditional sense.  I’m sure there are other characteristics, perhaps some that are more or less kind, and I wonder if there is some correlation between some of those characteristics and tendencies toward addiction and depression.  Maybe that information could somehow identify people who might tend to struggle more, in order to provide help before it’s too late.  Maybe that information could predict which students are more likely to struggle with pressure or long hours or whatever it is that is the problem.  Or maybe that information would unfairly single people out and cause more damage.  I have no idea.

I do think it’s important to say a few words about the different reality men and women lawyers have.  I wrote recently about the large number of unhappy women, or at least the lack of adult women who seem happy.  When I was in my first year of law school I attended a Women’s Law Forum meeting, where women lawyers came and gave a presentation and answered questions to an auditorium full of women law school students.  Woman after woman stood up and talked about how difficult her life was.  Every single one cried.  One, who had a toddler at home, said she dropped her son off at daycare every morning, cried all the way to work because she knew she wouldn’t be home in time to tuck him in for bed, and cried all the way home for the same reason.  Another said she didn’t plan to have children for that very reason.  Still another said she opted to work “part-time” only to discover it was half the pay and 75% of the work, and she would never advance in salary or position.

I remember walking back from that event with two friends, and while we normally would have taken the opportunity to discuss what was said, or at least the fabulous shoes the main speaker was wearing, we were completely silent.  We didn’t stop for coffee or even to use the bathroom.  We walked slowly back to our classroom and sat down, and both friends looked like they had seen a ghost.

I think that was the first time I realized, in any real way, that women really cannot have it all.  I think remembering that, as we discuss further how to help lawyers struggling with depression and addiction, is important.  If we are going to address these issues, and despite what may be perceived as pessimism, I think we should, we need to find a way to include everyone, and to consider the fact that different people will have different needs.

I do have one idea, thanks to the comment section I read on an article posted on Above the Law:  We could all try to be nice to each other.  We could all try to genuinely care for each other, to be present in our relationships, and to engage each other.

Lawyers, non-lawyers, law school graduates, non-law school graduates, men, women, adults, children, stay at home moms, working moms, associates, partners, geniuses, idiots non-geniuses.  We could all take a few minutes from our very busy lives to send a quick note to someone we care about, or to make a quick call, just to say, “How are you doing?  I hope well, because I think you’re great and I’m thankful to have you in my life,” and actually listen and then show people that we mean it.

I know, it’s tough.  It’s hard to find the time, sometimes it feels awkward to put ourselves out there like that, and sometimes we just don’t feel like it.  It’s easier to throw flames at law schools or firms or each other from behind our computer screens or smart phones, and in the short-term, it probably feels more satisfying.  If I wanted things to keep going as they are now, I would stick with the easy solution.  I don’t, so I won’t.

I’m not suggesting one warm conversation can fix years of depression or addiction (I am NOT a mental health professional), and I’m not arguing that this is the only or best solution.  I am saying, and I believe this, that this one small thing could make a positive difference.  If we all take a deep breath, let down the walls for a few minutes, have a genuine interaction with another person, we might actually find we are the ones who gained the most.

*For those of you who are not familiar with the billable hour, that’s worth understanding to get a clearer picture about what life is like at some of these firms.  A billable hour is a way of measuring how much work is achieved, and most big firms still use this method.  Lawyers keep track of how long they worked on a  matter, usually in increments divided into something like six or ten minutes, and that time is billed to a client.  At the end of the year, those hours are added up, and a lawyer is evaluated accordingly, in the form of a yearly bonus and the possibility of advancement.  Firms have different “targets,” but many of the big firms provide one target and expect a much higher number in order to advance or even to keep a job.

For example, one firm with which I have much indirect experience requires 2100 hours on paper, but really expects at least 2400.  This website breaks it down in a clear and helpful way, but with slightly different numbers.  So let’s say 2400 hours are expected each year.  That means, with two weeks vacation, each lawyer is expected to bill 48 hours per week.  You might think, “That doesn’t sound so bad?  That’s nothing like the 100 hours people complain about.  I knew I should have gone to law school!”  Not so fast.  That’s 48 hours per week billed.  That doesn’t include lunches, personal phone calls, checking emails, business development meetings, bathroom breaks, sick days, or holidays.  One calculation estimates that to bill 2200 hours per year, a person would have to actually work 3058 hours per year, which averages out to 61 hours per week, again assuming no sick days or holidays, and only a two week vacation.  That does not include requests from partners to keep hours low on a project in an effort to bring in new business, or “adjusted billing” from partners who think a project that took four hours should have only taken two, which happens.  So now we are up to spending more than twelve hours per day at the office during the week, or working weekends, and that does not include any time spent commuting, or going to the gym, or doing anything else.  I should add that these are not often twelve hours spent doing low-stress jobs, these are hours spent scanning thousands of documents for information, writing angry letters to protect client interests, deposing lying liars, standing up in a room full of people and arguing over concepts very few people actually understand (including, probably, your client).  It’s a lot.

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