This month’s article reporting the recent, landmark study of lawyer substance abuse and emotional issues is only the newest evidence of a long-standing problem.
A 1999 article in the Notre Dame Magazine, “Those Unhappy, Unhealthy Lawyers,” reported that lawyers are among the most unhealthy and unhappy of all professionals and that lawyers suffer from depression, anxiety, hostility, paranoia, social alienation and isolation, obsessive-compulsive feelings and behavior, and interpersonal insensitivity at alarming rates.
Gary L. Bakke, U.W. 1965, is a principal with Bakke Norman S.C., New Richmond, and a former State Bar of Wisconsin president.
There were many similar studies and articles in the 1990s. Greg Van Rybroek, a Wisconsin lawyer and psychologist, authored “Lawyers and Stress: An Anti-Quick Fix View.” Johns Hopkins University researchers found that of 104 occupations studied, lawyers were the most likely to suffer depression. The state of Washington reported that 19 percent of lawyers suffered from depression. The North Carolina Bar found that 26 percent of respondents exhibited symptoms of clinical depression.
Other studies have also confirmed that lawyers suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than nonlawyers. One group of researchers found that the rate of alcoholism among lawyers is double the rate of alcoholism among adults generally.
It should not be surprising that the source of unhappiness is the one thing we have in common: our work as lawyers.
In 2000, I gained some notoriety when I authored a Wisconsin Lawyer article, “Brainstorm,” which recounted my own struggle with depression and the wonderful support I received from my family and law firm. That led to invitations to speak at bar conventions in Virginia, London, England, and Tennessee, all places where lawyers had recently committed suicide. This is not a new problem.
It should surprise no one that people who are this unhealthy, who suffer from depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and drug abuse at high rates, are unhappy. Nor should it be surprising that the source of unhappiness is the one thing we have in common: our work as lawyers.
Article: “What Makes Lawyers Happy?” A national study including Wisconsin lawyers investigated who in the profession is happy, or not, and why they feel that way. Wisconsin Lawyer, July 2014.
My fear is that our response to this new study, like those before it, will be tepid at best. I am guessing that approximately one-third of readers will personally identify with these issues and that, over time, more than 50 percent will be affected. But lawyers have a tendency to view this as someone else’s problem, not as something that affects them personally, despite the statistics that show that more than half of us will be affected over our professional life time.
What to do? I have two suggestions. First, the Board of Bar Examiner’s (BBE’s) continuing legal education requirements focus almost entirely on substantive and ethics law with only a grudging acceptance of some practice management and personal management topics. But lawyer troubles are rarely caused by lack of substantive-law knowledge. Rather, they result from poor practice management and, unfortunately, poor personal management. The BBE should embrace continuing legal education that addresses these issues.
Second, the bar’s support for troubled lawyers has been focused on WisLAP. Although WisLAP provides programs to improve the health and wellness of lawyers, its historical mission has been to provide assistance for those lawyers who admit to a problem and seek help. The bar could broaden that to encourage multiple sections, committees, and groups to educate all of us and to implement work-life balance topics as a preventative to these devastating problems.