Studies show high rates of attorney depression, substance abuse, and suicide. What do practicing lawyers need to know?

I attended a seminar last week in Orlando entitled Practicing with Professionalism.  Michael Cohen, Executive Director of Florida Lawyers Assistance, presented the first session, entitled “Chemical Dependency/Stress.”  He opened with his own story of substance abuse and recovery — instant credibility, a spellbinding tale of breakdown and recovery.  I suspect that most of us who attend mandatory CLE presentations tend to zone out (especially at 8:30 AM on a beautiful Friday morning, as this program was), but the entire room stopped to listen to Mr. Cohen’s story and its lesson for us.

Mr. Cohen presented some startling statistics about attorney substance abuse, depression, and suicide rates.  I haven’t been able to track down links to the surveys he cited yet, but here are the figures he presented:

  • 15-18% of attorneys will have substance abuse problem vs. 10% of general population.
  • Over 1/3 of attorneys say they are dissatisfied and would choose another profession if they could.
  • Attorneys have the highest rates of depression and suicide of any profession.

He also cited a study of Canadian lawyers that showed suicide to be the third leading cause of death for attorneys, behind only cancer and heart disease.  Evan Schaeffer’s blog includes a fascinating March 2005 post on this subject, with a lively discussion in the comments.  And, last but not least, studies show that 51% of lawyers experience stress at higher levels than the “normal” population.

These studies — if valid — reveal a crisis point for practicing lawyers.  They indicate that the way many of us approach practice just isn’t working.  Perhaps the law attracts people who are intrinsically more susceptible to substance abuse or emotional issues because lawyers tend to be pessimists.  But I’m inclined to believe that lifestyle and the pressures of today’s practice has a lot to do with these findings.

I am certainly not suggesting that most lawyers are headed for depression, drug or alcohol addiction, or suicide.  But I do submit that many lawyers are stressed out.  And, more importantly, I suggest that there are enough pressures on lawyers, especially lawyers who are fairly new to the practice, that it’s critical to be aware of the danger signals for these disorders.

And what can a stressed lawyer do to relieve that stress?  I believe that there are certain “best practices” for life and for conducting a legal practice that can reduce stress.  They can increase productivity and efficiency.  These “best practices” can keep us attuned to our own values and the way we express those values in practice.  They provide guideposts that can help lawyers reach their goals — professional and personal.

Stay tuned.  The next entry will describe these “best practices” and why they’re so beneficial.

PLEASE NOTE: Depression, substance abuse, and any suicidal thoughts are best addressed with the help of counselors who are trained and certified. Coaching is not therapy, and those issues are not appropriate topics for a coaching relationship. If you need help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), 24 Hours a day.  Please call them if you are in crisis.