Death, drugs, and depression have gained gradual attention within the legal profession. Only a decade or two ago, few would even expel a whisper concerning these issues. But news organizations and films increase needed attention by providing a glimpse into a world most do not understand.
In The New York Times last summer (July 15, 2017), Eilene Zimmerman crafted a sensitive account with incisive current research of the hidden rise of drug abuse and depression in the legal profession. She told the compelling story that concluded in the overdose death of her former husband, a lawyer in a big-city practice.
Living in a constant state of stress, “[he] obsessed about the competition, about his compensation, about the clients, their demands and his fear of losing them … [and he] hated the combative nature of the profession,” in which, “you are financially rewarded for being hostile.” Through his career, he often said, “I can’t do this forever.”
After being the one to find his body, she extensively researched the relevant issues, citing reports that “lawyers also have the highest rate of depression of any occupational group in the country” and that law students shift focus to status and competition and that they shed their idealism away from “helping and community-oriented values to extrinsic, rewards-based values.”
Issued just months after her former husband’s overdose, a study by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs noted that nearly 75 percent of responding attorneys skipped the questions on drug use. The lead researcher opined they were afraid to answer. That study, released in 2016, further found that 28 percent of lawyers suffer depression.
Conducting this research to heal her children’s broken hearts, Zimmerman concluded from her analysis, “I firmly believe that law-firm culture, particularly at big firms, has to become more compassionate and more aware of the signs that one of their own is struggling.” But she also recognized how this is “complicated by an entrenched culture of privacy combined with an allegiance to billable hours.” Cleaning out her former husband’s personal effects, Zimmerman found his list of final New Year’s resolutions, written just months before his death, with the word “quit” printed in red ink.
In a recent New York Law Journal (March 28, 2018), Joseph Milowic III lays bare his own personal bouts of depression as a partner in one of the largest national firms, bravely admitting openly what few only whisper. Milowic sensed his “lack of energy and motivation only seemed to get worse … [and felt] consumed by an endless loop of anxiety and negativity … [L]osing interest in everything. I questioned the purpose of my work and even life. What was the point of it all? Why spend so many hours working at a job that seems so pointless?”
Though lost, he found help … and then “meaning in things again.”
These media reports paint a grim picture from lived experience across the nation. The big screen has also portrayed the legal profession through various characters.
In one such portrayal, Roman J. Israel, Esq., Denzel Washington breathes life into his lawyer character as a socially awkward legal savant. From beginning to end, Israel struggles with his ideals of the nobility of law to achieve a just world and the frustrations of making a decent living. Nearly broken by that confrontation, Israel laments he’s “tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.” After about 30 years in this small practice, Israel loses everything: his senior partner dies, his law firm shutters, his job disappears, his tenuous financial security evaporates, and his fight for human rights and justice collapses—worst of all his belief in humanity falters and his whole purpose for living now seems a lie.
Sound familiar? In the film, Israel—under duress—takes a wrong turn to “get mine” for materialistic pursuits. But soon he is overcome with guilt and seeks to make things right, becoming the sacrificial lamb, atoning for his transgressions, even unto death.
These stories—fictional and real—share a kind of commonality wrought by the law profession, exposing the malaise among many lawyers. Great legal minds solve problems for clients every day, and it’s time to turn that immense talent toward the more difficult problem seemingly inherent within the legal profession. These same stories—and studies and statistics easily found during research—confirm a widespread dilemma, thus no one need feel alone. Brain drain, broken dreams, lost love, and shattered lives needn’t be normalized or perpetuated.
When this is recognized, we can turn for help. For ourselves or our colleagues, we may start by reaching out to the Lawyers’ Assistance Programs of the state bars. Click here to see a list of LAP programs across the country. The Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program, or TLAP, provides confidential assistance 24/7 at (800) 343-8527 (TLAP). For more information, go to tlaphelps.org.
Van VanBebber is an attorney, CPA, and writer on cultural trends, professional ethics, and cross-functional thinkers, with a forthcoming book on related issues.