Not many people speak of lawyers fondly. So you may not be surprised that when the average punter is asked to rate which professions they trust for ethics and integrity, lawyers come in just above car salesman.
When we talk about the mental health of lawyers, not many are receptive to the issue. It is important for people to remember that lawyers happen to be people too, and when you are in a tight spot, they quickly become your best friend.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental hinterland for lawyers was already bleak. According to a 2019 survey of 3800 legal professionals by ALM Intelligence:
17.9% had contemplated suicide during their career (double the general population).
32.7% had increased their usage of drugs and alcohol.
10.1% ‘feel’ they have an alcohol problem.
31.2% were depressed.
64% were anxious.
67% said their personal relationships have suffered as a result of being a lawyer.
When asked “Do you think the profession has had a negative effect on your mental health over time?” 74% said yes.
What has led to this? What key elements of a lawyer’s job could affect mental health to this extent? Below is what I have been hearing from the horse’s mouth on why these problems would be exacerbated, in other words, anecdotal evidence.
Perfectionism & Substance Abuse
Lawyers are usually hired for their attention to detail, knowledge of the law and professionalism. What this means is that employers are hiring a specific cohort of people within the general population who are prone to perfectionism and unrelenting standards.
For lawyers, and others, perfectionism and inflexible standards classically lead to increased anxiety and depression, which manifests in the inability to switch off, to sleep or to take a truly restful vacation.
Lawyers are usually required to stay on call for a client or employer’s whims and emergencies. With the advent of mass electronic communication, lawyers can be on call for rather extended periods of time. So as soon as their CEO or Senior Partner clocks off at 1am, the alluring nepenthe of alcohol or drugs can appear as a ready fix to a hypervigilant mind, which seeks comfort and peace.
Conflict & Moral Injury
A big part of a General Counsel’s job is saying no and sticking to your guns. Another big part of the role is saying nothing and letting things go. Does that sound confusing to you? Because it should. And it can be incredibly stressful for a person to balance competing interests to remain ‘commercially driven’ in a business environment.
If the interests of the business constantly clash with a person’s moral structures, this can lead to what some have coined ‘Moral Injury’. Classically materialising as anger, disorientation, shame, guilt and anxiety. Your General Counsel might not agree with your investment strategy or your overly litigious behaviour, this can very well mean that they are more likely to jump the fence at the first opportunity.
It is important to engage your in-house counsel with your core strategy and to have honest conversations about it, both before you employ counsel and regularly along the journey.