Black dogs in the courtroom

“Those miserable lawyers!” you say.  Chances are, they are.

It’s well established that legal practitioners suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety more than any other professionals.  US President Abraham Lincoln, himself a lawyer, was chronically depressed, and numerous lawyers following him have suffered from the “black dog” at various stages of their working lives.

So what is it about a lawyer that gives rise to this tendency to experience signs of depression, anxiety or both?  Some theorise that lawyers are trained to be pessimists, and dwell in the thoughts of what could go wrong.  They do this in order to put safeguards in place for their clients should such negative events occur, but persistently thinking of the worst case scenario may have detrimental impacts on mental health.  Others theorise (and many former lawyers of large law firms claim) that it is the long hours, the thankless work and the constant pressure of meeting financial targets that causes stress, anxiety and depression.  Social isolation, a difficult career ladder and overbearing bosses do not help the situation.

But it is not all bad news.  Mental health issues are more widely discussed today than ever before, and lawyers (and everyone, in fact) are actively encouraged to seek help.  Being aware of the prevalence of mental health issues in the industry also allows lawyers to be resilient against some of the drudgery that could lead to these issues.  For example, while lawyers still need to think of the possible negative outcomes of a matter, they can also look for ways to help their clients achieve positive outcomes.  Lawyers who engage in pro bono work (that is, free legal work undertaken for the public good) can experience greater degrees of career satisfaction, and as US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg remarked, “a lawyer will gain large satisfaction when he or she is not simply a fee-charging artisan, but a contributor to the public good.”  Public education campaigns and organisations such as Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute have made enormous inroads to removing some of the stigmas associated with depression and anxiety.

There is still a long road ahead to bring mental health issues into the spotlight, but lawyers today have more support that President Lincoln could ever dream of – they just need to ask for it.

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