The depression demon attacks lawyers with particular vengeance, and denial and secrecy have long been the response. The recent loss to suicide of prominent lawyers from across the country, and the near loss of others, has inspired the courageous to speak out, a first step toward turning the professional spotlight on a condition that is rampant, but also treatable.

Evidence of the problem is long-standing. A landmark 1991 study by Johns Hopkins University ranked lawyers first, among 105 professions surveyed, in the rate of clinical depression.  A 1992 OSHA report found that male lawyers in the US are two times more likely to commit suicide than men in the general population. Lawrence Krieger, a clinical professor at Florida State University College of law, who focuses on work-life issues for lawyers, has research showing that practicing lawyers exhibit clinical anxiety, hostility and depression at rates ranging from 8 to 15 times that in the general population. Research in North Carolina indicates that 11% of lawyers in that state think of taking their own life at least once a month.

After the suicide of several prominent Texas lawyers, including Kenneth Malcolm “Mack” Kidd, a justice on the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin, and Hermes Villarreal, a lawyer who had a loving marriage, three happy children, a successful personal-injury practice and was chairman of a community mental health facility, Texas State Bar Association president Martha Dickie commissioned a task force and video on depression last year as part of her focus on lawyer mental health issues. Over 1500 videos have been distributed. “Lawyers and suicide—it’s rampant,” says Dickie. “I am absolutely convinced that this video is saving lives.”

Daniel Lukasik, managing partner of a Buffalo, New York personal injury firm, became a courageous advocate of treating depression in lawyers after his therapist told him that one-quarter of his clients were, like Lukasik, lawyers suffering from the illness, yet there were no peer support groups. 

On a mission, Lukasik helped create the Committee to Assist Lawyers with Depression for his county bar association, which was recognized with a Certificate of Merit during the New York State Bar association annual meeting this year. He also created the web site to offer lawyers information on the disorder. Further, he organized  in Buffalo this year what may be the first national seminar on attorney depression. 

The problem of depression is starting to be addressed at the law school level.  This year the 51,500-member American Bar Association Law Student Division launched a mental health initiative to help law students battling depression and anxiety. A mental health on-line toolkit is being offered to student bar organizations and law schools around the country. 

Complicating all these efforts to assist lawyers is the individual’s fear of being stigmatized should their condition be known.  This year the ABA adopted a model rule that would grant conditional admission to practice law to applicants who have substance abuse or mental health conditions, for which in many jurisdictions applicants are deemed unfit to practice law. Applicants must demonstrate recent rehabilitation or successful treatment.

These and other initiatives to recognize and provide assistance for depression seem to be starting to have an effect.  Patricia Spataro, director of the New York State Bar’s Lawyers Assistance Program says that now 30-40% of their calls are related to depression, compared to almost zero only a few years ago. The New York City Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program reports similar increases. “When I started with this program nine years ago, I actually had a lawyer with depression tell me that he wished he was an alcoholic because it would have been easier to deal with,” said Ms. Travis, director of that program.

In England, the Solicitors Benevolent Association, Solicitors’ Assistance Scheme and Law Care have all resolved to work more closely in helping solicitors cope with the pressures of modern practice. Lawyers in the UK, as in the US, spend so much time solving other people’s problems, they believe they should be able to handle their own problems as well, even though they have no expertise in this area, notes LawCare CEO Hilary Tilby. “Our joint aim is to help them recognize they have a problem and offer a solution for dealing with it.”

Why does such a debilitating illness strike the legal community so fiercely? Pessimism is an attitude that has been demonstrated to be highly correlated with success in the practice of law, but it is also a trait that is strongly associated with depression, particularly when coupled with ambitious, high-achieving, perfectionist, type-A personalities who put tremendous pressure on themselves.

The key is making sure lawyers know that there is assistance available that can make life and work more rewarding.