According to a recent article in the ABA Journal, "Law schools need to do more than teach the legal basics–they also have a moral obligation to produce healthy and satisfied lawyers." Specifically, Michael Serota, a recent law grad, suggests in his opinion column in the New York Law Journal that law schools "help students identify their professional values and make individual career decisions that correspond to those values."
Serota cites the Peterson study finding unusually high rates in lawyers of depression and other signs of distress, such as heart disease, alcoholism and drug use (see also our entry The Depression Demon Coming Out of the Legal Closet), and four ABA studies conducted over the last 25 years confirming chronic professional dissatisfaction–one out of every four lawyers is dissatisfied with her job. The Peterson study found lawyers suffer from the highest rate of depression of all professionals after adjusting for socio-demographic factors and are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from a major depressive disorder than the rest of the employed population, as well as being more likely to develop heart disease, alcoholism and drug use. Professor Susan Daicoff has noted approximately 20% of the entire profession suffers from clinically significant levels of substance abuse, depression, anxiety or some other form of psychopathology. Let us add to these studies various others that have identified very high rates of suicide, divorce and mental illness among lawyers. According to Serota, researchers have also found that mental illness and distress are responsible for the majority of attorney malpractice and disciplinary proceedings.
These findings point to a massive amount of individual suffering across the country, as well as significant costs to society in the form of increased health and malpractice expenses and a plethora of poorly or under-served clients. This circumstance is one clearly worth addressing, and one that can in fact be remedied.
We are often asked if the culture or pressures of legal workplace environments cause these mental health problems. We believe that pervasive personal traits in lawyers–such as high levels of pessimism, competitiveness, introversion and conflict-avoidance and low levels of resilience and sociability–as well as ignorance about how to manage their implications underlie many of these disheartening statistics. And we have good evidence that those traits are already in place when students enter law school. The law school environment of similar personal types simply intensifies those attributes and can exaggerate their negative tendencies.
Further, most law students enter law school with a different vision of how they are going to practice law than law schools (and most of their law firm clients looking for talent) envision, resulting in the poor alignment of values that Serota notes. Research done in the area of positive psychology has determined that promoting the use of personal strengths is a means to higher job productivity and satisfaction. As is the alignment of personal values with that of the workplace. Unfortunately, research by Sheldon and Kasser found that as early as their first semester of law school, students begin to shift from focusing on their internal value systems (that which gives them pleasure and meaning) toward an increased emphasis on external values (such as grades and competition), leading to decreased satisfaction and overall well-being.
Using strengths and aligning values requires, of course, understanding one’s strengths and values and how well they match with those of the profession and individual firm one hopes to join.
Unfortunately, the level of this kind of awareness among lawyers must be one of the lowest of all professions. And even fewer lawyers, if aware, know how to affirmatively use that information for greater productivity and satisfaction.
Thus, it is not surprising that studies find, for example, that within six months of entering law school, students experience significant decreases in well-being and life satisfaction, and substantial increases in depression, negative affect and physical symptoms.
The American Bar Association, the Association of American Law Schools and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching have all devoted substantial time to making recommendations as to how law schools might address these concerns. We and other consultants to the industry offer our viewpoint and suggestions. See among others our entry Growing Leaders at Harvard and Other Business Schools.
Law schools have responded by doing little, if anything. Staff members with little training in the underlying psychological issues continue to offer ad-hoc, after-hours "career counseling" that doesn’t help students recognize or address the personal challenges of lawyering. "By ignoring the topic of professional satisfaction in their curricula, law schools create an institutional misconception that the personal challenges of lawyering are peripheral to the practice of law. But because the individual is part and parcel with the professional, personal problems will necessarily affect the professional environment," Serota asserts.
Does the mandate to educate lawyers include educating them in how to ply their trade with satisfaction and in good health? Will law schools ever put in place programs that further those ends? Lots of different perspectives on this one–see the comments.