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.   

  • “Law schools…have a moral obligation to produce healthy and satisfied lawyers.”
    That’s the dumbest thing we’ve ever seen in print. That’s the job of law students. We won’t even try to explain further. Get the net.

  • As a lawyer and law professor I think the greatest source of the problems you discuss is the terrible job law schools do in preparing students for practice. Law schools have very little concept of how anyone practices law. No doubt a significant reason for that is the minimal practice experience of the vast majority of faculty members. As a consequence, whatever practice-oriented education exists is relegated to a lower status within law schools that conveys to the students its lack of importance.
    I’m not sure playing in the first instance to student strengths and values is the best remedy, however. The students are so young that they lack many of the traits and values they need for practice. And at the top of the list of their weaknesses is the one you cite — an eagerness to avoid conflict, surely a disqualification for any good lawyer.

  • Thanks, Dan. Here are quotes from your blog entry comments on my entry and your web address (good one to have on everyone’s feed):
    “Helping law students be real people so they can be happy as real lawyers? It all sounds “nice”…
    We seriously doubt that Law turns people to booze, drugs, nitrous oxide, ether, glue, Twinkies, or mental illness any more or faster than the same people would ingest or suffer in different or less taxing professions. A lot of that “hay is in the barn” when you get hatched (i.e., at birth). Some call it DNA, genes and family “patterns”. Entire books by shrinks, regular physicians and scientists cover it.
    How about this? Law schools will work on recruiting somewhat tougher people who would make good lawyers and actually like, handle and even “use”–rather than fold under–the “pressure” that is likely to still accompany much great legal work for clients in the future? And then make them into the best lawyers they can make them into in three (3) semesters rather than six (6)? Or is that too insensitive, old school, and cost-efficient?”
    I endorse that last comment as at least one way to get at this problem, whether it was made in jest or not–unfortunately law schools, like most law firms, have consistently resisted using any type of assessment to help sort out those who would make the best lawyers without folding from the chafe that currently folds at alarming rates–rates unseen in any other profession. Industry-wide faulty DNA is your position? Unlikely, but even more alarming if that’s true–an entire industry that constitutionally can’t withstand its own pressures. That can’t be good for clients.
    Interesting that lawyers being “happy” or “nice” isn’t a priority for your clients. The quality of lawyering is hard for anyone to judge, in-house lawyers included or perhaps specifically, so outcome and interpersonal skills are what is left. See future LawPeople blog entries on the demonstrated unreliability of outcome, which leaves us with one of the major reasons clients fire lawyers (BTI): personality issues.

  • shg

    Hard as I try, I am unable to figure out what you suggest law schools to teach students to improve their satisfaction as lawyers. Should they improve their diet, force themselves to attend happy hour, moonlight in a rock band? I have no idea what “aligning values” means. Is there an English translation available?
    Perhaps a substantive detail or two would help.

  • Ronda Muir

    Peter, thanks for your inside perspective.
    Used to be law schools were where we learned about the lofty legal concepts before we all entered the dirty fray, where we in fact learned how to practice law by apprenticing–sitting at the feet of good lawyers. Current economics and leveraging models don’t allow for the apprenticing (unproductive) part any more (although a few firms are trying to turn back the clock on that one) so young law grads are armed with a lot of lofty theorizing (often based, as you explain, on the experience and orientation of the faculty) and not much of the practical stuff. (Some argue that is how it should be–that law school can’t delve into the details of practice.) Law schools have recently tried to plug some of that gap with clinical programs, but there still is a huge difference between what lawyers learn and what they do.
    On top of that, the “value alignment” that I was referring to is the difference between the stated goal that a large majority of young people enter law school with–to work for the underdogs– and what they end up doing–working for large coporate clients. There is good analysis that that disconnect is one of the prime drivers of the widespread depression/dissatisfaction–many lawyers have subverted their own values to pay off loans or just succumbed to competition or hype. Big firm pro bono programs have evolved in part, consciously or not, to alleviate that discomfort. Add to the mix the personality attributes that seem to drive people to self-select law school–lack of empowerment and pessimism, among others, including, as you point out, Peter, conflict avoidance (because of dramatically low resilience in recovering from defeat) and you have a psychologically disastrous brew.
    What to do? We can 1) introduce law school assessments that identify these vulnerabilities, like low resilience, etc., (See Testing for Law and/or 2) help law students articulate their personal values/goals and coach them toward a better alignment of those values with the work they do, and/or 3) provide education to law students as to the particular stresses that certain types of practice impose and help them learn to manage those more constructively, and/or 4) just generally greatly expand awareness of the personal traits/situations that exacerbate these breakdowns and how best to cope with them.

  • Rising 3L

    You know, law school would be a lot happier if there were some jobs to be had….