The rate of depression among lawyers is widely recognized as a multiple–in some studies a double-digit multiple–of the rate of depression in the general population and also in other professions.  This rate is high by the second semester of law school and only escalates over time.

There has been speculation as to whether depression in lawyers is a condition that is coincident with their predominant attribute of pessimism or is itself a separate attribute that might be a career enhancer in its own right.  Swiss watch makers have for generations piped downbeat music into their work rooms to produce a higher rate of accuracy in work that is technical and painstaking but also repetitive. Are lawyers naturally better suited to do the personal services equivalent of master watchmaking because of their inclination towards depression?

A recent study seems to provide at least a partial answer.  In "Performance benefits of depression: Sequential decision making in a healthy sample and a clinically depressed sample," by Bettina von Helversen et al, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, the following conclusions were reached:

"Previous research reported conflicting results concerning the influence of depression on cognitive task performance. Whereas some studies reported that depression enhances performance, other studies reported negative or null effects… [W]e studied the performance of individuals – in a complex sequential decision task – who are nondepressed, depressed, and recovering from a major depressive episode. We found that depressed individuals perform better than do nondepressed individuals. Formal modeling of participants’ decision strategies suggest that acutely depressed participants have higher thresholds for accepting options and make better choices than either healthy participants or those recovering from depression."

So exactly how were these depressed people functioning better? 

"[D]epressed participants accepted options less readily, which led to longer search and better choices. These results suggest that depression, by fostering greater persistence, may improve performance in certain tasks."

In other words, depressed people persist by passing up okay alternatives for a longer time and therefore eventually find a better choice than non-depressed people do.  The implication is that the depressed feel less pressure to come up with a solution quickly.

There are some other, less dramatic advantages to management to having a depressed work force–depressed workers are more likely to agree to what would otherwise be perceived as an over-reaching schedule and other onerous work conditions. Depressed workers are less likely to demand higher compensation or promotions.  They are also less likely to insist on using their own approach to managing a matter or staff.  Most of these advantages stem from the fact that the depressed don’t have the psychic energy to devote to these peripheral matters–they are intent on getting the difficult meat of their work done and need all that they can muster to do that alone.

Lest we sound like we are glorifying depression, also note the long-standing disadvantages to depression.  Again, quoting the above article: 

"Depression modifies eating and sleeping habits, changes psychomotor patterns, and impedes cognitive functioning (for a review see Levin, Heller, Mohanty, Herrington, & Miller, 2007). Moreover, depressed people find decision making challenging (Monroe, Skowronski, Macdonald, & Wood, 2005; Radford, Mann, & Kalucy, 1986; Saunders, Peterson, Sampson, & Reardon, 2000) and tend to ruminate about problems (Ewards & Weary, 1993). In addition to these challenges, depressed individuals perform poorly in memory (Jackson & Smith, 1984), reasoning (Sedek & von Hecker, 2004), and choice tasks (Conway & Giannapoulos, 1993; Gillis, 1993; Murphy, et al., 2001)."

That list gives us some insight into why, if depressed lawyers are making better decisions in at least certain circumstances and offer other advantages to management, we aren’t embracing the depressed lawyer model in recruiting and advancement. In short, a depressed work force doesn’t perform at its highest level.

But to quote further the authors of the study: "Despite these findings, recent work has attempted to detect whether depression offers benefits that offset its negative consequences and, thus, explain its evolution (Andrews &Thompson, 2009; Hagen, 2002; Keller & Nesse, 2006; Nesse, 2000; 2009). These investigations have found that negative affective states can promote analytical reasoning, which facilitates systematic and thorough information processing (e.g., Schwarz & Bless,1991). In this vein, Andrews and Thompson (2009) contend that depression may be an adaptation that enables complex problem solving, suggesting that depression may improve performance on tasks that demand rumination and persistence. This resonates with literature suggesting that negative affect promotes more systematic and thorough processing of information (e.g., Schwarz & Bless, 1991), and it also dovetails with investigations showing that depression inhibits goal disengagement, increases persistence (Andrews & Thompson, 2009), and leads to difficulties in decision making (Radford et al., 1986; Saunders et al., 2000)."

These depressed ruminations may also challenge managers trying to motivate their lawyers to work more quickly in a fixed fee environment.

All in all, isn’t depression as a career advantage a bummer for the industry?