The Louisville Courier-Journal reported on Monday about a rash of suicides by Kentucky lawyers, including one that occurred in a casino parking lot in Gulfport.
At least twelve lawyers in Kentucky have committed suicide since 2010. All were men and their average age was 53. Most were trial lawyers.
The article states:
Bar officials say they believe that stress is at the root of the recent suicides.
“You take on the burden of your clients’ problems, then pile them on your own, and it takes a toll,” Myers said.
State Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham, who wrote about the topic in the Russellville News Democrat Leader last year, said some lawyers (“broken-hearted idealists,” he calls them) just give up.
“They learn that justice is not always done. Innocent people are abused and some go to prison. People guilty of terrible wrongs go free,” Cunningham wrote. “They worry that all the lost hours and missed holidays with family and friends … do not matter. … They become like a weak-kneed boxer in the 15th round. They keep flailing away. But they lose purpose. They lose hope.”
Lanny Berman, director of the Washington-based American Association of Suicidology, said the competitiveness and perfectionism that make good lawyers — and the lack of fulfillment many lawyers feel in practicing law — put them at high risk of alcoholism, drug use, depression and suicide.
Since I have been practicing, Mississippi has seen its share of suicides by middle aged litigation attorneys. Is there a link between practicing law and higher rates of depression and suicide? I would have to say yes.
It’s hard to articulate exactly why that is. Lawyers work inside and make a good living. That’s a good gig, right? Not for many lawyers.
One thing that I have noticed is that practicing law tends to become more stressful and less fulfilling over time. It’s like there is a cumulative effect of all the profession related stressors.
I attended a malpractice prevention CLE yesterday where the presenter opened by telling a story about how neither clients nor the general public like lawyers. Nice way to make the attendees (all lawyers) feel good. Not that I didn’t already know it. This is another fact I’ve learned in focus groups that I wish I would not have.
One suggestion offered in the CLE was to not take a case if in the initial meeting you don’t like the potential client. That’s great advice for a lawyer who typically represents a client once. But it’s not realistic for a defense lawyer whose practice may largely depend on business from one client where the lawyer’s contact makes life miserable for the lawyer.
And it only takes one problem client or one problem case to make going to work everyday miserable for a lawyer.
On top of being in an unfairly reviled profession, veteran lawyers have seen the failures of the justice system. One example: innocent persons are sent to prison for years based on hack expert opinions. On top of that, there is just nothing the justice system can do for so many people who have been wronged.
I spend a lot of time talking to people who are just screwed. The reasons are varied and many. For one reason or another, the justice system can’t help them. Having that conversation over and over does not make a lawyer feel better about the profession.
It is a tough profession for so many reasons. Stressful when you have too much work. Stressful when you don’t have enough work. Stressful when you try to envision how much work you may have in the future. Stressful always having to put out fires that pop up in cases. Stressful dealing with clients and other lawyers who are stressed out.
More stressful than most other professions? Probably. Stressful enough to lead to an increased suicide rate? Probably. Again, it’s a tough profession.
And I am a big believer that stress is a root cause of many physical and mental illnesses.
One of the ironic things about the lawyer glut is that a lot of people wouldn’t go to law school if they knew what they were in for.
You might even argue that many of the law school graduates who can’t find a job are lucky–getting a job in the legal sector might make them even more unhappy than being unemployed.
There is help available for lawyers and judges who are having difficulty coping with the unique pressures of the profession. The Bar has people on staff to assist lawyers and judges who are struggling. Anyone at the end of their rope or who is afraid that a colleague is, should contact the Bar for help.