My old guest-post at the Underground about depression in lawyers

More than 5½ years ago, I submitted a guest post to Evan Schaeffer’s blog, now known as Beyond the Underground, about depression in lawyers. Judging by the comment stream, it seemed to have hit a nerve. I had another look at it today, and saw that the most recent comment was submitted 6 months ago, more than 5 years after the original post.

If you’re interested in this topic, read Lawyers With Depression. Its author, Dan Lukasik, is writing some outstanding stuff there.

Vintage Ozzy

This weekend, the Voodoo Fest is happening in New Orleans at City Park. One of the headliners is Ozzy Osbourne. Ozzy has been at it quite a while. Here he is with his old group, Black Sabbath, performing Paranoid, circa 1970. On reading the lyrics, I think Melancholy would have been a more appropriate title. Maybe they didn’t want their song confused with Melancholy Baby.

Lawyers, depression, and spirituality

You may or may not be a lawyer who wrestles with depression. You may or may not sometimes wonder whether your life is out of balance. If you fall into one of those categories, or if don’t, but are interested in reading a blog written from the heart, one with a spiritual bent, then check out the Lawyers With Depression blog. It’s by Dan Lukasik, editor of the Lawyers With Depression web site. That is all.

Live for today

Here’s a sure-fire recipe for misery; see if it sounds familiar. You endure an existence that makes you miserable, thinking that at some date off in the future (e.g. retirement), you will commence real living. James Dolan calls this Preparing to Live Syndrome:

The sufferer sees life as an endless chain of meaningless, two-dimensional experiences that lack passion, value or meaning but that he must tolerate, because those experiences lead to some future point when all will come together, and life will again take on sparkle and value. In the meantime, there is nothing the sufferer can do, and the solution always lies out of reach, in the future.
It is uncommon to focus attention on the here and now and recognize it for what it is: the one moment of the only life we will ever have that we truly possess. Rare is the individual who has come to completely accept that the past is no more than a memory and the future an assumption about unborn events.

What is left when we truly accept this? I would submit that the vast freedom of here and now is what's left.

In other words, today is your real life. That idea can be tough to swallow. But it’s worth working on.

(Hat tip to the WSJ Law Blog, where you’ll find a long string of comments on this topic.)

Rethinking depression (and how antidepressants work)

The Boston Globe has this interesting article about the nature and etiology of depression. (Hat tip to Betsy McKenzie.) Though the article is not about the high incidence of depression in the legal community, it hints at a possible reason for the correlation:

One of the first cracks in the chemical hypothesis of depression came from a phenomenon known as the “Prozac lag.” Antidepressants increase the amount of serotonin in the brain within hours, but the beneficial effects are not usually felt for weeks.

This led neuroscientists to wonder if something besides serotonin might be responsible. Duman, for instance, began to study a class of proteins known as trophic factors, which help neurons grow and survive. Trophe is Greek for nourishment; what sunlight and water do for trees, trophic factors do for brain cells. Numerous studies had shown that chronic stress damages the brain by suppressing the release of trophic factors. In a series of influential papers published earlier this decade, Duman demonstrated that the same destructive hallmark is seen in depression, so that our neurons are deprived of what they need.

How about it, gang. Anyone out there under chronic stress?

Lawyers, depression, and Charlie Brown

I’ve written here and elsewhere that lawyers are more prone to depression than members of any other depression. But a new study suggests otherwise. According to this report by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the legal depression ranks 11th in incidence of major depressive episode.

Bob Ambrogi, who gets the hat tip for this one, surmises that the difference between this study and prior studies may be due to the criteria. Says Bob, “This study focused on occurrences of major depressive episodes, not milder symptoms, which may account for its divergent findings concerning lawyers.”

Of course, the important thing is not where lawyers generally rank on the scale of depression proneness. Depression happens to persons, not to professions. Whether or not you’re in the legal profession, the important thing is to understand the disease and to get help if you see it happening to yourself.

Speaking of depression, have you noticed some of the recent Peanuts Classic comic strips? The recent reruns are from 1960, when Charlie Brown was wrestling with depression. Forty-seven years later, these strips are still wickedly funny, which proves the genius of Charles Schulz.

Another bit about lawyers’ depression, another nerve hit

Last Wednesday, the WSJ Law Blog ran an item titled Are Lawyers Emotional Wrecks?, drawing on a Boston Globe story about a lawyers’ assistance program for lawyers with mental-health problems. The gist of the Globe story is the recent increase in the number of lawyers seeking help for depression. The WSJ Law Blog editor invited readers to comment, and boy, did they ever! Much of the commentary is negative toward the commentators’ individual jobs particularly and the legal profession generally.

Speaking for myself, I enjoy practicing law. By and large, I enjoy the company of the people I work with. In my case, practicing law did not cause depression—if it did, I wouldn’t still be doing it. That said, I do think that the legal profession attracts people who may be prone to depression (e.g. perfectionists), and that the demands of the profession can sometimes be bad for your mental health (e.g. several weeks without a full day off). That’s why all lawyers should know the signs of depression, and should not be bashful about getting help if they spot them. (A good place to start is your primary-care physician.)

“Are law students emotional wrecks?”

This is the question asked by the WSJ Law Blog. The post links to a paper titled Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-Determination Theory, by psychology professor Kennon Sheldon and law professor Lawrence Krieger.

I found the paper itself to be a bit abstract, meaning it’s not the kind of thing I want to read on a Sunday afternoon. The comment thread following the WSJ Law Blog post is, to me, more concrete and more interesting.

Many of the commentators on the WSJ thread seem to regret their decisions to go to law school. Speaking for myself, I did not find my third-tier law school depressing or demoralizing. Overall, law school was interesting, though at times a bit of a grind. It was hard work, but I must say it paid off in improving my income and my lifestyle. Overall, I’m better off today than I would have been had I not gone to law school. Maybe I was lucky.

While I won’t presume to offer anyone advice, I would like to share one bit of my own experience, for what it’s worth. One thing many of the WSJ commentators find demoralizing is the crushing debt they leave law school with: generally around $150,000.  In contrast, my total student-loan debt on leaving law school was, as I recall, somewhere around $9,700. This was partly due to good fortune — financial assistance that paid a good chunk of my tuition. But part of it was my own doing. I chose Loyola’s four-year night program over Tulane’s three-year day program because of dollars and cents. Loyola’s tuition was lower, and by going to school at night, I could keep my day job, which paid my living expenses.

There was a trade-off in this. Night school is certainly the hard way to do law school: work an eight-hour day, then grab dinner at a fast-food restaurant before three hours of classroom time, and spend the entire weekend doing a week’s worth of preparation for next week’s classes. Multiply that by four years instead of the usual three, because when all your classroom time has to be scheduled between 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., law school takes four years. And a less expensive school generally means a less prestigious school, which may mean fewer job interviews. Still, I managed to get a good-enough job with good-enough money, and with relatively little debt, I left law school with no money worries.

Some people advise prospective law students to try to get into the highest-ranked, most-prestigious law school they can. I have a different suggestion: consider the cost. The less debt you have at graduation, the more of your starting salary you’ll get to keep.