Journal of Leadership and the Law

Student Notes

Elon Law student Ernest LewisThe Danger of Silence

Ernest Lewis L'15

The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.

Inferno (from The Divine Comedy)
 

A crisis is threatening the legal profession. It is a crisis of identity within the legal profession. What it means to be a lawyer is changing as the needs of the community change. Lawyers are not just needed to be ardent, competent advocates for their clients, but also restorers and mediators. This lack of clarity of purpose within the profession is a major contributing factor in the significant rise in depression among lawyers. According to a study by Johns Hopkins University published in 1990, lawyers were 3.6 times more likely to suffer from major depressive disorder[1]. It is estimated that out of the nearly one million lawyers in the United States approximately 250,000 suffer from some form of depression[2]. Recent studies suggest that one and four lawyers reported feeling elevated psychological distress, chief among them: inadequacy, inferiority, anxiety, social alienation and isolation, and depression[3]. These numbers may seem dated but the American Bar Association reported earlier this year that 19 percent of male lawyers suffer from depression[4],[5].

The data begs the question: “Are the instances of depression endemic in the general personality profiles of lawyers or are they a response to a highly pressurized field?” The answer for me is both. I would also add that the triggers of depression can start during law school. Studies suggest that over the course of three years of law school there is precipitous increase of instances of depression[6]. Depression can lead to bad behaviors and ethical failings. There is a growing link between ethical failings and depression and burnout[7]. Yes, the data is daunting, the problem is significant, but the legal profession is uniquely positioned to lead. This crisis point has proven to be a missed opportunity for leadership.

The goal of this note is to transform an awareness-orientated conversation into a solution-oriented conversation. Solutions are difficult when dealing with a complex issue such as depression. I propose three possible solutions. First, vision casting is paramount, without which none of the solutions that follow can be sustained. Second is the intentional building of communities of openness and awareness in law schools. The third solution is to demonstrate to students how to live in balance and cope with life out of balance.

My first solution is clarity of vision. When I was in business school, there was a clear vision presented from day one. What graduate business education meant was laid bare from the start of orientation and repeated throughout the year. What is the vision for the legal profession? Answering this question will give greater purpose to the legal education. There is a saying, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”[8]  Lawyers are needed to be restorers of breaches for their clients, a blend of advocate, strategist, and mediator. I am suggesting that from day one, guide students toward a vision for their lives and careers. Vision is an anchor throughout the tough seas of life. Once again, the profession can be overwhelming and can push many to their breaking points. Vision can help shield from depression, but vision alone is not a cure-all.

My second proposed solution is to build a community of openness and awareness in law schools. Sometimes, the competitive nature of legal education can pull out the negative characteristics of students under the heat and pressure of arbitrary success metrics. In addition to providing direction and support, the business of community building during orientation “can construct the profession as a calling, give students the context they need to navigate law school, and promote an ethic of care and professionalism.”[9]  This is the ethic needed to create an environment that is open and aware. As noted before, lawyers have a tendency to under-report struggles with depression. Vision paired with intentional community building gives a place where each person can be supported – thus combating a major trigger of depression, aloneness.

Third, legal education needs to include demonstration of living in balance and healthy opportunities to cope when life is out of balance. It needs to be said upfront that life is oft-times out of balance, but there are moments to find balance within the storm. Balance requires vision, community, and self-awareness. Good examples of missed opportunities to demonstrate balance and coping are law school networking/mingling events. Most events offered at law schools tend to be paired with alcohol and food. A more comprehensive picture of stress management needs to be demonstrated. Law schools and state bars around the country are beginning to understand this by offering a wide variety of opportunities. This is a place where we can lead our clients and communities. Instead of joking about the stress of the legal profession, we need to be demonstrating the value of balance from the start. Showing students how to practice balance in the “laboratory” of law school will produce well-adjusted young lawyers and thus combat tendencies toward depression.[10]

The poet Dante suggests that those that fail to respond in the midst of a moral crisis are worthy of, or doom themselves to the darkest corners of hell. Maintenance of the status quo is not worth a less than viable future for a vital and necessary profession. We have to adapt as a community to become better lawyers and leaders. The complexity of the crisis demands the courage and the vision to change. We must do a better job of healing our healers. Healing must be cultivated early in legal education. The legal community and its clients deserve lawyers who are whole and supported in their needs.


[1] Page Thead Pulliam, Student Commentary, Lawyer Depression: Taking A Closer Look At First-time Ethics Offenders, 32 J. Legal Prof. 289, 299 (2008) (citing William W. Eaton et al., Occupations and the Prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder, 32 J.OCCUPATIONAL MED. 1079, 1081-83 (1990)).

[2] C. Stuart Mauney, The Lawyer’s Epidemic: Depression, Suicide and Substance Abuse, Charleston School of Law, 2009, at ¶ 6 available athttp://www.scbar.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=rZNzWAnfCR4%3D&tabid=160.

[3]Id., at ¶ 7

[4]See CoLAP Café, available athttp://abacolap.wordpress.com/.

[5] It is worth noting that there could be significant fluctuations in the data due to a lack of self-reporting in the legal profession. Also, there is significant data that points to a correlation between depression and drug addiction and burnout. The legal profession is too valuable and the process of education is too expensive to continue allow people to fall through the cracks into burnout, depression, addiction or worse.

[6] Mauney, at ¶ 14

[7]Id. at ¶ 15

[8] Proverbs 29:18 (KJV): NOTE: the word translated “perish” could also be translated as “to be made naked”.

[9] Paula Lustbader, Humanizing Legal Education Symposium: Humanizing Orientation, You Are Not In Kansas Anymore: Orientation Programs Can Help Students Fly Over The Rainbow; 47 Washburn L.J. 327, 355 (2008).

[10] A way to provide this laboratory is experiential learning. Experiential learning is a sticking point in the history of the legal profession. The current system was born as a response to the older apprentice-type system. Economic dynamics led to development of a system based on curves and competition. The curve is efficient as a measurement tool when it comes to ranking and hiring during and after school. However, economic and social changes now compel legal educators to increase experiential learning opportunities. Experiential learning, such as the clinical model that is becoming more prevalent, gives students a laboratory environment in which to build on the concepts learned in the classroom. The goal is to solve real legal problems while giving students the opportunity to get practical and controlled experience.