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Sapere aude - dare to be wise
Monday, April 25, 2005
The Cost Of Doing Business
Posted 1:30 PM by Brian D.
As both an academic opportunity and a career, we accept that law school and the legal profession are high stress areas. We accept certain imbalances between work, school, and life. Our threshold for suspecting something is wrong with ourselves and others becomes set at a higher level. Yet by setting such thresholds at higher levels, we ultimately harm ourselves or others.

From Teaching Human Lawyers by Molly Stuart J.D.

We live in a world where studies show that although law students enter law school quite happy and idealistic about helping others, there soon is a troubling shift to major indicators of psychological distress. These negative changes persist through law school and into the students early careers, making it clear that the negative findings do not represent a brief adjustment period at the beginning of law school. The incidence of clinically elevated anxiety, hostility, depression, and other symptoms among law students ranged from eight to fifteen times that of the general population. In addition, a significant percentage of practicing attorneys are experiencing significant psychological distress well beyond that shown in the general population. These trends seem to be directly traced to law study and law practice. The unusual symptoms are not exhibited when the student enters law school but emerge shortly after beginning law school and remain, without significant abatement, well after graduation. This heightened distress can lead to significant depression, suicide, substance abuse, major life dissatisfaction and lack of professionalism.

The above problems and illnesses aren't simply feeling stressed in school or in a new career. Those are serious psychological and physical issues that affect how we work, study, and live. They are widespread and common, though you likely don't realize that.

Thanks to TV movies of the week we're familiar with the pitfalls of drug and alcohol abuse. The physical and mental destruction it will do to our bodies includes lack of concentration, short term memory loss, blackouts, cirrhosis of the liver, and other symptoms.

Though somewhat dated now a 1993 AALS survey of 3,400 law students at 19 schools discovered

that 3.3 percent of law students said they needed help to control their substance abuse, and approximately 12 percent said they abused alcohol during law school. That amounts to 15,000 law students nationwide who acknowledge problem drinking. Uncalculated are the number who get into trouble when they inhale, shoot, snort, or pop their substances. . . . Studies indicate that lawyers engage in higher-than-average drug and alcohol abuse, affecting from 15 percent to 18 percent of the profession, compared with 10 percent of the general population. The impact on clients can be devastating when lawyers miss filing deadlines, spend money held in trust, or are asleep at the switch in trial.

Disciplinary bodies discover that chemical dependency problems are at the root of 40 percent to 70 percent of complaints about lawyers, says New York state Chief Judge Judith Kaye, president of the Conference of Chief Justices.

For more nebulous conditions such as depression

[a] study of law students and practicing lawyers in Arizona discovered that when students enter law school, they suffer from depression at approximately the same rate as the general population (approximately 8 - 10%). However, by the spring of the first year of law school, 32% of law students suffer from depression, and by the spring of the third year of law school, the figure escalates to an astonishing 40%. Two years after graduation, the rate of depression falls, but only to 17%, or roughly double the level of the general population. . . .

Recent research in the science of the brain has shown that depression causes structural damage to the brain. Scientists now think that the depressed brain suffers areas of cell shrinkage or death because of the depression itself. Depression can be the source of cell atrophy or cell death in the brain and after each episode of depression that causes cell damage a person is ever likelier yet to have another episode of depression. . . . Depression is now understood not to be just decreased mood; it is a neurological event that can have permanent impact on the brain structure. Law school stress may be setting the biological stage for further, deeper or permanent damage to the brain and or depression in our students.

The American Bar Association has noticed the severity of the issue:

In 1991, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore interviewed 12,000 workers about depression. Lawyers ranked No. 1 on the list of occupations that were most depressed.
While 3 percent to 9 percent of the population at any given time may experience depression, a quality-of-life survey conducted by the North Carolina Bar Association in 1991 reported that almost 26 percent of the bar's members exhibited symptoms of clinical depression. Almost 12 percent of them said they contemplated suicide at least once each month.

As we approach finals simply reminding everyone to 'keep it real' seems woefully inadequate. If you are a student, an attorney, judge, or someone else in the legal field every state has a Lawyer Assistance Program. Every school and university has some type of assistance program. If you think you have a problem, or others told you they believe you have a problem, go check to see if you need assistance. We are taught to resolve other people's problems. We forget to resolve our own.

The costs to ourselves and others in this legal experience isn't just student loan debt, time, putting familial and friendly relationships on the back burner, but also potential and devastating damage to our physical and mental health. In 13 days we graduate. The extra cost for some walking across the stage will be around 1 in 10 have abused alcohol or other substances, 40% will have brain damage, and after graduation 1 in 10 may contemplate suicide every month. I hope we can bring those extra costs down in the future.

As seen in the
National Jurist
and on

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