Working with lawyers more than 30 years has taught me that they are as different as snowflakes or fingerprints. Any attempt to broadly categorize them as this or that is neither helpful in gaining a better understanding, nor fair. After all, I wouldn’t want someone to look at me and lump me in with a group of similar-looking, similar-talking professional women, no matter how accomplished they are. I want to be considered uniquely – I think we all do.
But what struck me most about Jim Dolan’s recent article in the Texas Lawyer is how consistent it is with my own experiences and observations over my career. I love working with high intensity, brilliant people with exacting standards and unequivocal values. I love working with lawyers, CPAs and other professionals who are at the top of their game – or are on a well-defined path to get there. But they all have a price to pay – and Jim Dolan describes it simply and clearly in a way that I’d not quite considered.
It made me sad. I know these people. For those of us who have devoted our lives to supporting and elevating lawyers and other professionals, our job is to help them through it – help them have more fun with it (those of us on the creative side), help them recognize it.
Jim has given me permission to reprint his post from the Texas Lawyer. If you are interested in reading more from Jim Dolan, try these on this Law Firm 4.0 Blog:
Are Lawyers Predisposed to Depression, Substance Abuse?
James Dolan, Texas Lawyer
November 19, 2015
Enter this query in your web browser: “Lawyers prone to addiction and depression.” Or, “Lawyers and suicide.” Search, and it will generate several days’ worth of reading. But why? How is it that in this profession that many love, sometimes hate, and may be ambivalent about depending on the day of the week—that so many struggle with the twinned illnesses of addiction and depression?
Is it the professional environment of law practice, with its frequent negativity, pettiness, back biting? One lawyer said it’s a field in which there is always someone out there doing his best to make sure you fail. Another said that it can be like a surgeon working with all his craft to save a patient, while on the other side of the operating table, there is an equally skilled surgeon doing his best to kill the patient.
Readers have certainly heard anecdotal stats quoted about this, that or the other profession with “the highest suicide rate.” Physicians, dentists, lawyers usually appear at the top of somebody’s list. One such list showing lawyers 1.33 times higher in suicide risk than average, while the most vulnerable group-doctors- are 1.87 times as likely.
The notion that the profession causes illness is inaccurate. This presumes the person entering the field is a blank impressionable screen on which ills are imprinted. Still, we can’t ignore the challenging nature of the work.
Pathology occurs in that soul frontier where the unique pressures of the profession meet the frail humanity of its practitioners. Some are frailer than others. Almost all were high academic competitors drawn to the intellectually demanding environment of precision and accuracy with language, and to the power to use language as a tool or even a weapon.
There is a large group uniquely suited to the profession. Are they the majority? I suspect so, but here we focus on that sizable minority who suffer in their job, but perhaps not entirely because of the job.
At the outset, the JD might have looked like a suit of armor to be worn in acts of heroism, economic gain, or power and control over others, but it so often turned out to be a prison in which to experience the exquisite torture of one’s own utter imperfection.
I would propose that those among the profession who suffer with addiction/depression come from that group of individuals we might call “Wounded Healers.” The concept of the Wounded Healer is very old in Western culture. I have written about it in this column before. Essentially, the WH is that person who seeks to heal his own wounds by healing those of others. I include in the Wounded Healer group those who are clergy, physicians, nurses, psychotherapists, lawyers, and perhaps police and firefighters.
Within all of those professions is the common element of being of service to others disadvantaged or “wounded” in some way. The initial move into these professions is one of denial. Receipt of the diploma is seen as a way to transcend the early wounds, to leap beyond them, to cloak oneself in a garment of invincibility. In this suit of clothes, no one can see insecurity, self-doubt, sadness, hurt, the real human being dwelling within.
Denial leads to high hopes, dreams, expectations of wealth, traditional ideas of success, power. Instead, the Wounded Healer, full of high ideals, and above mentioned dreams and expectations is greeted with, as one lawyer said, a crushingly difficult work environment, surrounded by able adversaries ready to do him in. Once the beacons of wealth, power, and recognition have been extinguished, the lawyer so often comes to a crashing sense of the meaninglessness of his work. One lawyer I know described, in empty tones, that his work was about “helping corporations argue with one another over money,” as if to ask, “How the hell is that helping anybody?”
As the lawyer progresses, she is frequently asked to give representation to entities whose goals are incongruent with her own core values. She must compartmentalize her values in order to do her job. She must always be vigilant for personal attacks masked as legal maneuvers. Because the Wounded Healer has no natural defenses to these environments, her soul is left in its own compartment, where it is perhaps narcotized in various forms of self-medication.
Ignored and battered long enough, the Healer becomes depressed, seeks immediate forms of relief, of self-abandonment, or of aggressive acting out.
What to Do?
Certainly, it can never be too early to begin separating Who You Are from What You Do for a Living. If you are a Wounded Healer, you are very likely to have made the error of identifying completely with your JD. As the failures, rejections, and negativity pile up, you will most certainly be in trouble.
Protect your core values. Find places in life that support who you really are, where you can be aligned with what you really believe, so that you are strengthened for the task of compartmentalizing in your everyday work.
Have a life, meaning, invest in relationships. Lawyers almost habitually isolate. Remind yourself that your real life is lived amongst and with those who really care about you. Don’t back away.
Have a sport, a hobby, a passion, an avocation. Life is about discovering what lights up your soul, and following that. It is not about living in a narcotized fog when not representing clients.
Examine your hopes and dreams. So often, we work to superimpose dreams on reality, and get frustrated when they don’t fit. To readjust is hard work, but not as hard as the impossible task of getting reality to match a dream. If that’s not possible, it may be time to leave the field. Seriously. Your mental and emotional well-being hang in the balance.
In my field of psychotherapy, we often find another professional to work with in a practice known as “supervision,” where we Wounded Healers discuss our hard cases, failures, and personal issues affecting our practice. Would it be possible to find something similar in law practice? Might be worth the effort to find someone who’s been there, done that to share the internal suffering that practice can impose.
Lastly, recognize that there may have been a very wise part of you that early on recognized that the call to lawyering as a Wounded Healer would lead you into a direct confrontation with your own wounds. Going through the “meat grinder” (as one lawyer described the process by which he confronted his own ills) would lead eventually to finding the right help and a resolution of soul wounds and rediscovery of meaning in law practice, and in life.
James Dolan, M.A., is a professional coach and psychotherapist with 30 years of experience in private practice in the Dallas area. He works with lawyers and physicians in improving their business development communications, internal relations, and leadership and client-patient retention. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.