Why, on a blog about life’s best practices, did my last post address depression? Depressive cognitive distortions are mind challenges that everyone faces from time to time.  Some of us resiliently address those symptoms.  Others do not, and suffer extended and deep depressions.  These cognitive distortions are a basic part of the mind’s function – something we should be aware of and on the lookout for.

But there was a more basic reason for my writing.  I work with hundreds of lawyers. I am one myself, I work in one of the largest law firms in the world, and I have taught budding lawyers for a decade.  As I researched the mind’s function, I stumbled upon a troubling fact:  the best lawyers may be built for depression.  It’s not inevitable, but it is a real risk for those with whom I most rub shoulders.

Some chilling facts – to lawyers, at least.   As Martin Seligman noted in his book, Authentic Happiness, “Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found statistically significant elevations of major depressive disorder in only 3 of 104 occupations surveyed.  When adjusted for sociodemographics, lawyers topped the list, suffering from depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally.”  Authentic Happiness, at 177.  Lawyers are more likely to be alcoholics and drug abusers. And lawyers tend to express significant job dissatisfaction.

Seligman was curious about this, especially since lawyers tend to be highly paid and the law is considered a prestigious profession.  What could be driving those depression numbers?  He hypothesized that the answer may lie in explanatory style.  Seligman notes that people tend to have either optimistic or pessimistic explanatory styles.  When confronted with a setback, those whose styles are optimistic tend to consider the situation to be temporary, specific and non-generalizable, and external (caused by someone else).  By contrast, those with pessimistic explanatory styles tend to view setbacks as permanent, pervasive (universal and catastrophic), and personal (caused by them).

Seligman explains that “pessimists are losers on many fronts.”  Take that statement on faith for now; I will explain in a future post.  For my purposes, his next sentence is the crucial one:  “there is one glaring exception; pessimists do better at law.”  Authentic Happiness, at 178.

It turns out that many of the skills that may predispose someone to practice law, and which one certainly hones in law school, are classically pessimistic approaches.  Seligman notes that “[p]essimism is seen as a plus among lawyers, because seeing troubles as pervasive and permanent is a component of what the law profession deems prudence.”  Id. I would go further.  Lawyers are not only taught to look for risks and uncertainties.  We are also taught to look skeptically at any proffered explanation or evidence.  We are also taught to accept the responsibilities and risks of others.  In fact, much of the practice of law consists of shifting risk from clients to attorneys.

Seligman also notes that the dynamics of law practice can contribute to the risk of depression.  Authentic Happiness, at 179.  Young lawyers are given significant responsibility without corresponding authority.  They don’t get to make the ultimate decisions or provide the ultimate advice to the client, but they are called upon – often quite young – to be right in whatever they do.  Yet even more senior attorneys tend to provide advice to clients who may perhaps go in a different direction, and are free to do so (sometimes to our chagrin).

Finally, Seligman notes that law has become, in his words, “increasingly a win-loss game.”  Authentic Happiness, at 180.  He was clearly treading softly here, for this severely understates reality.  Lawyers commiserate with each other that in litigation, one side ends up angry at his lawyer because she lost, while the other side ends up angry with her lawyer because it cost her so much to prove what she already knew was the truth.  Even in non-litigation contexts, for example business transactions and regulatory counseling, lawyers tend to be viewed all too often as transaction costs, friction, and overhead – something borne, not welcomed.

So I wrote about depression because my profession is particularly susceptible.  My friends and colleagues, and I myself, have to be especially on guard.

The great news is that all of us, including lawyers, can learn skills to combat a pessimistic explanatory style.  I will cover those in another post.