Summary: Find out why being an attorney causes many to be depressed and feel like they are never good enough.
Many attorneys have self-esteem issues.
These lead to depression, unhappiness, and sometimes even suicide.
Your happiness needs to come from within so that you do not get torn down by being an attorney.
Like it or not, the way you think about yourself and the world around you will create not only your happiness but the sort of life you live as well. It will determine the quality of your life while you are alive, how long you live and the happiness of your family and those with whom you share your life. Nothing is more important than your psychology, and nothing will do more to determine how happy you are than the way you process your world around you. Our self-esteem is “one’s overall evaluation of the self and the feelings engendered by that evaluation” (Crocker, 2001). When we judge ourselves harshly, our self-esteem suffers. When we surround ourselves with people who are constantly generating feelings of inferiority, we are likely to also feel poorly about ourselves. Your self-esteem will be affected by your environment to a great extent. Large law firms are “an environment” and can have a profound effect on our self-esteem.
Lawyers—especially big firm lawyers and the best lawyers—have a way of thinking about the world that involves twisted psychology and low self-esteem, which often guarantees not only their unhappiness—but also the unhappiness of those around them (their families). According to the American Psychological Association, lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers. Attorneys motivated by the highest levels of achievement can become incredibly unhappy, unfulfilled and alienated from those around them in the process. When they start achieving the results they are looking for, they realize they are still unhappy and depressed. When they fail to achieve the career results they believe they should (which is likely most of the time), they use that as a reason to be unhappy and depressed.
This week I found out another attorney I know died—likely by suicide. This is the second attorney I know who died of suicide in the past few months. The first one I learned who had died was someone with whom I lived in college. The most recent one was an attorney with whom I went to high school. Both of these attorneys were attorneys who were very motivated and concerned about how they appeared to others, succeeding and making the most of their careers. Both of them found themselves coming up short.
I believe it is the psychology of the attorney trying to play at a high level that drives them to feel poorly about themselves and take their own lives. When attorneys throw themselves into the largest law firms, in the largest cities, something changes inside of them due to these environments. These attorneys become different people—the sort of people more likely to be depressed, unhappy and feel poorly about themselves than attorneys who take the opposite path in their lives. I speak with attorneys all day, every day, and have been doing so for almost 20 years. I speak with attorneys at all levels, in large and small firms and cities. In almost every case, I encounter the happiest attorneys in the less-competitive and smaller firms (and smaller markets) and the least happy in the most competitive and largest firms (and largest markets). The rule seems to be that the more outwardly successful an attorney is, the unhappier they are likely to be.
The “lawyer psychology” is most pronounced in the largest firms and markets. In these markets, the law has been industrialized. The quality of the product produced is expected to be perfect, and the billing rates are the highest. The attorneys need to have the best qualifications and are expected to be the best. The hours expected are the highest. The jobs are the hardest to get. The competition to get to the top is the most difficult. Your coworkers are most likely out to get you. You are far more likely to be “just passing through” and will never be a part of the firm in the long run. The large law firm is an “impersonal beast” of an almost Orwellian nature that grinds up the attorneys working there and often extinguishes their life force leaving them with nothing more to give. The attorneys who go to these firms are predisposed to go there because they have been playing the game of achievement (top schools, grades and more) for the majority of their lives.
The most recent attorney I know that died by suicide was in his mid-40s. He’s been dead about seven months. I only knew about it because I had gotten him a job several years ago and looked him up to see how he was doing. I’d gotten him a job in a large law firm, and he ended up (for reasons I do not understand) as a solo practitioner. When I looked him up on the State Bar of Florida website, I found out that Florida had disbarred him for stealing $90,000 from two clients. Two days after his death he was disbarred in Michigan due to the same offense in Florida (a decision about his disbarment had been pending apparently when he died). The listing of him on the State Bar pages said he was deceased. I did some additional research and found a small link regarding the funeral and where his services were held, but no other information about him. I contacted several of my high school classmates with whom he had been friends, but all of them feigned surprise that he was dead and did not know about it.
I learned that he left five children behind—from the ages of 3 to 12. These children will grow up and live the rest of their lives without a father. These children will be the collateral damage from what happened to their father and what his psychology did to him. If he had different psychology, he would still have been alive.
Since he had drug problems in the past, I am assuming that he had drug problems at the large law firm he went to and lost his job, became a solo practitioner, stole the $90,000 from his clients to get drugs and got caught. That would be my guess of what happened. In all honesty, I have no idea how he died, but since the death was kept so quiet and so sudden (and two days before his second disbarment), that is my best guess.
I have seen so many attorneys I know die over the past few years. In most cases when they die their funerals are quiet affairs—this makes me sad. They are not big funerals, and not a lot of people seem to care that they passed away. The attorneys have been spending the majority of their life in offices and living a life and playing a game where they do not leave behind a lot of people who care about them. They have plenty of time to take care of other peoples’ legal problems, but something is missing along the way. Billing lots of hours and being away from home, competing with colleagues, constantly worrying about work and clients, numbing yourself (with material things, sex, substances, outside achievements, pills, and so forth)—none of this leave a lot of time for building a life with others or taking care of your true internal needs.
My high school colleague and former candidate was the sort of person who never should have been an attorney, because practicing law was something that fed his weaknesses: I believe he wanted to be loved, admired, already felt alone and believed being something would make him loved by others. He had a hole inside of him that needed to be filled and he believed that achievement would fill this hole. He was the perfect candidate for the lure of the law. He had grown up with a drug-addicted single mother in Florida, and at some point, his mother had left him with his grandparents in Michigan. He had pain from not being close with his father and being separated from his mother. His grandparents did not want him either and put him in a private boarding school and let the school take care of him. I am sure this was not healthy. Not feeling loved by parents, not being loved by your grandparents and having no one to love you and reflect your value back to you is something that would leave anyone feeling alone.
The boarding school we both attended was all about achievement. It was all about being the best student, the best athlete and best at everything. Lots of kids went to Ivy League schools after attending it. People competed hard to be the best at everything. Your worth was tied to your achievements. Being around smart, motivated people bred the psychology that you needed to be like that too. Very few of the people with whom I still stay in contact from that school did not go to graduate school or become doctors, lawyers, or MBAs—or something along those lines. The psychology of being at that school bred that into the people there. When you are around a bunch of people trying to be the best at everything, you want to be that too. The environment of my high school instilled the psychology that success was important to your self-esteem. Working in large law firms took this to an entirely new level.
Our sense of ego often determines who we become. Without parents to build up their sense of ego and self-worth, people get it from other things: They try and build up their ego with achievements—money, success and other things. Because that does not work, they may use substances to fill their sense of lack that comes from not feeling how they want on the inside. When that does not work, they feel depressed, alone and frustrated.
I was friends him for a time but did not understand him too well—he was already quite damaged when I first met him. One day I was in art class when I was 16, and he came to the door of the class and got my attention. He seemed to be skipping class. I walked over to the door to see what he wanted.
“C’mon, I’ve got some coke,” he said. I gave him a strange look. I had never used drugs and was a bit taken aback. I could not believe it and told him I had to get back to class. I was far from a “goodie-goodie,” but this seemed a bit extreme at that point in my life. He was skipping class and was under the impression I would be interested in joining him to snort cocaine. Getting caught with pot would get you in significant trouble at my school, but cocaine was the sort of thing would have gotten you expelled, and the police called back then.
He needed to prove something to the outside world. Throughout school, he had been somewhat of a loner but always trying to “hook up” with as many girls as possible. From my perspective, he did this mainly for the bragging rights. To the extent I would associate with him, he would almost always be interested in telling me about his exploits with various girls—many of them I knew could not possibly be true, but he shared them anyway.
He ended up becoming an attorney and working in a succession of large law firms. When he went to his 20th high school reunion, he went around telling everyone how he had started some huge Internet company and had made hundreds of millions of dollars. None of this was true (I knew this because I had recently gotten him a job as an attorney). I did not understand this. I had not attended the reunion but heard this from numerous people. He was very concerned about how others saw him—even if it was not true.
He wanted people to know that he looked good on the outside and that he was successful. From a young age, was caught up in a game where it is all about how you look to others and not how you feel on the inside.
The more people we meet try and tell us how important they are, the more likely they are to feel the exact opposite of this on the inside. Their value should be internal to them and not based on how they look to others. Internally successful people have a sense of themselves that comes from the inside and not the outside. If we start tying how we feel about ourselves to things external to us—how we look to others—we will never be happy. Law firm practice does exactly that to many attorneys: It makes them believe that they need to be something on the outside to look and be successful. All along the way, you are under a microscope where people are always waiting for you to make a mistake—miss a deadline, make a typo, upset a client, upset someone senior to you and more. In large law firms, even small mistakes can have fatal repercussions to your career.
Many people who become attorneys are motivated by what is on the outside—and how they look to others on the outside—not on how they feel about themselves on the inside. You believe you can only love yourself (and be loved) if you look a certain way to others. The entire profession seems to breed an emphasis on externalities:
where you went to law school,
how you did there,
your law school honors,
the firm you are working in,
the firm(s) you worked at,
how many hours you bill,
your title in your law firm,
your billing rate,
your pay compared to your peers,
your social standing,
where your children go to school,
your charitable giving,
the size of your bank account,
how your firm is doing financially,
your allies (or lack of them).
It never ends.
The problem with all of these things is that they are external to you. They are not internal. They have nothing to do with your happiness and simply provide us short bursts of serotonin when we do something that elevates us in the eyes of ourselves, or (more than likely) others. If you are working all the time and cranking out hours, this is the true reward that you get for all of that work and sacrifice. This is your reward—more externalities.
Capitalism is built like this to foster the illusion that consumption and things external to you create happiness. Law firms give money to their attorneys. These attorneys then buy into the idea that sacrificing time and working hard will give them money, and with this money, they will presumably be happier. A large law firm attorney may be sitting in traffic, or on a train—for hours each day going back and forth to sit at a desk under fluorescent lights and bill more hours, be criticized, work with people out to get them, and for the most part work alone and rarely feel any sense of true accomplishment, or connection to clients and the largest and most successful firms.
The life of many attorneys is about emphasizing how they look on the outside and not how they feel on the inside. Because attorneys do not feel good on the inside, many die early or suffer painful lives and existences.
In my experience, most of the best attorneys in large firms in the largest cities get divorced.
Numerous attorneys mask how they feel on the inside with substances like drugs or alcohol.
Other attorneys use food, sex, or other behaviors to mask how they feel.
A great proportion of law firm attorneys dream of different lives or going in-house to escape these externally-oriented ways of judging their value in the world. Nevertheless, this often does not work either.
Attorneys are also trained to constantly question everything and find small errors. They do this all day, every day. They do this with others, and they also do it with themselves—this is the mindset being an attorney requires. The best attorneys can find the smallest errors and are hyper-vigilant about exposing every error and weakness no matter how carefully hidden.
All day everyday attorneys examine their work product and the work product of other attorneys and find small errors. If these errors are another’s errors, the attorney will blow them up and make them more significant than they are and use them in their defense on the other side. If these errors are their errors, the attorney will immediately fix them—or risk being called out by their superiors, the other side, or a judge. The worst part of this psychology is that attorneys find all of the weaknesses with themselves as well and are constantly aware of these errors. Like a well-polished brief, attorneys understand how they look on the outside as well and do what they can to look perfect.
Deep down we all want to be loved, and we also want to love ourselves. When you are never around your loved ones and are cranky when you are home, it is difficult to be loved. When you are judging yourself against ultra-competitive peers inside of a law firm, it is often quite difficult to love yourself because you feel like you are never good enough. The danger of being an attorney inside of a large law firm is that it is often difficult to be loved and to love yourself as well. The biggest challenge of all is not having an externally motivated mindset and, instead, finding value in the internal and developing a sufficiently good sense of yourself to leave all of this behind when it does not work for you anymore.
One of the happiest attorneys I know became a partner in a major law firm, made millions of dollars a year for about 15 years, and retired by the time he was in his mid-40s. He was my mentor of sorts when I was practicing law and had a view of the profession and his role in it that was unusual. He had grown up in a good family and did not come from a family of lawyers. Early on, he watched people competing with one another, billing the most hours and playing this game and that to succeed and driving themselves crazy doing it. He did something that in retrospect seems incredibly easy but was very mature. He did not compete. He realized that he needed to bill a certain number of hours and did so. Then, he concentrated on his relationships with others in the firm and tried to enjoy the people with whom he was working. He made friends with partners when he was an associate, made friends with younger attorneys, and was able to find happiness in an environment where others were going crazy and off the rails. He even made time to exercise several times a week. He competed and succeeded without actually competing. He realized the insanity that was going on around him but refused to participate. He did not try to hurt others and was more concerned about connecting with others than tearing them down. That is the most mature response to this sort of environment I have ever encountered. He did not allow himself to be sucked in.
I’m not entirely sure of the best way to navigate the largest law firms from a psychological perspective, but the most mature way seems to be having an awareness of where you are and a realization that you should not be playing the game because of the way it is going to make you feel. Your happiness has to come from within, and you cannot let the environment influence how you feel about yourself. You need to make your happiness come from within.
What examples have you seen of lawyers that have been torn down by big law? What do you think should be done about this problem? Do you think this is something that affects all big law attorneys, or only those in the US?