Lawyer: One skilled in the circumvention of the law. -- Ambrose Bierce

Many lawyers report increasing levels of emotional distress and dissatisfaction in the practice of law. As a result, significant numbers of attorneys are leaving the practice of law.

Of great concern is the finding that attorneys are at greater risk of depression, substance abuse and other emotional and/or physical ailments. Many lawyers just don't know how to cope with the emotional stress found in the practice of law today.

Identification of emotional stress and learning appropriate stress management skills can help us more appropriately balance our lives and increase our productivity, without becoming victims of the emotional distress so prevalent in the profession today.


Recent surveys have indicated that lawyer dissatisfaction with the practice of law are on the increase. This includes dissatisfaction arising from both mental and physical stress, with over 70% of those surveyed complaining of intolerable pressures and tensions daily.

Emotional distress, whether arising in the context of the practice of law or elsewhere, has been linked to physical problems such as headaches, depression, heart trouble, sleep disturbances, and deterioration of interpersonal relationships as well as chemical dependency and substance abuse.

Recent research on lawyers gives troubling results, because it appears we are at a higher risk for these problems than the general population. In several studies, it has been determined that 1/3 of lawyers show symptoms of clinical depression or substance abuse; these results are twice the national averages. A study at the Johns Hopkins University disclosed attorneys are most likely to suffer from depression when compared with 104 occupational groups.

State Bar studies indicate that 60% of the disciplinary proceedings in some states involved attorneys who were chemical dependents or mentally impaired. It follows that maintaining our emotional health and stability can both deliver a higher standard of professional service to our clients, and help prevent disciplinary action by our respective bars.


Causes of emotional distress among attorneys tend to be either those found in other high stress occupations; or unique to the practice of law in particular; or those involving particular individual character traits.

A. Stresses Found Particularly in the Legal Profession:
1. Arising from the adversary system itself;
2. Arising from particular fields of practice;
3. Arising from conflicts based on one's role in the legal system.


One of the leading complaints of lawyers is that long hours are required, frequently spent in an urgent state of activity. Elwork, in his seminal text "Stress Management for Lawyers", discusses "workaholism" as a chronic lawyer problem and a two-edged sword.

On the one hand, the workaholic lawyer can get more work done, while on the other hand, workaholic lawyers are at risk of developing: "...headaches, sleep disturbances, high blood pressure, and other more serious illnesses. They are prone to acquire various food, alcohol and drug addictions. In addition, they have difficulty establishing or maintaining close personal relationships, and they have higher divorce and failed parenting rates. finally, it is not unusual for them to experience depression, anxiety, and even more serious emotional illnesses---and eventually to burn out." (Elwork, "Stress Management for Lawyers", at 16)

Some causes of lawyer emotional stress include:
A. The nature of our adversary system;
B. "Thinking like a lawyer";
C. Strong drive for professional and/or financial success.

The adversary system: In addition to a fear of failure (i.e., losing the case), it's common for both litigants and their attorneys to suspect (or harbor) ulterior motives; to take every advantage; and to engage in manipulation and/or discourteous treatment of opposing counsel or parties.

"Thinking like a lawyer" proceeds from the legal system being subject to rules, order and organization, based on logical thought, analysis and attention to details, in a context where any mistake can be costly. These attributes can cause fear of failure and perfectionist thinking which can lead to an obsessive dedication to work.

The strong drive for professional and/or financial success may cause lawyers to temporarily sacrifice their personal lives to achieve success, but often success is illusive, and new, higher goals often replace those reached. This can tend to make one always "live for the future"... a future which never comes.

One problem of effective time management may be that the overworked lawyer, becoming more efficient, may begin to take on responsibility for even more work.


The adversary system itself can produce fear; both fear of failure ("performance anxiety") and fear of rejection. While fear of failure typically involves anxiety over losing the litigation itself, fear of rejection typically involves fear of losing the client or our professional standing as a result of losing the litigation.


The adversary system itself can bring out negative behaviors such as hostility (the "Rambo litigator" syndrome), suspicion, manipulation and cynicism. These behaviors can lead to feelings of anger, fear, irritation and impatience.


Lawyers with emotional distress can obtain confidential help from the State Bar of California's Lawyer Personal Assistance Program. Contact can be made confidentially by the involved attorney, a concerned friend or colleague, employer or family member. 24 hour assistance can be had by phoning 1-800-341-0572.

Lawyers whose emotional distress has propelled them to substance abuse can get help from "The Other Bar", a state-wide network of recovering lawyers dedicated to confidential assistance to attorneys. This program is voluntary and confidential, and the anonymity of those seeking assistance will be mainained. The Other Bar can be reached toll free by calling 1-800-222-0767.

Attorneys seeking additional information about stress and the legal profession and basic steps for self-help to managing stress may purchase a copy of Stress Management for Lawyers, by Amiram Elwork, Ph.D., either from the Vorkell Group, Gwynedd, Pennsylvania or may obtain a copy from I.C.L.E.
excerpted from material Copyright (c), 1995
P.O. BOX 30
L.V., NV 89125-0030

Brought to you by - The 'Lectric Law Library
The Net's Finest Legal Resource For Legal Pros & Laypeople Alike.