Commentary: The Lawyer, The Addict

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The law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship.” – US Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story in 1829

In the New York Times article “The Lawyer, the Addict”, the prevalence of addiction is discussed. Lawyers are said to one of the most depressed, anxious, unhealthy group of people.

Why?

The billable hour, the gruelling demands, the expectations of perfection, the hostile work environment, the threat of opposing counsel – are all named.

Interestingly, the article also cites the effect of law school. And refers to research that “shows that before [ ] law school, law students are actually healthier than the general population, both physically and mentally… They drink less than other young people, use less substances, have less depression and are less hostile.”

But the formal structure of law school changes students. “We have seven very strong studies that show this twists people’s psyches and they come out of law school significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility,”

Research studying lawyers’ happiness supports this notion. “The psychological factors seen to erode during law school are the very factors most important for the well-being of lawyers,” …“the factors most emphasized in law schools — grades, honors and potential career income — have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.”

After students began law school they experienced “a marked increase in depression, negative mood and physical symptoms, with corresponding decreases in positive affect and life satisfaction,” the professors wrote.

Students also shed some of their idealism. Within the first year of law school, students’ motivation for studying law and becoming lawyers shifted from “helping and community-oriented values to extrinsic, rewards-based values.”

I agree with this research. The structure of law school and law firms shapes the minds of lawyers. And I would argue that the experience of law school and working in a law firm rewires the brain. In some ways for the better, and other ways for the worst – as neurons that fire together, wire together.

At its heart, law school is a homogenizing force. No selection of law students can change that. Selecting diverse law students does not translate into strikingly diverse lawyers. Or even translate into happier lawyers. The all too common effect of the herd mentality is strong. Diverse students enter. Homogenous students exit. Perhaps by addressing this issue, law schools can chip away at the “law school effect”.

(Views are my own and do not represent the views of any organization.)

 

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