[This post is adapted from a longer article by Pauline H. Tesler in the Winter 2014 issue of the Collaborative Review, the journal of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.. You can read it here.]
We lawyers suffer dangerously high rates of emotional distress and substance abuse. Overwhelming empirical evidence shows that lawyers arrive in law school with
personality characteristics markedly different from the general population – notably, a discomfort with emotion and a temperament favoring thought over feeling. Law school intensifies those qualities, diminishing our capacity to bring our full humanity
into our work.
The legal profession produces impaired lawyers. While pre-law students show only slightly higher levels of significant depression than the general population (10% as compared to 3-9% in the general population), by late spring of their first year in law school 32% report much higher depression levels, rising to a “stunning” level of 40% by late spring of the third year. These levels never fall to pre-law school levels. No matter how long they have been in practice, a steady 17-18% of lawyers suffer from clinically significant depression. Study after study shows that most lawyers would not choose law if they had it to do again, nor would they want their children to become awyers. The rate at which we experience depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and other psychological problems is about twice the rate found in the general population, and one in five lawyers suffers from psychological problems severe enough to call for clinical intervention.
What happens to us in law school and on the job that wreaks such harm to our mental health? How is it that becoming a lawyer divorces so many of us from our own deepest moral and spiritual selves to the point that we don’t see our clients’ yearning for love, compassion and forgiveness, much less practice in ways that might incorporate attention to those needs?
Adversarial law practice requires lawyers to focus clients resolutely on past injuries and pain, without attending to recovery and possibilities for a better future. Add to that a distressed lawyer and we have a recipe for keeping clients mired in pain and suffering. The growing body of psycho-biological research into the neuroscience of entrainment, limbic resonance, and emotional contagion teaches us that working with depressed, angry, cynical, irritable, detached and numb lawyers is likely to impair clients’ emotional resilience and capacity for thoughtful decision-making. Positive psychology research confirms that emotional states are transmitted to others remarkably easily and that the direction of contagion in a relationship is from the more powerful to the less.
In other words, depressed, suicidal, angry lawyers – which too many of us seem to be – present a danger to health and well-being, not only for ourselves but for our clients, the others on the case, the family, and even the community.
What could change this picture? Teaching lawyers client-centered service delivery models (such as mediation and collaborative practice) is helpful but woefully insufficient as a remedy. We lawyers need encouragement to integrate a private inner spiritual life with an outer life of values-driven professional service if we are to reclaim a sense of purpose and professional identity that can meet the human needs of clients and of the communities we all inhabit. This change, more than any other I can envision, would transform how law is practiced by infusing lawyers and eventually judges, too, with the human compassion that invites clients’ stories to be heard and their pain to be seen. Without such deep personal change in those who must embrace it, broad scale innovation too often fails to thrive or is relegated to the level of lip service.
Law school curriculum change is in the air, but the pace is glacial. We can’t afford the human and social costs of graduating even one more class of lawyers who have been taught to devalue their own spiritual and emotional intelligence – and yet hundreds of thousands more lawyers will be socialized in that way before widespread humanistic legal education becomes a reality. That’s why the Integrative Law Institute’s programs target practicing lawyers who would never choose to attend a symposium about love, or even a collaborative law training. We begin by addressing the personal, professional, and social costs of practicing law in a way that ignores the human needs of our clients and that is divorced from our own deepest humanity.
The gateway that can lead lawyers toward integration and transformation turns out to be hard evidence from psychological, sociological, and neuroscience studies that illuminates the human damage caused by practicing law in ways that run contrary to our biological nature and that disregard our evolutionary endowment as human primates: compassion, trust, forgiveness, generosity, cooperation. When the intellect of adversarial lawyers is engaged by compelling information about the astonishing irrationality of human behavior in conflict resolution, an opening can occur for experiential exercises to trigger epiphanies, large and small, about the high toll our training as lawyers has taken on us and on our clients too, even those we achieved great trial victories for.
As this transformative journey deepens, we may remember with pain how we treated others in a normal day’s work. We may recall, for instance, humiliating the opposing party to tears during that deposition in the child custody case, or relishing demolition of a percipient witness during a probate trial that pits siblings against one another, because our ability to see the human being sitting opposite us had been deadened by a belief that our own human feelings had no place in our work and that take-no-prisoners assault tactics are the professional responsibility of a competent lawyer.
I believe work that divorces us, in the name of professionalism, from our own ability to feel empathy or compassion for the other humans we meet is work that is immoral. When we lawyers start to see this, shame may be what we feel. It is often the case that the first person needing forgiveness is ourself. And that’s an act of love.